In many ways, Wyclef Jean is the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the Amer­i­can dream; he grew up im­pov­er­ished in his na­tive Haiti and be­came a mul­ti­mil­lion record-sell­ing Amer­i­can-based artist-pro­ducer who’s had a hand in shap­ing how R&B, pop and rap sound to­day.

Equal parts mu­si­cian, pro­ducer and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, his up­bring­ing and love of Haitian, Caribbean, rap and pop mu­sic helped form his mu­si­cal tastes. His mu­sic has al­ways had a so­cial and po­lit­i­cal bent, and his sing-rap ap­proach to hip-hop, along with his as­so­ci­a­tion with Lau­ryn Hill by way of pi­o­neer­ing rap group the Fugees, had trans­for­ma­tive ef­fects on the in­dus­try as a whole. His eighth stu­dio al­bum, Car­ni­val III: The Rise and Fall of a Refugee, is out this month.

1969 to 1987

Nelust Wyclef Jean is born in Croix-des-Bou­quets, Haiti on Oc­to­ber 17, 1969. Jean and his fam­ily are poor in a na­tion ex­pe­ri­enc­ing in­tense so­cial, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal up­heaval; his fam­ily im­mi­grate to Brook­lyn, NY in 1982, later set­tling in the Ne­wark, NJ area. “When I got to Amer­ica,” Jean would tell Ebony mag­a­zine, “I was ex­pect­ing to see money fall­ing from the sky.”

Jean speaks only Haitian French, but quickly learns English by lis­ten­ing to hip-hop. He is drawn to mu­sic at an early age, cit­ing Haitian-born reg­gae artist Bigga Haitian as a key in­flu­ence. His fa­ther buys Wyclef and his sib­lings toy in­stru­ments one Christ­mas; Jean soon learns to play each one by ear. Rec­og­niz­ing this ap­ti­tude, his mother pur­chases a sec­ond-hand gui­tar for him, in part to keep him prac­tic­ing at home in­stead of po­ten­tially get­ting into trou­ble on the streets.

Jean clashes with his fa­ther, a preacher, on the mer­its of a mu­sic ca­reer, par­tic­u­larly one rooted in hip-hop. His fa­ther “never un­der­stood the pos­si­bil­ity that the mu­sic could do more than just cel­e­brate the lowlife,” Jean will write in his 2012 mem­oir Pur­pose: An Im­mi­grant’s Story. As a self-taught mu­si­cian, he would play in­ter­po­lated ra­dio hits in his fam­ily-run church choir and school jazz bands, per­form­ing both re­li­gious and sec­u­lar mu­sic. He grad­u­ates from Ne­wark-based Vails­burg High School, and at­tends one se­mes­ter at New York-based Five Towns Col­lege be­fore drop­ping out.

1988 to 1993

In his teens, Jean draws the at­ten­tion of some mu­sic la­bels, but as a mi­nor, isn’t able to sign a record­ing con­tract with­out parental con­sent. At home, his fa­ther gives an ul­ti­ma­tum: choose be­tween the church or playing sec­u­lar mu­sic; mak­ing his choice, Jean is kicked out of his home. He builds a makeshift stu­dio in the base­ment of his cousin’s house.

He forms the Tran­zla­tor Crew along with his cousin, rap­per/ pro­ducer Pras Michel, and rap­per/singer/pro­ducer Lau­ryn Hill. Amer­i­can-born Hill and Haitian-born Michel, who first met at Columbia High School in South Orange, NJ (along with mu­tual friend, Marcy Har­riell) had formed a mu­si­cal trio called Tyme. Jean joins in 1990 af­ter Har­riell leaves to at­tend col­lege. “I was the fourth mem­ber of the Fugees,” he’ll tell Rolling Stone in 2000. “It was Pras and two girls. I was like, ‘Shit, who wouldn’t want to be in a group with two girls?’”

As the Tran­zla­tor Crew, the group record a few demos be­fore sign­ing to Ruff­house, dis­trib­uted through Columbia. Al­though sound­ing a lot like other hip-hop acts at the time, in terms of rap flow and ca­dence, the group set them­selves apart by in­cor­po­rat­ing el­e­ments of reg­gae and soul, along with themes of black iden­tity and em­pow­er­ment. On the side, Jean works odd jobs in­clud­ing stints at fast food restau­rants and as a se­cu­rity guard for a gar­ment fac­tory.

1994 to 1995

The Tran­zla­tor Crew change their name to Fugees — taken from the word refugee, which is used deroga­to­rily to de­scribe Haitian-Amer­i­cans at the time. The trio work with Kool and the Gang pro­ducer Ronald Bell and re­lease full-length al­bum Blunted on Re­al­ity in 1994. The record ul­ti­mately un­der­per­forms, de­spite sin­gles such as “Nappy Heads” and “Vo­cab,” peak­ing at num­ber 62 on the Bill­board R&B/Hip-Hop Al­bums chart.

1996 to 1997

The Fugees re­lease sec­ond al­bum The Score in Fe­bru­ary, 1996. Wyclef tells Ex­claim! that they wanted to make a record that would “ex­plode the uni­verse, in a pos­i­tive way.” The genre-bend­ing full-length fea­tures four huge hit sin­gles — “Fu-Gee-La,” “Ready or Not,” a cover of the Roberta Flack song “Killing Me Softly” and a cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” — and be­comes one of the best-sell­ing rap al­bums ever, sell­ing more than 22 mil­lion copies world­wide.

“Hip-hop and R&B were at their best that year: Big­gie and Tu­pac had just re­leased their master­pieces, Jay-Z was heat­ing up, TLC was at the top of the charts with Crazy Sexy Cool, and

Wu-Tang had us all in check,” Jean will write in Pur­pose. “We had to have skills to take those charts by storm the way we did. The Fugees were raw tal­ent and pas­sion, and it shone through. The mu­si­cal­ity was there, be­cause we had lived side-by-side with each other since we started re­hears­ing in front of that mir­ror back in Jersey.” The al­bum wins two Grammy Awards in 1997 for Best Rap Al­bum and Best R&B Vo­cal Per­for­mance by a Duo or Group for “Killing Me Softly.”

“You’re never think­ing about the mag­ni­tude of it all at the time,” Jean tells Ex­claim! now. “You just feel like, when you’re at a young age, that you can change the world. You feel you’re un­stop­pable and you do things that are dif­fer­ent.”

1998 to 1999

Amid ru­mours of a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship be­tween Jean and Hill, the group seem­ingly break up to fo­cus on solo projects. In Pur­pose, Jean writes: “We never re­ally broke up, by the way, we just stopped talk­ing about get­ting to­gether to record again. In any case, Pras has made it clear to me that he thinks I’m re­spon­si­ble, and I un­der­stand why he feels this. It’s be­cause he had to man­age Lau­ryn and me when we be­came a cou­ple on the road. Ev­ery time we fought, he was in the mid­dle, keep­ing us fo­cused, telling jokes, do­ing what­ever he could to stop things from get­ting too crazy. Pras was the glue that kept the Fugees to­gether.”

Wyclef em­barks on a solo ca­reer with 1997’s Wyclef Jean Presents the Car­ni­val Fea­tur­ing the Refugee All-Stars, known sim­ply as The Car­ni­val. The al­bum fea­tures Hill and Pras as ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers and con­trib­u­tors, along with Celia Cruz and the Neville Broth­ers. It sells more than five mil­lion copies and spawns two hit sin­gles: a take on Bee Gees hit “Stayin’ Alive” called “We Try­ing to Stay Alive,” and “Gone Till Novem­ber,” a col­lab­ora- tion with the New York Phil­har­monic Or­ches­tra.

Jean is fea­tured on R&B group Des­tiny’s Child sin­gle “No, No, No.” The song, also pro­duced by Jean, is a huge plat­inum-sell­ing hit. “I al­ways knew Bey­oncé would be great,” he’ll tell The Guardian in 2017. “When Des­tiny’s Child were open­ing for me on tour, ev­ery time they got off stage, she would get changed, then stand at the side of the stage and watch my show like a hawk.”

Lau­ryn Hill re­leases her only solo al­bum, The Mise­d­u­ca­tion of Lau­ryn Hill, in 1998 to mas­sive ac­claim and com­mer­cial success. “A lot of peo­ple blame me for what has be­come of Lau­ryn since then,” Jean writes in Pur­pose, “and the fact that she’s not out and about in the mu­sic in­dus­try. She and I had a very com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship, and I’ll take the blame for my side of the pain and con­fu­sion.”

2000 to 2004

In July 2000, Jean re­leases sopho­more al­bum The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book.

With cousin Jerry Du­p­lessis, Jean co-pro­duces the Car­los San­tana sin­gle “Maria Maria.” The song would be named the third most suc­cess­ful song on the Bill­board Hot 100 and win Grammy Award in 2000 for Best Pop Per­for­mance by a Duo or Group with Vo­cal.

Jean es­tab­lishes and in­cor­po­rates char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tion the Wyclef Jean Foun­da­tion, also known as “Yéle Haiti.” The foun­da­tion fo­cuses on pro­vid­ing school schol­ar­ships/fund­ing, food and re­lated char­i­ta­ble ben­e­fits to Haitian cit­i­zens.

Jean re­leases his third al­bum, Mas­quer­ade, in July, 2002; The Preacher’s Son, his fourth, is re­leased in Oc­to­ber, 2003.

Jean con­tin­ues to write for and col­lab­o­rate with other artists; in 2003, he has a mod­er­ate hit with rap­per Jin, “Learn Chi­nese,” and a ma­jor hit with Shakira, ti­tled “Hips Don’t Lie.”

In a Rolling Stone ar­ti­cle on Lau­ryn Hill, Fugees mem­ber Pras sin­gles out Jean as the cause for the group’s demise, call­ing him “the cancer of the Fugees.” “You can quote me,” Pras says. “He’s the rea­son why it got wrecked to be­gin with, he’s the rea­son why it’s not fixed.”

In Oc­to­ber 2004, Jean re­leases Wel­come to Haiti: Cre­ole 101. Jean, Hill and Michel briefly re­unite in Septem­ber, 2004 to per­form at Dave Chap­pelle’s Block Party in Bed­ford-Stuyvesant in Brook­lyn. The con­cert and sub­se­quent film, which also fea­tures the Roots, Kanye West and John Le­gend, sees the group per­form hits like “Killing Me Softly.”

2005 to 2008

In late 2005, the Fugees set out on a Euro­pean tour, their first to­gether since 1997; it re­ceives poor re­views. The group at­tempt to re­unite again in 2006 with a free con­cert in Hol­ly­wood and a leaked sin­gle ti­tled “Foxy.” How­ever, the group are on their last legs. Hill tells Trace Mag­a­zine in 2005: “The Fugees was con­spir­acy to con­trol, to ma­nip­u­late, and to en­cour­age de­pen­dence. I was not al­lowed to say I was great; that was con­sid­ered ar­ro­gance, con­ceit.”

Jean’s next al­bum, Car­ni­val Vol. II: Mem­oirs of an Im­mi­grant, is re­leased in De­cem­ber, 2007. Jean tells Blues & Soul in 2007 that the chances of a Fugees re­union are slim. “I feel the first is­sue that needs to be ad­dressed is that Lau­ryn needs help. In my per­sonal opin­ion, those Fugees re­union shows shouldn’t have been done, be­cause we wasn’t ready. I re­ally felt we should’ve first all gone into a room with Lau­ryn and a psy­chi­a­trist. But, you know, I do believe Lau­ryn can get help. And, once she does work things out, hope­fully a proper and en­dur­ing Fugees re­union will hap­pen.”

2009 to 2010

Jean re­leases a con­cep­tual solo al­bum ti­tled From the Hut, to the Projects, to the Man­sion, in Novem­ber 2009; the project re­volves around the story of the fic­tional char­ac­ter Tous­saint St. Jean, who is based on the 18th cen­tury Haitian rev­o­lu­tion­ary Tous­saint L’Ou­ver­ture. It’s re­leased to luke­warm re­views and com­mer­cial success.

In 2010, Haiti is hit with a mas­sive earth­quake; Jean’s foun­da­tion Yéle Haiti raises over a mil­lion dol­lars for disas­ter re­lief, in­clud­ing funds for street clean­ing crews, hos­pi­tals and med­i­cal clin­ics. Jean also files to run for pres­i­dent of Haiti in 2010. Re­quire­ments to run for of­fice, how­ever, in­clude liv­ing in the coun­try for the pre­ced­ing five years, and Jean doesn’t qual­ify.

You’re never think­ing about the mag­ni­tude of it all at the time. You just feel like you can change the world.

Jean re­leases an EP ti­tled If I Were Pres­i­dent: My Haitian Ex­pe­ri­ence; sin­gle “If I Were Pres­i­dent” is a mod­er­ate hit.

2011 to 2015

Yéle Haiti shuts down af­ter it’s re­vealed by The New York Times that the or­ga­ni­za­tion had mis­man­aged nearly nine mil­lion dol­lars in funds and not filed the req­ui­site tax re­turns from 2005 to 2009. Jean main­tains there’s been no malfea­sance. “I’m go­ing to con­tinue to keep do­ing my pos­i­tive work. But I can­not be a part of a sit­u­a­tion where my name is big­ger than the name of Yéle, and my name is the one that’s be­ing dragged un­der the mud be­cause of Yéle — as if I was the one run­ning the day-to-day there,” he’ll tell The Daily Beast in 2014.

In 2012, he re­leases his mem­oir, Pur­pose: An Im­mi­grant’s Story. In the book, co-writ­ten with mu­sic jour­nal­ist An­thony Bozza, Jean makes the first public ad­mis­sion of his in­fi­deli­ties and ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship with his for­mer band­mate. “In that mo­ment some­thing died be­tween us,” he writes. “I was mar­ried, and Lau­ryn and I were hav­ing an af­fair, but she led me to believe that the baby was mine, and I couldn’t for­give that. She could no longer be my muse. Our love spell was bro­ken.”

Hill dis­misses his claims, say­ing in a state­ment: “A lot of mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion out there. A lot of false in­for­ma­tion out there. And no­tice, out of all the peo­ple who talk talk talk, who’s the silent one? And you know why? Let me tell you why I don’t chat back. Be­cause I know that my broth­ers and my sis­ters are of­ten­times pawns in a big­ger scheme so when they, un­der pres­sure, at­tack me, I love them still. It’s called the high road. Try tak­ing it some­times.”

Jean ul­ti­mately takes the blame for the dis­so­lu­tion of the group, ad­mit­ting that he was “jeal­ous” of Hill’s re­la­tion­ship with her boyfriend Ro­han Marley, de­spite be­ing mar­ried at the time. “We’re all hu­man and make mis­takes,” Jean tells Ex­claim! in 2017. “I’ll keep it real with you. You can’t mix busi­ness with plea­sure. Some­times I wish that me and Lau­ryn had never got­ten in­volved, you dig? You learn. So maybe if I could do it again, I wouldn’t have got­ten in­volved with Lau­ryn ro­man­ti­cally. But then, I don’t know that you would have got­ten The Score.”

De­spite all of this, Jean tells The Huff­in­g­ton Post in 2014 that he be­lieves the group will get back to­gether one day: “I al­ways say, if big bands like the Rolling Stones can get to­gether and rock out, then why not? I think the fu­ture al­lows it­self for that. I’m all for that, 100 per­cent. I’m the num­ber one Fugees fan.”

2016 to 2017

Jean ap­pears on sin­gle “Kanye West,” from rap­per Young Thug’s al­bum Jef­fery in 2016. In Fe­bru­ary of 2017, the J’ou­vert EP is re­leased.

In July 2017, Fugees re­union spec­u­la­tion flares up again when a song ti­tled “The Ish” is leaked to New York ra­dio sta­tion Hot 97. “The song leaked to­day is an old one from past stu­dio days,” Jean writes on Twit­ter, adding “I don’t con­done it in any way, and had no clue it was com­ing.”

In Septem­ber 2017, Jean re­leases his eighth al­bum The Car­ni­val Vol. III: The Fall & Rise of a Refugee. Jean ex­plains the ti­tle to Ex­claim!, say­ing, “Be­cause of the fact that I’ve failed, I know what it’s like to get back up and run. And that’s what I want all the kids to un­der­stand. The only way I can be me is to go through ev­ery­thing I’ve been through.”

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