The founding member of the Fugees is lounging on a couch backstage of the pop-up Live.me event at Grand Central Station in New York City. Wyclef Jean has devoted his life to encouraging others to pursue their dreams, the exact way he did. Jean was born in Haiti and immigrated with his parents to New York City–Brooklyn to be exact–when he was 9-years-old. After settling down in New Jersey, Jean fully realized his musical dreams by forming the Grammy Award-winning hip-hop group the Fugees. The group’s biggest hits “Killing Me Softly,” “Ready or Not” and “No Woman, No Cry” solidified them as a staple of the early 90s hip-hop scene. When Jean embarked on a solo project in 1997, he couldn’t have guessed that it would be the start of a 20-year career.
“When I was 17-years-old, I took an upright bass and my man took his drum kit on the subway and we went to an Eric B. & Rakim video to be an extra. They don’t know we’re coming; we just took a chance,” he tells me. “Coming from Haiti, I knew if I could make it in New York I could make it anywhere. I’m so connected to the city,” he adds.
The Carnival was the first installment of a three-part series in which Jean explored his unique musical identity as a Haitian immigrant. The making of his most recent album, Carnival: The Rise and Fall of a Refugee, the closure to The Carnival chapters, Jean says was an especially reflective experience. “It’s all about the idea of triumph and whatever you go through, you can rise to the occasion,” he explains. “We focused on the idea of taking time out to not do for yourself but to do for others.” Jean says he reflected back on the course of his career and pointed out how his desire to become President of Haiti and his earthquake relief efforts, among other societal contributions, were all forms of self-sacrifice in order to better others. “The album is very hopeful. It’s okay to fall, it’s more important about what you do when you get up,” he says. “And, as a Caribbean man, I have to make you dance on parts of the record, it’s part of my DNA,” he says with a smile.
With a career spanning more than 20 years now, Jean is aware that his musical comrades might be questioning how he’s staying relevant. His response is simple. He says, “I stay hip because I love culture. If there’s a new dance, I want to know what it is, if there’s a new sneaker, I want to know what it is. That’s a natural love I have.” As a self-proclaimed tech-head, Jean works every day to discover new software, new trends and new sounds.
“At the end of the day, Carlos Santana always told me that the kind of music we make defies space and time,” Jean says of creating music for generations to come. This is proven by the duo’s song “Maria Maria” being sampled in DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts” featuring Rihanna and Bryson Tiller.
With a tour underway, fans can expect to see Jean continuing to create music on stages across the United States.