Wyclef Jean can be a frustrating read. He whines a lot. (It’s not fair that everyone says Lauryn Hill was the real talent in the Fugees! He has more hits!); he can be somewhat duplicitous toward his loved ones. (He tried to run for president of Haiti against both his uncle and an old friend without telling them first); and, of course, he can be kind of a jerk (re: infamous affair with Hill).
But his story will hook you anyway, even as you roll your eyes through much of his new memoir Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story (written with Anthony Bozza). His tale of rising from poverty in Haiti to become a hip-hop superstar is touching, and often unexpectedly funny. Readers don’t question his deep dedication to the people of his home country — even if it seemed like a weird publicity stunt at the time.
Wyclef lived on the island until he was 10 years old. Life was rough. His father (a minister at a Nazarene church) and his mother left him and his brother Sam to live with their aunt and uncle, when they moved to the United States illegally. By 10, Wyclef didn’t actually believe they were alive. However, they finally obtained legal status after the birth of another son in the United States and came to take Jean and his brother Sam back to New York. Jean isn’t bitter toward his parents. He recognizes they abandoned him for a time to create a better life for the family.
When Jean and Sam arrived in New York City, they joined the rest of their family in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Marlboro Projects in Coney Island, Brooklyn. The Marlboro Projects, which according to Jean have the highest murder rate of any other projects in New York City, were overrun with drugs and murder. Yet, Jean’s minister father was determined to keep his kids in check, introducing them to music as an alternative source of entertainment. It was love at first listen and the kids eventually formed their own band for their father’s church. Jean developed a passion for another kind of music, however: hip-hop, of which dad strongly disapproved.
The family managed to leave the Marlboro Projects, moving to several different areas in Brooklyn, before they settled in the tough town of East Orange, N.J. It was while in high school in East Orange that he began battle-rapping, honing his hip-hop talents (something he still had to hide from his father), and establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with among his fellow students. Rap wasn’t the only genre Jean studied. He joined the school choir and jazz band, and he and his siblings still had their church band, for which they were superstars in the local Christian circuit. He formed the band Exact Change with a few friends and got a manager from RCA Records. Exact Change didn’t go far, but Jean kept making music.
The Fugees formed when Jean’s friend Pras Michel invited him over to lay down some vocals with Hill and another young woman, Marcy. Marcy pursued other things, but Michel, Hill, and Jean pushed forward, creating a distinct sound that combined hip-hop, soul, reggae, and rock. It was with the release of The Score, the album that included singles “Ready or Not” and “Killing Me Softly,” that the group garnered international attention. Ironically, it was also their last album because, as Jean admits, the volatile romance between him and Hill made it impossible for the group to stay together.
Jean spends a lot of time discussing (and rationalizing) his affair with Hill, which began while he was dating his wife Claudinette and continued on long after they were married. He’s very much a romantic — I do believe that he loved both his wife and Hill, even if cheating wasn’t the best way to show it. He repeatedly acknowledges the affair was wrong but then explains how their love was based in music, so it was different than the love between him and his wife, which is about support and stability. It’d be interesting to get Claudinette’s reaction to all this because the comparisons he draws between the two women paint her as pretty boring. We actually don’t learn much about her beyond the fact that she supported Jean early in his career and forgave him for numerous betrayals. Granted, he doesn’t do Hill many favors. His stories about her, although sympathetic toward her feelings and open about his love for her, portray her as unstable — a passionate, tragic woman scorned.
After the breakup of the Fugees (or as Jean says the “drifting apart,” since the group never officially broke up, just stopped getting together to rehearse or record), Jean established a successful solo career. We all know that. Yet in Purpose, the aspect of Jean’s post-Fugees life he seems to care most is his work in Haiti. In 2005, he and Jerry Duplessis founded Yéle, a grassroots charitable organization dedicated to youth development and emergency relief. It was through this organization that Jean used his power as a celebrity to reach the young people of Haiti who were turning to crime. More than anything, it’s Jean’s description of the heartbreaking days following the 2010 earthquake that touches the reader.
Purpose seems to capture Wyclef Jean, good and bad. He’s arrogant and has hurt many people over the years. But he also puts his talent and celebrity to good use, and for that I have to give him credit.
Where: Miami Dade College Chapman Center (300 NE Second Ave., Miami Beach)
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, September 28
Tickets: $10 per person, while supplies last. The ticket can be used as a coupon to purchase Wyclef’s book, or any other book at Books & Books. Available Coral Gables, Miami Beach, and Bal Harbour Books & Books locations.
Contact: Visit booksandbooks.com