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Wyclef Jean: It's time for real conversation about race

The rapper and producer will take part in the Summit on Race in America in Austin

Staff Writer
Austin American-Statesman
Wyclef Jean spent his early childhood in rural Haiti, before moving to the U.S. when he was 9. The immigrant experience has always informed his music. He was in Austin in March for SXSW and will be back next week for the Summit on Race in America. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Wyclef Jean is best known for his uncanny knack for creating catchy dance floor bangers, but from the beginning of his career, he’s been determined to move minds as well as bodies.

“I was like, ‘Yo, Fugees is short for Refugees. That will be the name of the band, and we’ll never be a musical group — we’ll be a movement,’” the acclaimed rapper and producer said when we caught up with him at the Four Seasons during the 2019 South by Southwest Music Festival in March.

Jean, who will be participating in a songwriter session at the LBJ Library’s Summit on Race in America on Tuesday, said he believes it’s time for a real conversation about race, but he rejects the idea that race issues in America today are bigger than ever.

“I try to remind people that it’s barely (50) years ago that they were siccing dogs on people and hanging people. I’m 49 now," he said. "That means 49 years ago, before I was around, before you (were) around, they were hanging black people and so, you see how fast time flies. So did we forget? Or are we faking? Did we find different ways to hide racism?”

Even on the Fugees' early albums, which dropped in the mid-1990s, Jean parsed politics, decried police brutality and celebrated his Caribbean roots. “Growing up with violence, seeing my cousins get killed in the middle of the street, seeing all of that, I was always conscious coming into the game,” he said.

To get his points across, he adopted an aspirational philosophy. “You have to keep it sexy, keep it fly like Bob Marley and Bono, but at the same time, within the universe, our jobs have to be greater than just the idea of just singing songs right?" he said. "So I always believe that I should say something that could trigger the youth into thinking differently.”

He sees America’s prison system, where black and Hispanic youths are incarcerated at far higher rates than white youths, as an outgrowth of antebellum plantations.

RELATED: What does Austin want from the LBJ Library’s Summit on Race in America?

“In the suburbs, a kid (was) caught smoking weed back in the days and it was like, ‘Just go home to your mama. Don’t do that.’ A black kid got caught smoking weed, he’s still in prison,” he said.

Young people’s issues are front of mind for Jean, who believes music is “always about the pulse of the youth.” He started working as a producer at 19, discovered Lauryn Hill when she was 15 and produced Destiny’s Child’s breakthrough single “No, No, No,” when Beyoncé was only 16.

For his new album, “Wyclef Goes Back to School Volume One,” he spent roughly a year touring colleges across the country, teaching master classes and scouting talent. The experience was “the reverse of the reality show," he said. "It was the real show.”

“No one hired me to be a judge," he says, although he was searching for potential stars. "I’m like, ‘Who might be the next Erykah Badu, that 20-something? Who might be the next Jay-Z? Who might be the next Jay Cole?’”

The album is a collection of collaborations featuring the top artists he found. Alongside its party tracks and love songs, drug abuse, gang violence and marijuana legalization are all topics that emerge. Jean’s goal is to give shine to artists he believes have that “it” factor but might get lost in the music industry machine.

“It’s almost like everyone’s so focused on the data and the views, and that’s what the major labels push,” he said. “A lot of the indie stuff is getting thrown to the curb.”

For young people who want to work for social change, Jean said he believes words aren’t enough. “You have to be active, because if you look at any form of movement that has worked in the United States, the movement works when people (are) proactive,” he said. “We can’t just talk about gun laws if we don’t agree with them. So form clubs. Go to Washington. Do social media. Bring unification. Protest peacefully to get what y’all need.”

The man who spit the verse “Problem with no man/ Before black, I'm first human” on the Fugees track “How Many Mics” back in 1996 still believes unity is key. He says these days his greatest inspiration is his 13-year-old daughter.

“She understands that in the fight for human rights that there was white people in the front line dying as much as black people. There was Indians. There was Chinese. It’s so important to understand that,” he said. “Then we understand the idea of these United States of America. The country of immigrants. So this is why I want to make sure my voice is heard.”

Jean's own immigrant story will soon come into the spotlight. Streaming service Netflix is creating an animated musical about his childhood in a Haitian village. "I’m very excited about bringing you the sound of Haiti," he said. In the same way his first solo album, "The Carnival," aimed to expose the world to a wealth of Caribbean sounds, he said, "with this we’re definitely going to get in depth, what the music sounds like, what the culture feels like."

Through the project he hopes to open people's minds and hearts and deepen their understanding of the island nation. 

"That’s what art does," he said. "That’s what music does."