The Haitian musician discuss his eclectic mix of sounds, trying to find a balance within the good and bad, and the last chapter of the Carnival trilogy.
It has been 20 years since Wyclef Jean put out his first solo record, Wyclef Presents The Carnival. Since then he has continued to push out hits, but that has never stopped him from returning to his refugee roots. Now the Haitian musician is set to release the third and final piece of his Carnival trilogy, Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee, and the sounds continue to delight.
On this LP, he is here to say, “We are gonna fall at the end of the day, but it’s what we do when we rise.” The album continues Wyclef’s use of a variety of genres and a mix of the ups with the downs to tell one last immigrant story. And in today’s tumultuous world, it’s one narrative that needs to be heard.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Wyclef to discuss his eclectic mix of sounds, his ability to find a balance within the good and bad, and the last chapter of the Carnival trilogy.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are about to release your new album, Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee. Just to start, how’s the mood in camp?
Wyclef Jean: It’s definitely cool just to know that to a new generation, once again we’ve crossed, like my daughter who is 12 years old all the way up to a Fugee fan, all of the new music is starting to connect again to a new generation. Some of the old stuff is being sampled again, also. It all feels good.
CF: This is the third iteration of your Carnival series. What keeps bringing you back to this project?
WJ: Third and final. Carnival trilogy. The Carnival is a very eclectic brand of music, of social issues, of politics, all combined in one. I named the carnival after the themes based on mood and the topic. So the first Carnival was called, Wyclef Presents The Refugee All-Stars. The Refugee All-Stars are more than saying Lauren, Forte, or Pras, which is saying like at the end of the day we all are refugee all-stars, so we are all-stars within our own right. So who are we to downgrade certain people and say, “Oh they’re refugees” because my parents came to this country as refugees and then we all have some form of immigrant background within us. The Carnival II was, remember The Carnival I was “Gone till November”, that was the theme. The Carnival II, the theme of that was an immigrant story, and the theme for that title track was “Sweetest Girl”. “Sweetest Girl”, if you saw the video with me, Lil Wayne, and Akon, it was the idea of what happens when someone is getting deported back to their town. It’s almost like you are sending them to their death, but you don’t know it.
Now here we are, Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee just to say at the end of the day, y’all need a break. We are gonna fall at the end of the day, but it’s what we do when we rise. So then we have the title track, which is the theme of the whole carnival for me is borrowed time. Borrowed time represents the overall structure of the temperature of where we’re at.
CF: You pull from a diverse set of music on the album. Can you take us through a bit of where you pull from and how you bring it into your songwriting process?
WJ: As a songwriter, the first thing is you have to have a broad imagination, right? So coming from the village in Haiti where I come from, I always say my greatest inspiration is people. I draw from the energy of people, like traveling a lot of the world, seeing a lot of what I see from whether we are in America, the Middle East, the Amazon, Europe, parts of Africa, Asia, like culture, the idea of the Fugee. That gives you a sense of celebration. The idea of the music gives you a sense of celebration. Also the idea of the social issues that these people face in certain ones of these countries. So really, I’m inspired by Bob Dylan “Subterranean Blues” as well as Jimi Hendrix “Hey Joe” and Bob Marley’s “Exodus”.
I always say it’s harder for me to write for myself than it is for me to wrote for people. So people be like, “Yo, how come you always give people the hits?” And I say, “Because it’s easy to write for someone.” Like I know you come to me because you want to get a hit song. But for me it’s different. I be writing stuff, and I’ll be like, “How can we move the planet forward?” [laughs]. So you know, you’re thinking too deep. Whatever you’re smoking it’s a little too… bring it back basic. For me, I guess the challenge is always how do you keep it sexy, simple, but still with a relevance of saying something. So that’s always the challenge for me.
CF: It seems these days there is always a discussion of appropriation of cultures when there is a combination between different things. What do you feel about the convergence of cultures in general and how is that important to you in art?
WJ: Really the best way to explain that is, we all know The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, we all know The Jackson 5, we all know The Best of U2, we all know The Police Synchronicity, even if we don’t know everything, my daughter can still sing ♪Roxanne, Roxanne♪. I was having this conversation with Carlos Santana and he was like, “Clef, you know we don’t do music, we create vibrations,” and it took me a sec to understand what he meant because Carlos is deep. He’s from Woodstock [laughs]. So I’m like, “Yo, what does that mean?” And you know, when DJ Khaled calls and he wants to sample “Maria, Maria” and bring it back to a new generation, it solidifies exactly what he is saying. At the end of the day when you do what we call “cultural phenomenon” then age don’t play part of it. It’s almost like you live forever young in the space of infinity just through the art because if I ask you who is your favorite painter, you might have someone who is current, but you might also have someone that is from the past. If I say, “Who is your favorite composer?” You might have someone present and then you might be like, “Oh, Bach.” You could take a Bach song and put it in an infomercial with DMX, the Ruff Ryders, and put it silent and it’ll still work against that. The relevancy and the idea of how do you stay pure to culture, it’s like you have to be part of the culture. You have to embed yourself in the culture. Not just when you have an album coming out, but through your entire life, like you’ve sworn an oath to be part of this lifestyle.
CF: This album is certainly a lot of fun, but there is also some heavier subject matter because it is about the life of a refugee and death is certainly a recurring theme throughout. How do you find balance when this world seems so beautiful at one moment and so destructive the next, and how does that translate into your music?
WJ: We say the ying and the yang. We say demons and angels. We say heaven and hell. We say love and hate. So there is always this weird paradox with life; happy and sad. But the way that I think we deal with it is that love and hate could never be friends, and the idea is that no matter what happens through the course of history, you always see love conquers hate. You always see faith conquers fear. And that’s basically the whole thing. You always see, life conquers death and the idea of celebration even when one dies, there are those that celebrate and mourn his life or her life. That’s how we deal with it.
CF: The discussion of immigration seems to be more prevalent than ever before. How do you view the voice of the artist in today’s world?
WJ: The voice of the artist is very, very important. It’s almost like the idea of evolution is real, and the idea of when I was coming up in the late 80’s, we had a big a** cellular phone. That thing was so heavy, you had to hold it with two hands, and now the phone is basically so skinny you could pick it up with one pinky. So evolution is important.
The position that an artist used to play, where they used to just talk about it, now an artist is actually acting on it. They are actually helping influence legislation and policy. Talk show hosts at night, they take their art different now because they actually know someone in Congress is paying attention to what they are saying. For me, I feel like the entertainers now have morphed into a more natural space of where they can shape policy and legislation than a politician because the people have lost faith in the politicians, but somehow they have not lost faith in the entertainer or the sports figure.
CF: Speaking of politics, you recently attempted a run at President of Haiti, in 2010. It’s easy for people to miss what is going on outside of their own borders. Can you talk a little bit about Haiti and the issues that are currently facing its citizens and what can be done to help?
WJ: For me, I was born in Haiti, but I consider myself a citizen of the world. So let’s call it 80 percent of the population is living on less than a dollar a day. For me, whether it’s Haiti, whether if it’s Brazil, whether if it’s India, we have to talk about job creation. In order to get job creation, we have to strengthen the private sector, number one. And number two is we have to find a way to take people away from aid and bring sustainability to where they are.
For me, Haiti possesses human capital and natural resources. That means this is a place where, with the organic craze that’s going on around the entire world, when you have a place which is one hour and a half from Miami on the airplane, and you have what is called very rich soil, all the way from mango to sugar cane, anything we can grow, so I think once again it gives a future with great possibilities if policies and legislations can be shaped and designed to go into the core of the rural communities and start employing people.
Everyone says, “What about education?” And I say, “Yes, education is crucial,” but I left Haiti when I was 10 years old. I don’t know if anyone understands the idea of having to learn words when you are five, six years old and math, but at the same time while you’re going “Six times six equals…” and you’re hearing your stomach rumble, that’s definitely a reality. So I think once again, it’s a double tier world. Yes we do need education, but what happens is half of the population is over 21 already. That means these forms of education we have to start, we have to start thinking of trade schools. That possibility that we do get in the States. There are kids in the village I come from called Croix-des-Bouquets where a kid could be eight years old and can literally look at you and paint you in less than an hour. So there is more going in and examining the craft, and helping people develop what their crafts are.
CF: Throughout your career we can imagine that you’ve had a fair share of interesting experiences. But is there one moment that stands out, a grounding experience or a moment of perspective that reminds you why you do all of this?
WJ: When I look back at it, we all have somebody that we look up to. I remember when I saw Michael Jackson on TV, I was in the projects. I was in Marlboro Projects. And I remember seeing Michael Jackson on TV like, “Holy s***. Who is doing the music for this guy?” And then I got into Quincy Jones. Now I would say, you know how you look up to somebody like your entire life? We all have somebody either dead or alive, so my top person was Michael Jackson. I just remember getting a phone call from Michael and I thought my people were pranking me, and then I hung up on Michael. And then I called back, “Holy s***, it’s Michael Jackson.” He was in Asia somewhere, but he was telling me he was watching the TV, and he saw a song called “Gone till November” and he was like, “Who is this brother? We gotta get together.” Then we did get together later in the studio, but what interests me about the conversation was Michael made me understand that the power of what I do is in my songwriting, so never compromise writing the music even as generations shift. To get that solidification from one of your heroes, and it was like, “Holy s***, we can have records like “Hips Don’t Lie”, “Maria, Maria”, even like “Borrowed Time”, we can have these records, but then when people dig into Michael Jackson, like the “Earth” record, different records where he is talking about how we should love each other, the harmony, he teaches me this is one of the most important things about the music, where it becomes less music and it’s more about a cultural phenomenon. I would say that is something that definitely shifted my thinking, and made me understand my purpose, and made me comfortable in the Wyclef Jean space because you go through a period where you are trying to impress people, and once you pass that period, you go to the period of zen and go, “Holy s***, my job is just to keep writing music and putting great music out there.”