Singer-songwriter-activist Wyclef Jean

The multiplatinum-selling artist discusses his memoir, Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story, and his love for his native Haiti.

Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Wyclef Jean is also an accomplished composer, arranger and producer, who catapulted to stardom with the groundbreaking Fugees and now enjoys an impressive solo career. The Haitian-born musician plays several instruments, raps in multiple languages and has collaborated with many other artists, including Bono, Michael Jackson, Santana and Mary J. Blige. An activist for many causes and passionate about supporting his homeland, he works tirelessly to help improve Haiti's image abroad. In his memoir, Purpose, Jean chronicles his rise from a tiny rural village to international fame.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Wyclef Jean back to this program. The Grammy-winning artist and former Fugees member is out this month with a candid new book about his unlikely journey from Haiti to the heights of American popular culture. The book is called “Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story.” Wyclef, good to have you back on this program.

Wyclef Jean: Good to be back, brother. Thank you, sir.

Tavis: You good, man?

Jean: I’m good, how are you?

Tavis: I’m wonderful. The last time I saw you, you were rocking the stage at the International AIDS Conference in Washington.

Jean: Yeah, man –

Tavis: You killed that thing, man.

Jean: – I was having a good time.

Tavis: You killed that thing.

Jean: The crowd was incredible, (laughter) that was incredible.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, Dr. West and me on the stage in suit and tie, dancing.

Jean: After that we created a new two-step. (Laughter) The Dr. Cornel West Two-Step.

Tavis: That was quite a day, man, I enjoyed that. I know the AIDS activists around the world were happy to have you headline that concert. You start this book, speaking of pandemics; you start this book talking about the earthquake in Haiti.

Jean: Yes.

Tavis: Which was interesting for me, because given all that your life has been and is, you chose to start with that seminal event.


Jean: Because I would say the event with the earthquake in Haiti is sort of like what changed my life in the sense of it was bigger than anything that I’ve ever done. To actually go back to a place after a quake in 24 hours, and the idea of thousands of people dead on the ground, the idea of kids screaming your voice, you knowing that maybe they have two or three minutes to live and you’re telling them that it’s going to be okay, trying to exit them from Earth, knowing that they’re not going to be okay, in a peaceful way, I’ve never experienced – I’ve never experienced, I’ve never seen hotels turned to morgues.

I’ve never had to go to a cemetery and seen undertakers hustling, putting more than one person in the hole. I’ve never seen situations where I tell someone, “Stand posted here and wait and make sure everything’s okay,” and by the time I leave they shoot this person in the middle of the earthquake and he dies and becomes part of that whole that I was telling him to make sure that the undertaker don’t hustle.

So this is sort of like, it was a period in my life – really when I came back to America, one of the things I should have did was probably sit with a psychiatrist and really – because sometimes we feel like we don’t have to do that, we’re bigger than that – because of that period was really, it was, you could see just my face, just when I go back there, it’s a place that I don’t understand how you can describe.

But the strength of these people – amputations with absolutely no drugs. People getting their legs cut off, all types of things. I think for me, I’ve never and will never see nothing like that. It was important to put that in firsthand with my eye, to give the viewer what it was like for me being on that ground.

Tavis: For you to start your memoir, though, with that story means that obviously, it was a seminal moment in your life that fundamentally impacted you or changed you in some way. So how’d that experience change you? I hear your point about the fact that maybe you should have sat with somebody to talk about this, and I get that, but how fundamentally did it change who you are, for it to be important enough for you to lead your memoir with it?

Jean: Well, after that experience I understood the importance of life past death. Before that, I didn’t get that. Moving forward, I just, sometimes, blunt honesty is going to hurt a group of people, including myself, including a lot of others. But history will tell a story if you don’t tell it yourself, and as much as we give life value is as quick as we will leave Earth.

So everybody who’s pretending that they’re reigning right now because they can influence a group of people soon will be silent, and when you’re silent and your flesh is just there, what have you left behind?

So this is like some of the things that I realized, which one time I heard President Obama Barack Obama speak, and he was saying “I’m running for the urgency of running,” and I didn’t really understand what he meant by that at the time. After the quake, when I decided that I would run for president, I ran because of just the urgency of looking and saying over 52 percent of the population is a youth population. I can’t just leave these people like this.

Tavis: Barack Obama was – it’s a great line – he’s borrowing that line from Dr. King. King talked about “the fierce urgency of now.”

Jean: Yeah, the fierce urgency of now.

Tavis: Fierce urgency of now.

Jean: Yes, sir.

Tavis: Obama picks up on that, wisely, and I hear your point about that. So since you went there, let me follow you in. So why was the answer for you, after seeing what you saw, after feeling and wrestling with that fierce urgency of now, why was the answer for you attempting to run for president of Haiti?

Jean: Your point, though, you went back to Dr. King, when I came to America, Harry Belafonte, Dr. King, some of the people that I really – there’s a time and a period where there’s a group of people and you find yourself in the middle of these people, and they automatically are calling you a leader, because you can’t call yourself a leader.

People have to say “There’s something going on with this guy.” So me going back and forth to the country before it was popular, naturally being from there, after the quake, automatically what sparked in my head was Katrina, corporate interests.

What sparked in my head was Iraq, corporate interests, the tsunami, corporate interests. Two hundred and fifty thousand people under the rubble, 80 percent living on less than $2 a day, over 12 million people – what is our greatest asset that we possess? I was like, human capital.

Then I got freaked out a little bit because I said who’s going to really negotiate with all of these people? Like, here’s a chance where I’ve been wearing my flag since the days of the Fugees to get a group of people to pay attention to this country.

This is a time when there’s a soft spot and they feel weak now. Who’s going to be there for better policies, legislation? I just felt with my passion and the drive of the youth behind me, I just felt that I was the man at the time for the job.

Tavis: For those who don’t recall how that ended, there were some technical issues, shall we say, that kept you from running, but how did you perceive the inability in the end for you to be on the ballot?

Jean: I got bamboozled.

Tavis: Uh-huh.

Jean: We have to be clear. (Laughter) Not bamboozled in the sense of being emotional, in the sense of law. I was a diplomat five years prior to the current president now, who’s a friend of mine, with a diplomatic passport, and my title was ambassador at large.

So as ambassador at large you have to promote your country not just in Haiti, outside of Haiti. So the residency laws don’t really apply, because how would you give me a five-year passport, a diplomatic passport, if I’m not a Haitian citizen?

The same goes for my uncle, Ray Joseph, who also ran and was also bamboozled. So I just want y’all to understand that the reason why I didn’t go and fight it any further is because looking at the history of my country, and them already labeling me a populist before I even got started, I would never have the youth rise up for bloodshed just to put a man in power, because the country has suffered from that.

The revolution that we need now is an economical revolution, an educational revolution.

Tavis: You referenced a moment ago brutal honesty, and how sometimes that even challenges your own person. This book, if it’s nothing else, it is brutally honest about a number of things. I want to walk through a few of those things now with regard to your notion of being, or attempting to be, brutally honest in this text, in this memoir.

So in no particular order, one, since you were talking about the youth rising up and bloodshed, you tell a story in this book about how you went looking for somebody in Haiti after the earthquake.

Jean: Yeah.

Tavis: You’re glad, in retrospect, that you didn’t find him, because had you found him, you might have done something that you had no business doing.

Jean: Yeah.

Tavis: I’ll let you tell the story.

Jean: Well, being in Haiti with my wife, who’s the greatest pillar to my existence as in man form, right? In Haiti, we painted the picture of how it was going down. When I got to the cemetery and the undertaker was hustling holes, he was literally – the hole was supposed to have one, the most two, people. This guy was putting seven bodies in holes and taking the money and keeping it.

So when I put one of my young guys – this guy, his daughter had just died before in the earthquake, and to paint a picture of him he has complete tattoos of Wyclef Jean on him.

I tell you that because a man who’s going to tattoo you on them, that’s a deep statement, just to show you how he defines and loves Wyclef. So when I left him on that post and got to where we got to and they said that somebody had killed him, at that point in time I completely lost my mind.

I forgot I was in the middle of an earthquake. I was just like let’s round the boys up. It’s totally clear that you could see, at times, when there’s a human and there’s an anger side, and loading arms up and saying, “Okay, we’re going to go because this guy’s not going to die in vain.”

Basically, my wife’s just like, “What are you doing?” You know what I mean? Like, “Really think about, like, what are you doing? Why are you,” and sort of like defused the situation. But had she not defused the situation, when I look back at it, perhaps it would have been another story.

I could have lost my mind, went there for some form of revenge, and then ended up being part of the rubble at the time.

Tavis: Brutally honest – you talk about the allegations that made national news here because of your celebrity, the allegations of your embezzling or lifting funds from your foundation, and you take that head-on in the book.

Jean: Yeah. Well, the thing is –

Tavis: Yeah (unintelligible).

Jean: Yes, yeah, definitely. With Yéle Haiti, the first thing was I’m proud of the organization and the work that the organization has done, and in the future hope to continue doing. Once I decided that I was running for president, I basically – you can’t run for president and run a foundation at the same time.

Once I gave up my seat and decided I was running for president, I feel that the charity has had challenges, but clearly what I stated is the idea of Wyclef Jean pocketing funds. I denounced that over and over again.

It’s sort of like one of those public perceptions where people are like, “Did he take money from it?” I call it ludicrous in the sense of before you knew the foundation you know me from the Fugees, always, my whole idea of wearing this flag on my back and I’m going to put my country on the map.

One of the things which we did do is you have to have governance, so once there’s a problem, you fix it, and how do you fix it? You fix it with governance. And I entail how we went into better governance to make sure that we addressed the issue and fixed it.

Tavis: Yeah, but you denounce any allegations that you were personally profiting from the foundation.

Jean: Yeah, I denounced that. I called that – it was ludicrous, the fact that, the idea that, or the perception or the thought. But once again my second book is going to be called “They Tried to J. Edgar Hoover Me.” (Laughter)

You’re going to definitely have fun with that one, and it’s sort of like – so before me there was many, and there were many that were set up in certain ways by design for certain reasons. I don’t want to get into that right now.

Tavis: We’ll save that for the next book.

Jean: Yeah.

Tavis: There are some Americans who have a real problem with people coming in from other countries – immigrants, since this is an immigrant story – coming from other countries and constantly waving their flag. You see it at boxing matches all the time, of course, but you see it in the streets and protests, you see it in a variety of places where people are waving the flag of their home country.

Some Americans get really angry, upset, about that, and you are one of those immigrants who has been very proud about wearing the Haitian flag on his back in his concerts, on his clothes, waving it. What do you say to Americans who feel like if you love your country that much, go back there? If you love your country that much, stay there.

But all this flag-waving in this country of other flags, for folk who feel that way, you say what to them?

Jean: Well, that’s a good question. The first thing is let’s start with America. So America is a melting pot of immigrants. So actually, if you took all of the immigrants outside of America, you’d be missing a lot of flavor, starting with the food, with the culture, with the dance, with everything.

The reason why we love America so much is America is the only place you can actually come in and wave your flag. (Laughter) Being from another country, clearly you are in these United States of America. The thing that America allows you to do is to be able to – you’re waving the flag, and in the sense of waving the flag it’s just saying that we here in America and we made it.

So the thing which America allows you to be is it’s the country of opportunities. So it’s sort of like even when you go to the boxing matches, so the fight is in America so you’re proud to be in America. So I never look at us immigrants as if – because within the America you have what’s called the American dreams, right? So without the American dreams you wouldn’t have the Americas.

So it was important that – so when we wave the flags, we allow you to wave the flags with us. When you come to the restaurants, whether it’s the Brazilian restaurants, the Caribbean, we participate in the food. The parades, we all participate in the parades together.

So I don’t consider myself as an outsider, as in I’m waving this flag because I’m not an American. I’m waving the flag because I’m happy to be part of the American dream.

Tavis: When we talk about immigration, and I raise this issue all the time, but it particularly jumped out at me when I saw the subtitle of your book, “An Immigrant’s Story,” when we talk about immigration in this country, which obviously is always a hotbed subject, the immigration debate never seems to cover certain Americans or certain persons from certain places.

So the immigration debate is always about Spanish-speaking, whether they’re Mexicans or wherever they may be from. But the immigration debate is always about Spanish-speaking citizens. What do you make of the fact that this debate never seems to really get around, the immigration debate, getting around to all the other types of immigrants that exist in this country? Why is it focused on one particular group?

Jean: Because politically, that is the strongest group in the United States, with the issue of politics, we have when it comes to this community, so our Latin brothers and sisters are very strong. So you could take, for example, like let’s take Miami, for example, the Cuban population.

Tavis: Sure, sure, sure.

Jean: Very strong. So here are the Mexicans, very strong, our brothers and sisters. So with the other side, I think for us to improve policy with immigration, I think what it would take, it would take all of us.

So it would take, like, the Haitians to speak up, the Jamaicans, the Mexicans, the Cubans. I actually think if we actually form one force it would actually be stronger than all of the time they’re dividing us into sections.

Tavis: Back to brutal honesty. In the book you talk about, and obviously all fans of the Fugees want to know what happened, why the group broke up, what’s your perspective on it, will the group ever come back together again, what’s your take on Lauryn Hill. I don’t know what part of that you want to answer because there’s so much of it you cover in the book, but talk to me about the Fugees.

Jean: Well, I would think for me, the hardest part of this would be having my wife, like, relive some of those harsh memories. But my decision was just basically based on going back to a time and a place, if I’m going to write a memoir, this is not who I am now, but how it was for me in that mind frame, and how I felt, and that’s one chapter in the book.

So it’s a lot of chapters in the book, but inside of this chapter, if you notice, people go right there. For me, it was important to the score which was created, and within the score, how the score was really created. Because fans have the CD, and when they listen to it, the CD has love in it, it has lust in it, it has betrayal in it.

It has spirituality in it, it has politics in it. In all that within the book I describe, which is the part which is getting the most press of the book is the love triangle –

Tavis: Imagine that – sex, love triangle, getting press. Imagine that.

Jean: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: You, your wife, and Lauryn, imagine that.

Jean: Yeah. So that part is – because for me it’s still uncomfortable in the sense of I had to write the book, but it puts my wife reliving this, which I didn’t want, but if I don’t tell the story, somebody’s telling it.

But it’s not like I don’t love my wife, but at the time there was a love triangle, and from the love triangle, keep in mind the sensitive issue within that, which a writer goes into and the press talks about, is the fact that of a child being involved and me thinking that the child was my child, and certain people saying well, you always knew that it wasn’t your child.

Clearly, in the frame of mind that I was in and sitting down where I was sitting, there was nothing in my mind to make me think different, but I don’t want to go into that because the child is actually born and it’s a beautiful child with a beautiful father and mother.

But in the period of time of why did the Fugees break up, to a fan who’s reading that, and it’s an honest Fugees fan, it was just important to say that was part of the contribution of what led the group to breaking up.

Tavis: You feel bad about that?

Jean: Well, the thing is in looking back at it, right, I feel bad about a few things that I did when I was 20. Now, feeling bad about something and destiny having a way where they’re going to put something forth, meaning every action has a reaction, and would we have created this score within the magnitude of, the feeling that you got, right?

Me as a producer and part of a contributor to these sonics and this sound, I could say a lot of it was based around a lot of emotions and things we were going through at the time.

Tavis: I don’t want to close this conversation without, for all the young people watching who are fans of yours, tell me very quickly the story of the day your daddy beat you down the street, whipped your behind down the street carrying a boom box.

Jean: Oh, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay. (Laughter)

Tavis: Tell it right quick.

Jean: Yeah. So, basically what happened in the hood, my father being a Caribbean minister, one day I stole the radio. The radio that I stole, I took it to school, showing off how big this boom box was and how bad I was at the time. Once my father figured out where I left the radio, he then got his belt and he walked me, he beat me all the way to where I had hid the radio, and with the boom box.

Then he beat me all the way back home, where every – some real hard thugs on the block are like (laughter) “Yo, this dude’s really getting a beating.”

Tavis: And made you carry the boom box.

Jean: And made me – it was like some crucifixion stuff, you know what I mean? (Laughter) Some Jesus carry the cross stuff. He did that, man, and it was terrible for me at the time. I couldn’t call – there was no such thing as you call (unintelligible). Whoever you call, you’re going to die with that person. That’s what they put in your head.

(Laughter) But what that did, though, when I look back at it, that block, none of those guys is on that block no more. They either dead or locked up in prison, and sometimes you as a parent have to take charge for your children. Not in the sense like would I put my daughter and – because we’re living in a new generation, but the idea of honesty and to really put that line with your kids so they understand certain things you can’t do was what my dad was strong in.

Tavis: Your daddy saved your life that day.

Jean: He definitely did.

Tavis: I love you, man.

Jean: I love you too, sir.

Tavis: Glad to have you on. The new book from Wyclef Jean is called “Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story.” I just scratched the surface tonight. Pick it up for yourself. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: September 28, 2012 at 1:40 pm