As Wyclef Jean records in his New Jersey studio, electricity flows through his fingertips – a harmonic concoction of adrenaline, then inspiration. Or so he describes the process that has seamlessly blended day-and-night sessions over his 27-year high-profile musical journey, from early 90s-era Fugees member to solo artist.
But until now, the 48-year old Haitian-native refugee, rapper, musician and cultural icon hadn’t produced a studio album in eight years, the longest drought in his 20-year solo career – one that he says was sparked by a return trip to Haiti.
“I had an epiphany,” he told VOA in an exclusive interview, “you can’t spend a lifetime just doing music.”
Following the destructive 2010 earthquake in Haiti that left more than 200,000 dead, Jean made a high-profile bid to run for the nation’s presidency; an effort that didn’t pan out from the beginning on constitutional grounds. But the effort, he contends, was never a “failure” due to the “world appeal” it brought to the country’s woes.
So when the Trump administration announced an end to Temporary Protected Status for nearly 60,000 Haitian beneficiaries in November, citing “sufficiently improved” conditions for nationals to return safely to the island nation, Jean used his stardom again, on stage and in interviews, to lambast the decision.
“It’s sort of like you’re just sending them back to their death and famine,” he told VOA, comparing their plight (TPS is scheduled to expire in 2019 for Haitians) to being on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, where thousands of homeless residents live on the streets.
“There is still a reality on the ground in Haiti,” Jean explained: “the level of how many people that’s deported that are in prisons in Haiti, the structure of the police force, the judicial system…”
Haiti ranks 163 out of 188 on the 2015 Human Development Index, a composite statistic by the United Nations Development Program, factoring life expectancy, education, and income per capita. 24.7 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty – $1.25 a day – according to 2013 data.
Growing up, Jean knew poverty, only leaving it behind after his ascension into hip-hop. A refugee at the age of nine, Jean and his mother scraped by on welfare in the United States, first in Marlboro Houses, a notorious public housing project in Brooklyn, and later in Newark, New Jersey. It was then that Jean’s musical abilities began to take form and offer a more promising future.
Wyclef details his journey in his new album, Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee, and in a conversation with VOA, below.