TV One’s flagship music series Unsung returns Sunday, July 9 with a spotlight on Wyclef Jean, probably its first ever solely featuring a Caribbean immigrant to the United States. In it, there are many revelations about the man who was the genesis of the influential rap trio The Fugees, where Lauryn Hill got her start.
Wyclef Jean, along with fellow Haitian Pras Michel, was very much a driving force behind the identity of the Fugees. The group’s name is taken from the word refugees, and their emergence in the 1990s was a powerful one for Haitians entering this country. At the time, there was considerable backlash against Haitians in particular, who were then seen as undesirable additions to this country and were even widely considered to have high rates of HIV in the height of the hysteria surrounding AIDS. Despite any possible stigma, Jean and Michel proudly proclaimed their Haitian identity at the time.
Speaking via phone, Jean shared that he took inspiration from rapper Snoop Dogg and producer Dr. Dre at the time and was impressed by how they represented the West Coast. “I was, like, that’s what I’m going to do with our people,” he said. “Now Haitians are like the new Jamaicans.”
For those not heavily familiar with Jean, Unsung is a primer. It delves into how he came to this country with his very religious family in his early teens and traces his musical odyssey which is very much rooted in the church. As he began to expand musically, there was lots of tension between him and his father, who was a preacher.
“Coming from the church, I’m a preacher boy, so automatically, as a choir director, my dad’s first idea for me was that I would be one with the cloth, and I just had a different idea on how I can spread my messages,” he explained. “I always got into debates with my dad that God ain’t necessarily in the church right now.”
And, as Unsung shows, Jean was influenced by more than the church musically. “When everyone watches the Unsung episode, they are going to understand how much of a culture bunny I was,” he predicted. “Like, for example, my first demo was done by [pioneering hip-hop artist] Kurtis Blow. You can’t be more culture bunny than that.”
Of course, Jean went on to work with some of the biggest names in music, including Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé, Shakira and Carlos Santana. In addition, he mixed multiple genres including hip-hop, reggae, Latin American music, African music, and more. Actually, the fact that his debut solo album, Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival, is currently reaching its twentieth anniversary was also a motivating factor for the TV series to turn its attention to Jean.
For Unsung, Jean’s relationship with his Fugees bandmates is a major part of the story, including his romantic entanglement with Lauryn Hill, but he said more was at play in 2004 when an unexpected reunion for what became Dave Chappelle’s infamous documentary Dave Chapelle’s Block Party did not result in the Fugees coming back together.
“We did the Chappelle Block Party, and after that we did a pre-tour, [but] a lot of things were happening in my country,” Jean explained. “George Bush had gave the order to Colin Powell, [and] they went and took Jean Bertrand Aristide out, and my country was in political instability, guns in the street, people dying, so I would just say I can’t blame it on one person, and in order for it to work there has to be a synergy there, and it just felt like our minds were just in different places. And me in particular, I was like, ‘Look what’s going on in my country. I can’t be up here dancing and all of these people are dying.’”
Unsung does touch upon Jean’s charitable and political actions with both his charity Yele Haiti and his 2010 run for the Haitian presidency. Those experiences taught Jean some hard lessons. “When we look at Marcus Garvey, his organization was infiltrated all the way to the point that he was deported back. In this country [the United States] there’s just forms of power that were designed before we were here,” he said.
“For me, what I learned in the small time that I spent with Nelson Mandela face to face is the greatest sacrifice is the sacrifice of self, not in words, but in action. So once you do that, you become a populist, and then now you become a threat.
“So in the process there were all kinds of rumors spread about me. But in order for them to take me out there was something they were not able to do, and that was turn my people against me, because my people know who Wyclef is and how real I am. So that’s why I decided that I was going to run to become the president of my country, and I did run, and they took me out of the race and said I wasn’t five years qualified but, like Malcolm X would say, I was ‘bamboozled.’”
That trying experience hasn’t kept him from speaking up. Right now one of his main concerns is what U.S. President Donald Trump will do with the 50,000 Haitians that could be deported back to Haiti. “Donald Trump had campaigned in [Miami’s] Little Haiti, and one of things that he said [was] that he was going to help,” Jean explained. “And one of the ways to help is to not to send 50,000 Haitians back to Haiti, because the government is still recovering.”
Jean’s Unsung, in which his family — including his mother who speaks Creole in the episode — is very present, is more than a political statement or just a music profile. As an artist who has recorded seven solo albums, with another one on the way, and produced on countless others, resulting in millions and millions of records sold, there is no denying that Jean has been extremely successful in music. He is pleased that younger generations are taking note of him, which makes the episode perfectly timed.
“Well, now I’m in my 40s and we’re celebrating this year the 20th year anniversary of The Carnival, which came out in 1997, so it’s a lot going on this year,” he explained. “After running for president of my country also and entering the new millennium of generations when you have young kids like Young Thug naming songs ‘Wyclef Jean,’ the entire young generation is embracing the movement of the ’90s. So it was important that my first doc, my Cinderella story, is finally seen.”
With the release of Carnival III also planned for this year, Jean knows that his story is as timely as ever. “I think that the story now for me is an immigrant story,” he explained. “It’s always been an immigrant story. Just because we come from these areas [that are poor and labeled ‘Third World’], they have a stamp on what we are supposed to be. The American dream is still real. We still can be something. We still can be somebody.”
Unsung: Wyclef Jean airs Sunday, July 9, at 9 pm EDT on TV One.