Wyclef Jean, the 45-year-old music maestro, has dabbled in many things. He served as the leader of the Fugees, a Jersey hip-hop group that also featured Lauryn Hill and Pras; he’s a Grammy winning solo artist who’s responsible for hits like “Gone Till November” and “Hips Don’t Lie,” with Shakira; and the Haitian émigré even attempted to run for President of Haiti in 2010, only to see his candidacy stripped because he hadn’t met the country’s 5-year residential requirement.
Over the years, Wyclef has also been involved in numerous charity endeavors—the most controversial of which, of course, being Yele Haiti, the chairty organization he founded that provided relief during the 2010 earthquake that ravaged Haiti, but later shuttered its doors in the wake of a string of controversies, ranging from allegations of mismanaged funds to failure to file IRS returns from 2005-2009. The musician’s latest charity endeavor is a partnership with Coca-Cola and Bono’s (RED), an organization that fights AIDS, wherein Wyclef is one of several artists offering unique experiences to fans at auction. He also wrote the single, “Divine Sorrow,” with Swedish DJ Avicii to help raise money for (RED).
The Daily Beast spoke at length to Wyclef about everything from (RED) and his checkered charity past to his thoughts on Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Sarah Palin.
How did this track with Avicii, “Divine Sorrow,” benefiting the RED campaign to fight AIDS come about?
Last winter, I spent a great deal of time working on developing a new sound—electro, acoustic, a mash-up of things—and one of the tracks that came out of that was “Divine Sorrow.” Coca-Cola wanted it for the RED campaign. And me and Bono go back twenty years, so this isn’t the first time we’ve collaborated together on AIDS initiatives.
Avicii is at the fore of the dance music craze. Do you see that bubble bursting soon?
Well, before I was in the Fugees I was signed to Big Beat Records, and I was doing hip-hop and house music, and I’ve always been a big fan of Erick Morillo. So, EDM is just house music with electronics added, and Avicii’s style of EDM is similar to what I was doing with The Carnival or Ecleftic. It’s eclectic, and a bunch of different sounds.
You mentioned Ecleftic, and the strip club anthem “Perfect Gentleman” is on there. Now, I was surprised to see you give a shout-out on that track to Sue’s Rendezvous, because anyone who’s spent anytime in Mt. Vernon knows that place is a serious dump. Have you been there?
I’ve been there! But that was when I was younger. That’s what makes it dope. That’s the idea of the song: “Just ‘cause she dances go-go, that don’t make her a ho.” So then you’ll be like, “Man, even if she’s there dancing at that dump Sue’s Rendezvous, that don’t make her a ho?” I hear everyone talking about stripper records and I think, “Man, I was doing that shit when I was twenty-something.”
With the charity thing, I want to talk about your old controversial charity Yele Haiti, because I’m still not entirely sure what happened there. From what I’ve read, the New York Attorney General’s Office had launched an investigation into it and alleged that the charity had made improper payments to you and your family.
That is completely false. If you saw me on Oprah when we talked about the Yele situation, first of all, for there to be a misappropriation of funds and for funds to go to my family, there would have to be accounts of that, you know?
But Yele also came under fire for not filing tax returns for a number of years, so there wasn’t a paper trail.
First of all, I’m the founder of the charity. So, similar to any other celebrity that has a charity, I’m the foundation. Now, the foundation has presidents, boards, and accountants, and their job is to file. So when they didn’t file, they did their due diligence and filed all the paperwork that we were asked to provide. Everything we were asked to do, we’ve done it. Within every foundation, will there be mistakes and errors? Yes. If you’re in the middle of a crisis and there’s an earthquake and you’re trying to help 250,000 people, you’re just trying to get them water. That’s what I was thinking. It’s not my job to be filing paperwork. It would be impossible for me to be doing all that; I’m not that gifted.
So then why did Yele Haiti close following the New York Attorney’s Office investigation?
Well, the Attorney General had to do their due diligence to find out where the mistakes were made, and what happened. And once they do that, me as Wyclef Jean, I’m going to continue to keep doing my positive work. But I cannot be a part of a situation where my name is bigger than the name of Yele, and my name is the one that’s being dragged under the mud because of Yele—as if I was the one running the day-to-day there. Every two weeks, it was, “Oh, Clef this and Clef that,” but I wasn’t the one running the foundation, yet I took all the blame as the front man. I couldn’t take all that weight on my back, but it won’t stop my charity work from continuing.
Last question about this and then we can move on. Yele Haiti did fess up to paying you $100,000 for a benefit concert in Monaco.
When you do a concert, you need to put on a production for a show. I didn’t get any money in my personal pocket, but when I’m performing, there’s a production standard that has to be met. This isn’t just me, my brother. This is any charity that’s out there. Whether it’s Bill Clinton or Lady Gaga that shows up, even though you waive your fee, you can’t waive your production costs. So, the way that I perform—the production, the stage, the lights, the instruments—all of that has to be state of the art.
I want to talk about the Fugees too, because The Score was an album I had in regular rotation as a kid. There was talk after the reunion performance in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party that you were reuniting. When the plan was scrapped, Pras came out and blamed Lauryn, saying she was “running on some bullshit.” What happened there?
I would just say, musically, you just outgrow bands philosophically and politically. I can’t really blame it on anyone. We just outgrew what the vibe was. In order for a reunion to happen, it would take a high level of trust, musically, on everything that happened. What will.i.am is to The Black Eyed Peas, I was to the Fugees. But you need trust. And that level of trust just wasn’t there. And maybe it’s because I didn’t have music at the time, or Lauryn didn’t have music at the time.
In your book, you wrote about your romance with Lauryn while you were in the Fugees, and how your break-up led to tension between you two and ultimately, the dissolution of the group. Was there lingering resentment over you choosing your wife over Lauryn?
I don’t know… you’d have to ask her about that. All I can say is that, in the course of history, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and yes, as human beings, there’s always some kind of resentment.
Do you see a Fugees reunion happening anytime soon?
I mean… I think possibilities are always endless. For me, it just always has to be bigger than the music. And that band wasn’t just about the music; it was about the movement.
Taylor Swift recently pulled all her music off Spotify because she said it wasn’t compensated artists fairly. What are your thoughts on streaming music services like Spotify?
Time changes. What was once sold is given free to a generation, however you want to look at it. The generation can’t download you physically, so what you have to do is find three, four, five different ways to put the album out a unique way. If you put out a Wyclef record and it sells 50,000 copies the first week, on a Wyclef tour, I’m going to do $25 million. Period. Because I can’t be downloaded. It’s crazy, though. Before you even put out the album these days, it’s on YouTube. But for every artist it’s going to be different. For an artist like myself, the most important part is the publishing, and owning my own copyright.
But as someone who owns his own publishing, how do you feel about a service like Spotify compensating you a reported $0.006 per stream?
Well, it depends on who the artist is. Me, I’m a believer in evolution. My daughter doesn’t even understand the conversation we’re having. She just presses "play" on Spotify and does her thing. My biggest concern as a publisher is that my copyright is always protected, so if you’re a publisher and get a hit song, through licensing, movies, etc., you’re still making what you’re making. Five years from now, the conversation we’ll be having is, “Music is completely for free, and the method of listening is the only thing you’ll be paying for.”
What about middle-of-the-road bands, though? You’re a popular artist, but if people in the middle aren’t being paid, and they don’t make a ton on touring, what happens to them?
OK, this is a good conversation to have. Take people like Tyler, the Creator or A$AP Rocky. They really blew up online, and then people moved on. There’s an advantage, and a disadvantage. The disadvantage we had was that people like me and RZA had to sit in front of these A&R execs who couldn’t hear anything and explain why our shit was dope or not. With this generation, you can just put things online and get your music out to people. So what I always tell the kids is to be careful about signing to a label and always protect your copyright.
You once said you’re a “big fan” of Sarah Palin’s. Do you regret saying that? I mean James Brown supported Nixon. At the end of the day, we have a voice and things can be taken out of context. Basically what I was saying is that these United States of America is a great place because even Sarah Palin can do Sarah Palin. The day that you take the speech away from someone’s mouth, then we’re no longer the United States of America. That’s what I was saying.
How do you feel about Chris Christie as a politician? You’re a Jersey guy and still live there.
I mean I followed the “Bridgegate” scandal and all of that. It comes with the territory. But at the end of the day, as a governor, you have to be stern and there are decisions you have to make. I feel his strong in what he does. Period. If you were to ask me if I think the governor is doing a great job in Jersey thus far, I’d say he’s handling things sternly, but the way they’re supposed to be handled.
Speaking of politics, let’s talk about your run for President of Haiti. It came under a lot of scrutiny from people like Sean Penn and others because you hadn’t established residency there, and ultimately your name was thrown off the ballot. Do you regret running?
Well, Sean Penn is my good friend now. Y’all ran the break-up and not the make-up. But in 100 years from now, I will no longer be here, but you may be. Five hundred years from now, I will no longer be here, and you won’t either. We have a birth date and a death date. Everything we do in between must be to try our best to move the human race forward. Man, I just couldn’t be the Fugees guy who just sang “Give Peace A Chance.” The ratio of the small village where I come from, to get out of there and to come to America and make it, to me, it has to be deeper than just the music. If I said “refugees,” that stood for the ideal of everything I did when I ran for president.
Back to the Fugees. I’m still holding out for The Score II. You’ve said that The Score was the soundtrack to your and Lauryn’s romance, so clearly a lot of the greatness of that record sprouted from the creative and romantic tension between you two.
Every great record that you’ve probably heard in the past was based off experiences, you know?
Do you and Lauryn still talk? Are the phone lines open?
My line is always open, you know what I mean?
OK, but how about hers?
I’m just sayin’ my line is always open.