Growing Up in Haiti, Moving to New York
Lead Fugees rapper and sometime guitarist Wyclef Jean was the first member of his group to embark on a solo career, and he proved even more ambitious and eclectic on his own. As the Fugees hung in limbo, Wyclef also became hip-hop's unofficial multicultural conscience; a seemingly omnipresent activist, he assembled or participated in numerous high-profile charity benefit shows for a variety of causes, including aid for his native Haiti.
The utopian one-world sensibility that fueled Wyclef's political consciousness also informed his recordings, which fused hip-hop with as many different styles of music as he could get his hands on (though, given his Caribbean roots, reggae was a particular favorite). In addition to his niche as hip-hop's foremost global citizen, Clef was also a noted producer and remixer who worked with an impressive array of pop, R&B, and hip-hop talent, including Whitney Houston, Santana, and Destiny's Child, among many others.
Question: Do you remember your childhood in Haiti?
Wyclef Jean: I mean, basically my vivid memories in Haiti is -- the best way to explain it -- think about, like, the Godfather movie when they go back in time and then it’s this small village with the donkeys. I mean, think about that, but mine is, you know, the luxury of the harvest. It was just a very poor community and no electricity, but a lot of drums, a lot of native drums which kept the energy going. And I always remember, like, my grandma a lot because my grandma gave us, like, a penny every Sunday to go to church, and sometimes we took that penny and bought some candy with it. But despite, like, how poor we were, she always found a penny every Sunday. And I was like -- she always was, like, you know, giving is caring. So automatically, I mean, those are some of my memories of Haiti -- the rain, you know, the constant, like, [Africanism]. It was just an energy like, <singing>. And it was like -- it just feels -- so at times whenever I feel, like, down, I can hear, like, these tribal sounds in my head, and it picks me up.
Question: What were your first impressions of New York?
Wyclef Jean: I mean, when I first moved to New York, coming from the small village, the tale was that America, the land of diamonds. So we thought that, you know, we would land and then there would be diamonds falling from the sky. You know, that was basically the impression, and we got on a plane -- and keep in mind that village I told you I came from. So now I’m on a plane; and then as the plane is going, and we’re coming to New York City, and I see a bunch of lights. And I look at my brothers, “Yo, we’re rich. The city of diamonds, we are rich, we have arrived.” And so my first impression of New York City was like wow. You know, I think it’s the first impression of a kid that’s old enough to understand Disneyland, and then they get there and they’re just like, wow, you know?Topic: Adjusting to AmericaWyclef Jean: I mean, my adjustment, you know, like, coming from Haiti and then growing up first in the projects of Marlboro and Coney Island, you know, it was a rough start because there’s a language barrier and something is going on. So the first thing you do is you try to learn the language and try to see if you could fit in with the culture. And at the time what helped me a lot was Hip Hop music because there was a lot of breakdancing going on, a lot of graffiti going on, and it was sort of like -- it starts out with the stereotype of, “Go back to Jamaica, you. ‘Yo, man, I ain’t from Jamaica. Haiti.’ Go back to Haiti. ‘Do you know where Haiti is at?’ No, I don’t know where Haiti’s at.” So it’s like, think -- things that kids go through. And then you’re like, I need acceptance; I want these people to respect me. so I’m gonna do their music better than them, I’m gonna do this better than them, and I’m gonna -- so as a kid you just start challenging yourself. In a couple of years you naturally pick up the culture, and I think what really helped me a lot was the Reggae music and the Hip Hop music.
Question: Why is Creole so important to you?
Wyclef Jean: The Creole language is the language of my country, Haiti, and why is this so important to me because the natives speak Creole and then they have to learn French, right? So somewhere along the line I lost my French, but I never lost my Creole. It was sort of like -- it’s important that you have an identity, you know? And what I mean by that is, you know, if there’s a language that has been spoken like, you know, your mom speak it, your grandma speak it, your grandma’s mother speak it, your mother’s grandma speak it, and then you don’t speak it. What end up happening is, you know, you just broke the generation gap because your kid’s not going to speak it, and it’s very important when you have a language that’s a language from where you from and it represents culture. So I could never lose my Creole because that represents the culture. The strong identification with Haiti comes from my parents. Yes, I come to the States at a young age, but inside of the house, the culture that we was raised with is the culture of the islands and what we came up with. My mother always say, “Well, outside of the house, you can be as American as you want to; but when you get in this house, you Haitian. You eat Haitian food, you talk Creole, you listen to Haitian music.” I’m like, “No.” But it actually was a great thing.
Jean left Haiti at the age of nine only to end up the country's roving ambassador.
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