Wyclef Jean


Wyclef Jean Looks to Youth For Talent and Inspiration

Hip-hop star and social activist mentors college musicians

In the 22 years following the release of the Fugees’ chart-topping, groundbreaking album The Score, Wyclef Jean has certainly kept himself busy. As a solo artist, Wyclef has put out seven albums, including his latest, Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee, released in September 2017.

Beyond the music, Wyclef is currently producing an animated film with Netflix about his journey from growing up in Haiti to finding his way in New York, where he immigrated at age nine. Perhaps most ambitiously, Jean is also set to unveil a prototype of the first hip-hop guitar which, when paired with an augmented reality app, will teach aspiring students the fingering progressions of a catalog of songs.

"There's something about the dorm bands. There's something about the hunger. It’s very pure and raw. And that’s so important."

The Haitian legend’s latest music project, Wyclef Goes Back to School, set for release in March 2019, draws talent from college campuses across the U.S.. Through it, Jean hopes to remind us that the human ear for talent and curation still reigns even in an era where streaming algorithms often determine which music is discovered.

At SXSW 2019, Wyclef and the Heads Music label will present a special showcase featuring Heads Music artists, as well as those heard on Wyclef Goes Back to School. He will also be a Featured Speaker as part of SXSW 2019’s Music Industry & Culture program track.

Wyclef Jean. Photo by: Karl Ferguson Jr.

Photo by: Karl Ferguson Jr.


During last month’s holiday season, Jean shared his thoughts on topics such as the values of mentorship in music, how his early career experiences have influenced him, and the making of Wyclef Goes Back to School:

Describe Back to School in your own words.

Wyclef Jean: Back to School is about music discovery from the curation of the actual producer and writer of the composition, whose track histories demonstrate their ability to find talent before the actual streaming data existed. It takes it back to how the Fugees got discovered, how Beyoncé and Jay-Z got discovered.

In this new era with online playlists, algorithms are dictating more what they think you'll like. Meanwhile, the actual humans in the giant record companies have become lazy. Every talent that we get now is fly-by-night.

I think Back to School was just a reminder that on the other side of the algorithms there’s someone with 20 views. They could be the next Amy Winehouse or Lauryn Hill.

But I just think a lot of the best talent is on college campuses. There's something about the dorm bands. There's something about the hunger. It’s very pure and raw. And that’s so important.

What have you learned or gained from Back to School?

WJ: I think that that’s a new way for me to put out compilations of discovery, not necessarily a playlist. The first one is Wyclef Goes Back to School, but I also want to do Back to School: Africa, Back to School: Brazil. That idea’s kind of dope to me.

I love K-Pop. I love reggae. I love pop. I love it all. And to bring it to you through a new generation ... What's exciting about Back to School too is that this is being distributed by a small independent female label—Heads Music. It’s all female, and for me, that kind of message of empowerment also is very important, and that we keep opening the world not just in words but in action.

Wyclef Jean. Photo by: Karl Ferguson Jr.

Photo by: Karl Ferguson Jr.


How important is mentorship to you, knowing that you look up to Quincy Jones a lot? Are there any artists whom you draw wisdom from that might surprise people?

WJ: Quincy always said, “the pulse is always in the youth.” I'm in my 40’s, so for you to hear “Baba” and you're like, “Damn, Clef still haven’t missed the beat with his rhyming.” And you go back to my generation, and maybe three or four of us still got it where we can rhyme, and the kids be like, “They still got it!”

It’s why it’s Clef barring on a Young Thug record, like “Kanye West.” Not only do I want to guide and collaborate with the next generation, but I also look to it for creativity. The pulse of the youth is what inspires me because if there's not no pulse with the youth, then there's no excitement.

And my godfather, Carlos Santana. He did it his way like Q did it his way. When I draw inspiration from these guys, the main thing they teach me, and I always had to remind myself is, “You're the last of your kind, and it’s important that you do your part.” My part is the curation and discovery of talent in the new generation.

Having experienced both sides of the Internet era, what advice do you have for young artists trying to establish themselves?

WJ: Well, I always say there’s two parts of it. For young artists that are coming up, I tell them it’s important every three to four months to have music out, period. The crowd should constantly hear you because this is the new era, and you have a mechanism now that doesn’t limit you to having a release date. It does not limit you to your fan base.

I also encourage artists to work on live performance—tighten up the set and rehearse ‘til you’re sick of it. You gotta blow them away. Think about what happens if you don’t have the hit. Will people show up? They're going to show because they're going to say, “Man, I know he's going to give another hit, but we here because he has the best live set.”

Prince Tribute Concert at 2017 SXSW Outdoor Stage. Photo by Hutton Supancic/Getty Images for SXSW

Prince Tribute Concert at 2017 SXSW Outdoor Stage. Photo by Hutton Supancic/Getty Images for SXSW


How do you feel the landscape of the music industry has changed you as an artist over the course of your career?

WJ: Man, for me it’s a dream come true. It’s heavenly. It’s insane, going from cassette rates to streaming rates. When I was coming up dude, I used to be telling my label, “Yo, I want to put out a hip-hop record, a reggae album, and a house music album at the same time.” And they look at me like I got three heads. Because it only seems like the first thing they think about is “How are we going to make a profit?” And the first thing the artists think about is how they could be creative. The way that it changed me is it gave me more freedom as an artist to literally feel good about it. And those labels can’t say nothing. And so, to me, the technology has returned the freedom to create to the artist.

Literally, right now, I could get off the phone with you, go to my piano, do six songs—something like, Wyclef’s Christmas Vibes for the Holiday—and put this shit up, right? Motherfuckers be drinking eggnog to it and chillin’—I might do that, actually.

Wyclef Jean sat down for an interview at the SXSW Live Studio during SXSW 2019. Watch below:

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