Wyclef Jean needs no introduction, but he does need a little explanation. The Haitian rapper, musician, and actor first gained fame in the Fugees before pursuing solo work. But as of late, his name has been quiet on the music front. EPs aside, it’s been eight years since he last released a full-length album. As it turns out, Jean has been focusing his energy on positive return, namely using his power to help those without much in his native country.
That’s exactly what he’s discussing on his newest album, The Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refuge. While Jean cites marquee-level inspiration, like Bono from U2 and Bob Marley, as the guiding force behind the third LP in a series celebrating music culture from all parts of the world, there’s a personalized feel to the record, given it’s an honest look at the country, its struggles, and its under-covered successes. For nearly 20 years, he’s been giving back. He planned a tour, started a scholarship program, chipped in to future policies, and decided to give them years of service from his life moving forward. Jean felt that Haiti needed him once again, so he responded—this time in song. It’s important to serve your country; that made his return that much more fulfilling and obvious when he did decide to come back.
“My philosophy with aid is that it’s a Band-Aid. Once you take the Band-Aid off, you feel the pain again, so I focus on social entrepreneurship instead of immediate fixes,” he says. “Some of the greatest rappers there don’t have nothing. So the program I created, and which plays a part on the album, involved going to these communities, giving a small fund for them to go to the studio, they record music, they press their own CDs, and then they come back to sell those in their communities. Automatically, one small idea like that was turning their lives around per month. They started being able to take care of themselves and their families. We helped 5,000 kids within that program. I want music to inspire and uplift. This is what we, as Haitian kids, need.”
We interviewed Wyclef Jean for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask musicians questions inspired by their song titles. True to Carnival III, the answers dig into details about the Haitian lifestyle, his upbringing, and how to give back—a perfect introduction before he headlines the Wilbur this Thursday.
DIGBOSTON: In your opinion, what can the average American do to help those living in poverty in their city or state?
JEAN: In order to help poverty in cities and states, we have to help change legislation to better politics. We as community have to learn more about legislation going on in Washington, DC, and how they affect different countries that we’re involved with.
2) “Turn Me Good”
DIGBOSTON: What’s something you recently changed your opinion on?
JEAN: I was at a concert yesterday and I told a couple thousand people in that crowd that sometimes when you’re together in a relationship for long, you become bored. A record like “Turn Me Good” reminds you that love is forever. So don’t be scared to experiment different beautiful things with your partners. One funny thing is that we were talking about how we’re going to get a stripping pole and put it in the house. The women won’t be stripping. The men will be stripping for the women. That was my idea [laughs].
3) “Borrowed Time”
DIGBOSTON: Have you had a close call with death before?
JEAN: Yeah definitely, a few times. Being in the hood, my cousin got shot dead once. It was meant for me. That’s how I feel secured in thinking that we’re on borrowed time. It was in the late ’80s and here I am today.
4) “Fela Kuti”
DIGBOSTON: Did you ever see Fela Kuti perform live growing up?
JEAN: Never live, but I wish. For me, the incredible thing with Fela is the song “Zombie.” My connection with him starts in high school because I was a jazz major. I loved that he went to Africa. Well, first studied in England, then went back to Africa and made a complete career out of it. It was incredible to see. Definitely inspired me in major ways.
DIGBOSTON: What’s your unofficial armour, something that helps shield you from harm, damage, or pain?
JEAN: I would say the greatest armour is my daughter. She’s 12 right now. It’s so funny because all she wants is dad. She’s not impressed by nothing when it comes to her dad being an artist. We go to the mall and people rush looking for autographs. She respects that, but she doesn’t actually care. She just loves me because I’m her dad, nothing else. That’s the greatest shield I could ever ask for. Keeps me humble.
6) “Shotta Boys”
DIGBOSTON: In what ways are you more independent than the rest of your family?
JEAN: I’ve always been a hustler. I came from Haiti when I was 10 years old. By the time I was barely 15, I was already recording in the studio with Kurtis Blow. I learned how to speak fluent English in three years. I would go with my dad, who cleaned bathrooms, and always wondered what job I could do because he was open to that, too. If I wanted sneakers or a guitar, I knew I could find a job to get it. I would do whatever job it took as long as it was legal and I knew what the end game was that I was trying to get out of the solution. My first job was when I was 16. I was the Easter Bunny the day before Easter. My dad worked for a car company that needed one, so I showed up not knowing how they needed help. I saw this Easter Bunny suit and asked what the hell it was, then they told me the job was waving for cars to come in for the sale going on and I had to wear it. So I was in a pink bunny suit waving cars to come into this lot.
7) “Double Dutch”
DIGBOSTON: When was the last time you played jump rope games?
JEAN: Probably two weeks ago. I can actually jump rope; I’m nice with that. I remember in the hood guys don’t jump rope, but I found out that I can do it and I could whip your ass. Double Dutch, though, is a skill. You have to have a skill for that. Now you can go on YouTube and you can see different kids that are killing it. But back in the day, you had to have the skills that you learned by watching others handle the rope, and boy did it take practice.
8) “What Happened to Love”
DIGBOSTON: Where do you stand when it comes to dating apps like Tinder and Bumble?
JEAN: To each his own, you know. That’s how I feel.
9) “Carry On”
DIGBOSTON: What’s the weirdest item you’ve gotten away with bringing on a plane as a carry-on?
JEAN: A hammer, definitely. It was three weeks ago, too. It ended up being in my backpack by accident because I was doing some stuff in the studio. I guess I put all three back in my backpack: my keyboard, the laptop, and this hammer. When I took my laptop out on the plane, I was like, “Holy shit, there’s a hammer in here.” [laughs] The scanner doesn’t catch everything, so I guess they missed it. I literally freaked out with this national security shit going on, and I told the flight attendant that the hammer was there and it was there by accident, because who knows. I didn’t want her to see it and start freaking out, you know? Someone could be waiting for me on the other side. These days they make you paranoid for everything. [laughs]
10) “Concrete Rose”
DIGBOSTON: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned from a loved one?
JEAN: I think the hardest lesson is that you have to let people swim. If you don’t let them swim and you constantly put a life vest on them, then when you’re not around sometimes it’s hard for them to swim. I learned that from my mama.
DIGBOSTON: Where is your ideal tropical haven?
JEAN: The Caribbean and the beach there. That white sand, colorful drinks, white birds flying over you, the sound of the waves, and of course everyone knows how Wyclef gets down with a tight Bob Marley spliff. [laughs]
12) “Thank God for the Culture”
DIGBOSTON: What recent piece of pop culture are you most grateful for?
JEAN: I’m grateful for the pop culture moment when we saw the transition of Michael Jackson. Those moments transformed my life musically, inspirationally, and soundtrack-wise. It made me feel like, holy shit, I could do this.
WYCLEF JEAN. THU 3.1. THE WILBUR, 246 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. 8PM/ALL AGES/$35. THEWILBUR.COM