Controversial hip-hopper Wyclef Jean was born from Haitian soil — literally. "When there was no food, we ate clusters of the red dirt that made up the floor of our hut," he writes in his immensely readable new memoir, Purpose: An Immigrant's Story. "This is common in Haiti. The dirt has some degree of mineral content to nurture you and the bulk of it fills you up when there is no meal to eat."
Although he has spent most of his melodic life in an American spotlight — as the brash, and ultimately disruptive, leader of the Fugees and as a dynamic genre-splicing solo star — Wyclef and his brother Sam were raised by an aunt in the poor village of Croix-des-Bouquets, a few miles outside of Port-au-Prince. His mother and father, an intolerant preacher who called his son's art "bum music," fled to New York and New Jersey soon after his birth and wouldn't fetch him for a decade.
Haiti is where Wyclef learned to be tough, smart, fast. It's also where he learned a tragic, but painfully clear, lesson: "Mother Nature has never given Haiti a break." The tell-all opens with a harrowing account of the January 2010 earthquake that ravaged Haiti, a 7.0-magnitude monster that Jean witnessed many years after he left. He was a global star, but suddenly that meant nothing.
"For the past fifteen years, Haiti was the one place in the world where I could never ever walk anonymously," he writes. "That day Haiti was gone and Wyclef Jean was a ghost." He was helpless; his Yéle Haiti charity, established to offer aid and education to his homeland, was rendered useless by the disaster. Chaos and crime ensued on the streets, death on top of death. "I lost all sense of logic and became consumed with purpose," he writes.
Although he has lived in the United States for most of his life, Jean has never given up on Haiti. Not when his 2010 bid for the presidency was rejected due to residency laws. Not when his Yéle Haiti Foundation was investigated for misuse of charitable funds — and cleared. The author addresses all of these solemn challenges, as unflinching and candid as always.
Which is not to say Purpose is a deadly serious read. After all, this is the man who recorded Hips Don't Lie with Shakira, the man who convinced Kenny Rogers to rap. Wyclef is a restless mad scientist — musician, activist, businessman, rabble-rouser — and Purpose is like the kitchen-sink style of the Grammy winner's music, in which Caribbean rhythms and Bee Gees samples mix with hard raps and Hendrixian guitar.
He's funny and gossipy and horny and arrogant.
He's 'Clef, and there's no one like him in music.
Co-authored by slick rock writer Anthony Bozza, the book is often sweetly whimsical. As boys, Wyclef and Sam board a plane to meet their parents, flying over NYC and believing the city of lights is made of diamonds. The Jean family turns out to be prodigiously musical, none more so than the author, who first learns how to play music using Muppet Show toy instruments. (He thanks Jim Henson for his career.)
Purpose can also be read-out-loud funny. As a teen in East Orange, N.J., 'Clef tries to take on a school bully named Walter by watching Bruce Lee films: "I backed up and took a flying Snake kick at his head, at which point Walter grabbed my legs in midair and body-slammed me into the pavement. Then he sat on me and started punching." His father was constantly moving the family, at one point into a funeral home: "We were going to become the Haitian Addams Family living in this place."
And about those Fugees: 'Clef, rapper Pras and R&B singer Lauryn Hill. U2's Bono once called the trio the hip-hop version of the Beatles, but they lasted an even shorter time than the Fabs. Wyclef isn't the most humble of men when talking about music. ("For shows, I could create a new arrangement for each song, like Amadeus or any composer would.") And he takes a huge amount of credit for The Score, the Fugees' Grammy-winning album that went on to sell 17 million copies worldwide and make hip-hop a more experimental landscape.
But give him credit for accountability: He admits that he's the one who broke up the band by sleeping with Hill while he was married to another woman (who, miraculously, is still his wife today). "I've been told by many angry people who are also (Hill's) fans that if I hadn't messed with her she would have not gone so insane," he writes. "My response to that is: you can talk as much as you want to talk, because talking is easy, because you're not the one who was in my shoes. You're not the one who had to be around that beautiful woman 24/7 sharing genius space with her."
He later adds that a Fugees reunion will probably never happen: "It comes down to trust, and that is what we lost when we followed our hearts where our minds told us not to go." Maybe so, especially since there was baby drama involved too. But if the wild life of Wyclef Jean teaches us anything, it's that guessing what comes next is pointless. All you can do is be loyal to your homeland, follow your passions — and try not to sleep with your bandmates.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @seandalypoplife.