Mike Ragogna: Wyclef, how is the recoding coming on your next album Cleficationgoing?
Wyclef Jean: Well, it’s going great. We’re definitely not finished yet, though. As musicians, we are constantly just writing music every day in the studio. Then once in a while we get an itch to put out a body of work. For me the itch came back after I ran for President of Haiti and went through the fire and came back home. I went to Stockholm and spent some time with Tim Bergling. We went into the studio in winter and we just started recording. It’s really just two producers and two writers, when you break it down to the genesis of what it is. We got in and in the course of like three days we wrote twenty songs. That was just the start of the process for the body of work that will turn out to be Clefication. The name really came from Avicii. Every time I’m in the studio they’re like, “Yo, give us a little more Clefication!” So Clefication is like the swag of Wyclef. It’s the human application to the music. I play all the instruments live in real time, and there’s a certain swag that I do to my voice, little things like Marley used to do. They call it the Clefication. I guess Clefication is the human music application.
MR: Though you’re not finished recording the album, Afro Jack, DJ Khaled, Emeli Sandé and other popular musicians already appear on Clefication. How do you invite your guest cast to the project? Is it simply calling up your friends and saying, “I think you’re right for this?”
WJ: When I put albums together it’s like making an audio film. Every generation has a modern day story that they’re trying to tell. Within Clefication I’m trying to tell the story of life, love, happiness, ups, downs; it’s like a film script. I just look out there and think of people. DJ Khaled and I go way back, so I knew that for a certain sound that I’d need he and I would have to get together, based on our past experiences working together. I spent a lot of time in Amsterdam with Afro Jack, so I understand the movement of what he does and I always wondered, “What happens if you put a Wyclef acoustic guitar against an Afro Jack record?” Emeli Sandé is just hands down one of the greatest vocalists and writers of all time, in my personal opinion, so I’ve been dying to get together with her. I just felt that her ability to write and sing and transform is different.
MR: You’ve already given us a taste of the album with your performance of “Divine Sorrow” on the American Music Awards. What was it like coming back to debuting work in such a large “win-or-lose” kind of format?
WJ: I always think I’m very fortunate, but when I came into the music business one thing I learned from Quincy Jones is that the music game is like a marathon. The game doesn’t really start until now and this is what determines if you’re going to be around or not. The AMAs were cool for me because my daughter is nine, she doesn’t know who the Fugees are, she just went back to school and got to tell everybody her daddy was on the American Music Awards. I have to stay cool for my daughter, no matter what happens. Dads have always got to stay cool for their daughters. [laughs]
MR: You went to Europe for a couple of years to get a little creative inspiration, right?
WJ: Yes. It’s similar to when Marley went to England and hooked up with Chris Blackwell and started using a lot of that country stuff inside the reggae. Inspiration is all over the world. I think sometimes to get inspired you have to move around. I just wanted to go back and forth to Europe, there was a lot of things that I was listening to in my head that I wanted to convey. I spent a lot of time going back and forth.
MR: You joined Ash Pournouri in Sweden, right?
WJ: Yeah. The kind of swag that Ash Pournouri has reminds me of a Chris Blackwell, he’s just younger. His spunk for music, his passion for music is there. When I sat with Ash, who’s one of the executive producers of this new album, he was like, “Yo, you know the ‘Clef brand is the music brand. When you come to Europe I just want to put you in a room with a bunch of cool kids who are doing what you’re doing in Europe and are great friends of yours.” I definitely credit him to starting a process of what would carve out eventually to be a more focused body of work as opposed to just another record, you know what I mean? That’s how I hooked up with Avicii.
MR: And Clefication went to PRMD, the label that you and Ash and Avicii are on, right?
WJ: Yeah, the beautiful thing about Clefication is that it’s coming out on HEADS Music and PRMD. There’s two little independents, one is HEADS Music which I think is brilliant. They actually came and recruited me, which I love, because they have a lot of young acts that they wanted me to produce. I love the idea of the combination of what HEADS Music is doing. Their CEO is very brilliant, her name is Madeline Nelson. She came to recruit me for production. Ash came and was like, “Yo, let’s do an album,” but she came and was like, “Yo, I have all these acts, I need you to do what you did for Destiny’s Child and all of them.” I was like, “Wow, this is a great marriage.” So I did the deal with HEADS Music/PRMD Distribution 88, that’s Warner’s.
MR: You’ve produced, written songs, recorded, and even entered politics, especially by running for president of Haiti. Do all those pursuits come from the same place within? How do you fulfill yourself in each of those categories? Are they sometimes done at the expense of each other?
WJ: That’s a great question, it’s never really been asked like that. I definitely think it’s real hard. How do you go about poli-sci one day talking about world events and policy and trade and then the next day, you’re like “Divine Sorrow.” The thing is, in my subconscious mind, even if you go back to the Fugees days, I’ve always called our music “Policy Music.” We do stuff that makes people dance, but it always has a subtitle in the back of it. It’s definitely not an easy thing, juggling it all at the same time, but I just feel like you can’t just sing. When we listen to John Lennon or Bob Marley, it’s up to us to push the policies forward. For me, it’ll always be a mixture of both. When I saw the movies of Fela Kuti I identified with a lot of parts that were similar to how my life is; running for president, defying the system and how it comes at you like they’re going to take your throat out. For me, it’s all part of the same thing. I never want my legacy to be, “Oh, this is the guy who came from Haiti and just made people sing and dance.” I really don’t think that’s what people will remember in a thousand years. I think people will remember the work that was done.
MR: You always put so much into your personal projects and those you produce for other artists. Do you feel like it’s your mission to just kick everything up as far as you can every time?
WJ: Yeah! The genesis of what I do comes from me as a composer. As a composer or a maestro, when you stand in front of the orchestra, the job is to push them as far as they can go so that it’s the best thing that the audience has ever heard. I definitely crack the whip in the studio, but I have a certain psychosis of how I work with each artist.
MR: Let’s look at Haiti. What would you have done if you’d been elected president?
WJ: Well, in Haiti, my first focus was, “What are our two greatest assets at the time?” One was human capital. The majority of the population is a youth population, which means that you could put them back to work. The other asset that I feel like we naturally have is the soil. The idea of importing and exporting was a situation I felt would work. Setting up agri-banks. We’re only an hour outside of Miami; anything that we wanted to grow we could grow in that climate. I think that between the soil and human capital we could have put a lot of people to work. Even when we talk about education, what’s up with the kid who’s like sixteen or seventeen years old who’s not in school or not interested in it? How are you going to get him engaged? He’s human capital. There are different schools you can set up that are not your traditional institutional school. Plumbing school, engineering school, trade schools. This is some of the stuff that I felt could help put situations in gear.
MR: Do you contribute to a few of causes behind the scenes?
WJ: Yeah, today, they still call me the kingmaker. They’re like, “We don’t understand it, man, you could be up here in two seconds and tell us what’s going to happen in Haiti before it even happens.” I’ll always be part of Haiti. I came from that country to America, but the thing about the American dream is you have to give a piece of that to someone.
MR: Do you find yourself sometimes having to choose between working on musical projects and working on social projects?
WJ: Yeah, definitely. I put my whole career on hold to go back to Haiti and help my country. That’s part of my absence. I didn’t leave because I was on the bottom of the charts and couldn’t write music, you know? I was like, “Okay, I just wrote the biggest pop song in history, now let me take a few years off and help the people.” It’s the same with Bono. It’s not an easy balance, but it’s something that’s in our consciousness. It’s something that’s natural to what I believe. Service is very important to me.
MR: How does it affect your creative process? Does it slow it down at all?
WJ: No, it’s still the same. The first single, “Divine Sorrow,” we partnered up with Bono, who’s a good friend, and we started to talk the whole single idea with the Red campaign after going to Africa and seeing the initiative. We decided that we would partner up with Red and the Global Fund and make one hundred percent of that first single go toward the Global Fund to raise awareness of HIV. It’s not just one cause, it will always be many causes. Okay, yeah, it’s Haiti, but in the same way if you look back at the Fugees, we were there at Rock The Vote, we were there at Concert For Tibetan Freedom. For me it’s the human aspect of us and the natural obligation. Each one teach one. If one falls, the other helps them rise. That’s not really within a music space or a social space, it’s within a mankind space, whether we’re talking about the falling of Rome or the rise of Africa or the rise of Europe, whether we’re talking about it through sports or music or books or philosophy, it’s all the same concept. Are you going to do more than just write that philosophy? Are you going to be Sigmund Freud? Are you going to give them something extra?
MR: When you look at Ferguson, SAE and beyond, what are your thoughts?
WJ: Well, I think there are a few things happening. I think the trust between communities and their law enforcement has been lost. Another thing that’s happening is, it’s not like it has not been here before, but with social media and people constantly having cameras now it’s quicker to get it to the forefront. When you’re like, “Man, what happened?” It’s because what you’re seeing now is being transmitted through the internet, but imagine when those cameras were not there. This is an issue. We can’t run from the idea of, “Do we still have a race problem?” The key is that the majority of us are not racists, but that little racist notch is trying to say, “That is America,” and we’re saying, “No, that is not America.” There are parts of America that has to be worked on. I was not surprised by what happened at the SAE fraternity, but it’s that someone caught that on tape. Those guys wouldn’t be saying that if they knew they were being recorded, but once again, for them to say it somebody had to instill that hatred in them. These are the things we have to fight against.
MR: There are many who feel socially-minded artists should just “shut up and sing.” Do you feel the atmosphere has gotten better for artists who promote causes these days?
WJ: Definitely. I think social media has really helped that. It has given people a voice, and lets us hear other voices aside from the radio. I think social media has made it a little easier to communicate and convey your message.
MR: Do you think you’ve educated or influenced some of the acts you’ve been involved with?
WJ: When you’re an actor you’re inside of the film and you sometimes don’t get a chance to look back and think about it. I think I’m just in that wave right now of moving forward and hoping people move with me.
MR: Wyclef, what advice do you have for new artists?
WJ: If you really want to do this, you have to watch the movie Whiplash. That’s a good movie minus the slapping in the face. Multiply that movie times one hundred thousand and that is the music business. That is the music business. If you decide you’re going to be inside of this music business, you have to be ready for the rise and for the fall. The only thing that’s going to keep you inside the music is originality, and you constantly have to be passionate about it. The first thing is the passion. If you have real passion and somebody says you suck, you’ve got to be more passionate to do better. If you don’t have real passion and somebody says you suck, you’re going to be ready to quit. Make sure that you’re ready for this arena if you want to be in the music business.
MR: Cool. You’re going to be performing at South By Southwest, right?
WJ: Yeah, I’m definitely going to be headlining Pandora hip hop night, I’m going to also be bringing some HEADS Music artists, it’s going to be very cool.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne