Music is Survival: Wyclef Jean’s Story of Human Metamorphosis
Global Citizen Forum board member and guest speaker, Wyclef Jean, will join “Human Metamorphosis” in November. Ahead of the annual summit, we chronicle the Grammy-winning artist’s story from the depths of poverty in Haiti to three-time Grammy Award winner.
Wyclef Jean isn’t your average celebrity. Born in Haiti as Nel Ust Wyclef Jean, the multifaceted hip-hop artist is an immigrant, polyglot, author and shape-shifting self-made superstar who embodies the power of human metamorphosis.
“I know what it means to have absolutely nothing. You just have to be grateful and embrace what you have. You can never take anything for granted,” he told Insider in 2017. “I never stop working, grinding. In order to ensure you’re the best at what you do, you have to make sure that you never stop learning. That’s how you stay on top.”
Even as he was beginning to find critical success as a member of the hip-hop group the Fugees, he still worked a job in fast food. “It didn’t matter if I was a Fugee; I was still working at Burger King. You know, I say, ‘I used to work at Burger King – a king taking orders,’” he told hip-hop magazine Okayplayer in 2018.
Wyclef’s rise to the pinnacle of the American music industry likely would not have been possible without moving to the US as a child – a privilege that led him to become a champion of global mobility and an advocate for Haitian refugees and immigrants. But it was his early passion for music and lifelong learning that drove him to seize every opportunity on his ascent to music stardom.
Tuning in at an early age
To say that Wyclef came from a humble background would be an understatement. Born in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, in 1969, he lived much of his early life in poverty under the rule of the notorious dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
“When there was no food, we ate clusters of the red dirt that made up the floor of our hut,” he wrote in his best-selling memoir, Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story.
At nine, his family immigrated to the United States, landing in Brooklyn’s bleak Marlboro projects. He struggled in the new environment, experiencing bullying and discrimination at school. Wyclef found refuge in a group of fellow Haitian immigrants but got caught fighting, stealing and other crimes.
His father, a Nazarene minister and garment worker, moved the family to New Jersey in hopes of keeping them safe, but his mother took a different strategy. Observing his innate musical talents, she bought him a guitar, hoping it would keep him off the streets.
“My mom took a gun out of my hand and replaced it with a guitar. So for me music, it wasn’t just like we’re doing music – it’s like survival,” he said in the Fueled by Death Cast podcast in 2017.
Although he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with his father, who banned prohibit rap music at home, Wyclef credits his early love for music and dedication to growing up in a religious family. “As a preacher’s kid (or ‘PK’ as we call ourselves), you get a lot of discipline from the church,” he told Insider. “As a kid, I was able to understand the vibration of music as a whole and how to play instruments in church. Every Sunday was like a performance. I learned how to be a performer, to read and listen to a crowd.”
From ‘fugee to the Fugees
By the time he was a teenager, Wyclef could play seven instruments. During these formative years, he cultivated the eclectic musical style that would define his prolific career.
“I came from Haiti when I was 10 years old, couldn’t speak no English. And so by the time that I was 17 years old, I was the leader of [my school’s] jazz band. So think about you coming from Haiti – like a small village, no nothing – and I’m competing at 17,” he told Okayplayer.
Wyclef was also into battle rapping, classic rock, and Christian rock and started producing house records (often under the name AfriCali) that became underground hits in New York clubs. He briefly studied music at Five Towns College in New York before dropping out to pursue a rapping career.
Then he met Lauryn Hill and fellow Haitian Prakazrel Samuel Michel, better known as Pras. The three formed a group in the late 1980s that would later become The Fugees – a play on the word refugee and a pejorative for Haitian immigrants at the time.
The three saved up money to tour locally while making their second album, The Score. “I [produced it] in my uncle’s basement… We was like, ‘You know what, maybe this one will probably sell 50,000 [copies], and we could maintain a fan base and keep touring,’” he said in the 2017 podcast.
“We showed the world that kids like us could sing passionate songs. We could smile, make love and be happy,” Wyclef wrote in his memoir. “Hip-hop didn’t have to be about thug life; it could be just about life.”
The album didn’t just sell 50,000 copies. It sold an estimated 22 million and became a seven-time platinum best-seller, propelling the Fugees to international acclaim. Suddenly, the once-poor immigrant was a superstar.
The road to reinvention
Wyclef is a man of many talents as a genre-defining rapper, philanthropist, producer, actor – and even, briefly, a Haitian presidential candidate in 2010. As a solo artist, he has released 13 albums, many varying in style. In 2000, he won a Grammy for his work as a producer on rock legend Santana’s album Supernatural and produced major hits with Shakira and Whitney Houston.
“Music is definitely my calling. I can’t imagine my life without it,” he told Insider. “When I wake up in the morning – my wife and daughter can attest to this – the first thing I do is start playing the piano.”
Above all, though, he considered himself a lifelong student. Wyclef can speak five languages fluently: French, German, English, Japanese and Spanish. In 2009, he enrolled in the prestigious Berklee College of Music, seeking to formalize his knowledge and refine his craft.
Although he would leave the school before receiving his diploma, his education didn’t end there. In 2010, after a short-lived presidential bid in Haiti, he accepted a post as a visiting fellow at Brown University’s Department of Africana Studies.
Over the next decade, Wyclef would meet dozens of singers and rappers through philanthropy work and a master class teaching tour of US college campuses. He would collaborate with them on his 2019 solo album, Wyclef Goes Back to School, elevating a new generation of artists in a wide-ranging – and well-reviewed – album.
“For me, I believe in that idea of discovery,” he told Okayplayer in 2018. “This is what’s exciting about finding these kids. … [Record producer] Quincy Jones always told me, ‘The true reinvention [of yourself] is thanks to the next generation.’ The generation reinvents you.”
And that’s exactly what Wyclef continues to do. He keeps his mind open, engages with everyone he can and doesn’t stop dreaming of the future. His whole life is a story of transformation.
“It’s not where we start,” Wyclef said in 2018. “We [all must] have a dream of where we’re going to go.”
Join us at the “Human Metamorphosis” Global Citizen Forum from November 16-17 in the UAE to learn more about Wyclef Jean’s story and meet an array of influential voices from all over the world.