Wyclef Jean on how he went from ‘having nothing’ to being a Grammy Award-winning music mogul
The story of Wyclef Jean is an embodiment of the ‘American Dream.’
Born in the Haitian commune of Croix-des-Bouquets, Nel Ust Wyclef Jean – whose stage name is Wyclef Jean – immigrated to the U.S. at the tender age of nine. As a child, he had an aptitude for music. Like the late singer-songwriter, Prince, Jean is multi-talented, having learned to play seven instruments by the time he hit his teens. Jean’s mother nurtured this talent further by buying him his first guitar.
Jean’s initial foray into the music business was with a New Jersey hip-hop group called the ‘Fugees’ whose members included the American singer-songwriter, Lauryn Hill, and fellow Haitian rapper, Pras Michel. The group’s debut album flopped and its members were on the verge of quitting the music industry altogether. Then, the Fugees released their second album, The Score, which went six times platinum, received two Grammy Awards and became one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. Jean was recently inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame (alongside the likes of one of his idols, ‘The Boss,’ Bruce Springsteen).
Just prior to his recent appearance at Cannes Lions (as a member of the Entertainment Lions for Music Jury), Jean took some time out of his schedule to interview with me. He reveals the secret of his longevity in the music business, the importance of mentorship and how he goes about spotting the ‘next big thing’ in music.
Jean attributes a lot of his early development to being the son of a church minister.
“As a preacher’s kid (or ‘PK’ as we call ourselves), you get a lot of discipline from the church,” he says.
To ensure you’re the best at what you do, you have to make sure that you never stop learning.
“As a kid, I was able to understand the vibration of music as a whole and how to play instruments in church. Every Sunday was like a performance. I learned how to be a performer, to read and listen to a crowd,” Jean recalls.
When asked if music is his career or his calling, Jean responds without hesitation, “Music is definitely my calling. I can’t imagine my life without it. When I wake up in the morning – my wife and daughter can attest to this – the first thing I do is start playing the piano. I’ve always gravitated towards music and learning about music. As a teenager, I’d go to Sam Ash (a music supply shop) and read all the manuals.”
Jean has been active in the music industry for close to 30 years and has remained relevant, but how has he maintained his longevity in what is not only a fast-paced, but occasionally cut-throat, industry? “By being thankful,” he says.
A proud native of Haiti, Jean has always embraced his heritage and the role it played in shaping his view of the music business: “I’m originally from Haiti, so I know what it means to have absolutely nothing. You just have to be grateful and embrace what you have. You can never take anything for granted. I never stop working, grinding. In order to ensure you’re the best at what you do, you have to make sure that you never stop learning. That’s how you stay on top.”
Quality mentorship can mean the difference between success and failure in the music business and, some would argue, business in general.
Jean’s relationship with one of his early mentors came about organically. “One of my greatest mentors was my high school teacher,” he recalls.
I know what it means to have absolutely nothing. You just have to be grateful and embrace what you have
“One day, she heard me playing in music class and asked where I learned how to play. I told her it was all in my head. She pushed me into taking a jazz class. Even though I wasn’t asking for a mentor, she saw the potential in me,” says Jean.
According to Jean, this was a turning point in his life: “The fact that she believed in me enough to go out of her way to push me to do my best (and reach goals that I didn’t think were possible) was one of the most valuable milestones in my life.”
3. Music’s ‘next big thing’
Jean’s eighth studio album, Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee, is due for release this September. The album showcases talent Jean discovered “for the next millennium.” When talent-spotting, what characteristics does he look for in a mentee on (and off) the microphone?
“On the microphone, I look for charisma, presence, passion, that ‘it’ factor. Off the microphone, I look for drive and dedication. Working in music isn’t easy. You have to want it. You need to be persistent,” says Jean.
Jean is all too aware of the need for up-and-coming artists to have the business and branding basics down pat: “Streaming numbers and hits come up so fast that young artists forget to network properly, develop their voice and their brands. Your musical product can be on fire, but your brand may not be growing fast enough to match it. You need to make sure your brand is growing with you.”
A taste for talent-spotting
Starting off in a chart-topping group (which MTV has ranked as the ninth greatest hip-hop group of all time), Jean has since had a successful solo career, produced one of the highest-selling singles of the 21st century (Hips Don’t Lie with Shakira), set-up a charitable foundation and made a bid to run for the Presidency of Haiti.
What is next for Jean? He provides a snapshot of his plans: “I want to create careers and develop young artists under Heads Music – the label I’m currently working with. I want to see these kids do well because they’re young, hungry and talented. I see so much promise in them. I also want to build the technology side of the business. Music is going in the way of technology, so making that stronger and better is a priority.”
Treble Grammy Award-winning artist, Wyclef Jean, is a man of many talents, but perhaps his biggest achievement yet will be to develop the talent of others.