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.”