x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

A good rapper in a crisis: Wyclef Jean

The driving force behind the Fugees brushed off controversy to come to the aid of his Haitian homeland this week.

Kagan McCloud for The National
Kagan McCloud for The National

They say you can measure a man by how he responds to a crisis, and Wyclef Jean's reaction to the Haitian earthquake - immediate, instinctive, emotional, effective, yet also controversial - summed up the award-winning, multimillion-selling rapper, singer and producer perfectly. By the time the world's press was starting to get their teeth into the story of the death, devastation and aid delays, Haitian-born Wyclef had already been to Haiti and returned to his adopted America.

Having arrived in Port-au-Prince within hours of the January 12 quake, he spent days picking up and, where possible, name-tagging dead bodies; before he even got there he had initiated an appeal to raise money for his already established Yéle Haiti charity, where US$5 donations could be pledged via SMS text messaging. In a couple of days it had raised more than $2million (Dh7.2m). Last Monday, he was back in New York, giving a press conference. Tears streamed down his face, but the words he chose to both comfort his countrymen and inspire the international aid effort were those of a leader - and one clearly not about to underestimate the task in hand.

"I do not cry for myself," he said, speaking of Haitians, "I cry for them. We need to migrate at least two million people in different parts outside of Port-au-Prince. We need to have an exodus. And I give you my word: if I tell them to go, they will go - but they need somewhere to go to." Yet even in this moment of emotion and resolve, Wyclef had to go on the defensive. Publication online of documents relating to Yéle Haiti's accounts suggested the charity's book-keeping was erratic, and that he had gained personally from its coffers - an allegation he categorically denies. "It is impossible for me to even comprehend the recent attacks on my character and the integrity of my foundation," he said. "The fact that these attacks come as we are mobilised to meet the greatest human tragedy in the history of Haiti only serves to perplex me even further."

Had the stakes not been so high, Wyclef might have permitted himself a wry smile: the man of the people hounded by the critics is a role he knows all too well. Born in Croix-des-Bouquets, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, in 1972, Nelust Wyclef Jean first gained the world's attention in 1996, when the second album by his three-piece hip hop group, the Fugees, topped the US pop chart on its way to sales of more than 18 million copies worldwide. A critical as well as a commercial hit, the record nevertheless cast Wyclef as an also-ran: the praise went not to him or to Prakazrel Samuel Michel (better known as Pras), but to their female band member, Lauryn Hill.

A cover of "Killing Me Softly With His Song", a 1973 hit for Roberta Flack, cemented the misconception: there was Lauryn, the voice of an angel emoting those heartbreaking words, while somewhere in the background, buried beneath the hip hop beat, Wyclef seemed to do little other than shout "one time, two time", for no readily apparent reason. When Hill released a brilliant solo album in 1998, scoring a record-breaking haul of Grammy awards, the consensus was struck: she was the talented one, with Pras and Wyclef doing nothing but hold her back.

This view - surprisingly widespread - was by then as irrelevant as it was wrong. Wyclef, co-writer and producer of most of The Score, had been the first Fugee to release a solo album, in 1997. The Carnival set out an impressive stall for the multi-instrumentalist, while also underlining the populist sensibilities that lay at the heart of the Fugees' success. Here was a singular, almost wilfully contrary artist, ready to reinterpret the Caribbean standard and perennial football chant "Guantanamera" and sample the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive", yet sounding every bit as in command of his craft on the self-penned Gone Till November, where he was backed by the New York Symphony Orchestra, or the Bob Marley-evoking lament Gunpowder. The record sold three million copies.

His eclecticism was rooted in his upbringing. He arrived in the US in his early teens, and had difficulty fitting in. His preacher father had frowned on secular music in the home: rock was tolerated but rap was out. Pop radio, and rock CDs loaned by his brother, became his window on the wider musical world; Pink Floyd, The Police and Bob Dylan were as important to him as reggae and rap. In 2002, asked by Mojo magazine to select the album that changed his life, he nominated the unfashionable 1983 Dylan LP Infidels. That record - bass and drums supplied by reggae pioneers Sly and Robbie, guitar and production by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits - is almost a template for the sort of lyric-driven, who-cares-whether-it's-cool collaboration Wyclef would later embark upon.

More solo records followed, between spells writing and producing huge hits for the likes of Whitney Houston, Destiny's Child and Carlos Santana. Dylan turned up in one of his videos and he collaborated on a charity single with Bono. On his second solo album he got Tom Jones and country singer Kenny Rogers to sing on rap songs. Some people started saying Wyclef might be a genius - mad, but still a genius.

Yet the Fugees remained the elephant in the room, their absence overshadowing the solo successes. By the end of the century, Wyclef began to admit what had been widely speculated - that he and Hill had had an affair during the lead-up to The Score's release, and that some pointed lyrics on her solo album had been about him. He also argued in public with Pras, his childhood friend. The group eventually reformed, touring Europe late in 2005 with the apparent intent of making a new record, but only one song ever came out.

Although it has been a while since his albums sold in the millions, Wyclef's career remains buoyant. His seventh solo album, an elaborate concept piece called Toussaint St Jean (From the Hut, to the Projects, to the Mansion), came out in November. Throughout, Wyclef's connection to his homeland has been paramount. At the height of the Fugees' success, in 1997, the band played to 75,000 people in Port-au-Prince, in what The New York Times said was the only concert by an American artist to take place in Haiti in living memory.

His Yéle charity, founded (as the Wyclef Jean Foundation) in 1998, takes its name from a song on The Carnival, one of several where he adopted Caribbean musical styles and sang in Creole. In 2003 he released an entire album in the language, and the concerns of the country and its inhabitants have been a constant in his lyrics. In 2007, Haiti's president, René Préval, formalised Clef's role, making him a roving cultural ambassador: Wyclef's uncle, Raymond Alcide Joseph, is the country's ambassador to the US.

"I'm not one of those faces that talks about charity," he said recently. "I'm Haitian - this is where I come from. I live, I breathe, I sleep this." The haphazard, slightly scattershot approach seems to be a natural product of an insatiably engaged personality. Over the past decade and a half, this writer's numerous interviews with Jean have revealed a fascinating, complex and wilful character. He is an interviewer's delight, witty and quotable, and almost pathologically indiscreet.

Musical rivals and critics underestimate him at their peril. Perhaps his greatest asset is his impeccable instincts, for music and for people. In 2002, I watched him at work late at night in a London studio, producing a song for Tom Jones. The confidence with which he directed the singer was striking - little was said, but each word was made to count. At one point he gently but insistently told Jones, "Use the space, don't fill the space"; at another, "Just do it like Tom Jones". The session was relaxed and playful, but proceeded logically and at considerable pace. By 2am the song was finished, and Wyclef headed into the West End, looking for a party.

His defence of the allegations against the charity is robust, and believable. Wyclef doesn't give the impression of being someone who pays too much attention to accounts and book-keeping - he is the man of action, more concerned about being on a plane heading to the disaster zone than ensuring that the money to pay for it is coming out of the correct, publicly transparent pot. He has made mistakes, but he has always seemed to make them for the right reasons; and his commitment to his countrymen in their hour of need cannot be doubted.

* The National