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Just before our Zoom call finished, Wyclef Jean noted that he’s part of an illustrious lineage — Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and then the 52-year-old rapper himself.
His predecessors are New Jersey natives, and Jean, visibly clad in a New Jersey Devils jersey, said he’s “straight-up Jersey.” Born in Haiti, Jean came to the U.S. when was nine and was raised in New Jersey. Like the Chairman of the Board and the Boss, Jean is in the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
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“If you ever go through the Newark airport, you’ll probably see my face at the airport,” Jean added. “You’ll be like, I know this guy. That’s my man!”
So ended a cheery video conversation with the three-time Grammy Award winner, who headlines the Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival Sunday at 10 p.m. Below is an edited transcript of the chat, covering Jean’s French, Creole and Haitian roots, his pandemic pursuits and his latest musical efforts.
Q: The Gatineau Hot Air Balloon festival is a Francophone event. How’s your French?
A: French is always a natural connection for me. Coming from Haiti, the Bible, we had to read it in French. The music that was around the house was a lot of French chansonnette and a lot of good Creole music.
Q: Did you speak French before you left Haiti?
A: Just all Creole. When we got to the states, my mom would only speak Creole to us, which I’m so thankful for. Now, when you get older and you go back to Haiti, you can communicate, which is pretty amazing. A lot of my friends, they had lost their Creole.
Q: In your new single, Voye dlo, the singing is in Creole, and you’ve called it Voodoo Drill music. What do you mean?
A: I think it’s a new genre that we’ve created. People (are) constantly taking the word (Voodoo) and putting a negative tonality to it, as opposed to the beautiful culture. The reason that we call it that is that in the beginning, the chant that you’re hearing is an old chant from the ancestors, an African chant passed on to Haiti. What classifies that genre being the Voodoo Drill is the rhythm.
The message that we’re conveying in Creole is to not give up on your country, where you come from. At the end of the day, the lyrics I’m portraying, I’m saying I’m the preacher, I’m the gang member, I’m the one with the sister that you raped, I’m the police, I’m the one that won’t make it home at night.
These are the lyrics. In order for things to be better we have to look at ourselves in the mirror. Only when you see the reflection of yourself, then you can understand where you really want to go.
Q: Is this music meant to be heard back in Haiti or heard around the world?
A: No, it’s world music. It’s for everyone.
Q: Your next album is going to be called 2097. Why?
A: Because I’m always in the present but in the future. Everything that I do, even if you don’t get it now, you’ll get it in the future. When I did the album The Carnival, that was 25 years ago, people thought I was out of my mind. It was an album in English, in French, Creole and Spanish. The rhythms on the album were disco, zouk, country… and a whole list. That’s a blueprint to Kanye West, it’s a blueprint to Drake, you understand? So 2097 is literally, like… they’re going to catch up in 2097.
Q: You’re giving me an incentive to live that long.
A: You got to, baby!
Q: How was pandemic life for you?
A: I was similar to other artists. The lockdown was really serious. I lost my uncle (to COVID-19). One of my drummers lost his mom and his dad, It was a very crazy time… COVID was the boogeyman.
Q: Two years ago, you started a limited-run podcast, RunThatBack, featuring conversations with people like Common and Carlos Santana. Why?
A: I felt like this would be a cool time while everyone was on the down to get some of my celebrity friends, different friends, to basically make sure that this side of it would keep going. I figured I wouldn’t get that time again when people were literally standing still. It turned out to be very, very cool.
Q: After that, how did it feel to return to touring and performing?
A: The best way I can explain it, the word is therapeutic. As artists, we love to be onstage. We love to give back to fans. There’s no greater rush than walking out there and hearing the crowd. You’re like, man, this crowd is part of me, I know these people. They know you through your music, through your story. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried. People are like, yo, you helped get me through college. People are like, yo, I had this baby when I heard Killing Me Softly.
Q: Your recently went to Nepal. What was that about?
A: I went to see a friend of mine. His name is Nirvana. I know the story of Buddha and I’m a strong believer of energy, vibration. When I went to Nepal, I visited the amazing nuns in the mountains, I had a chance to go to monasteries, I got a chance to meditate. It was an amazing reset button, for sure.
Q: A 2021 Fugees reunion was cancelled, but you and Lauryn Hill performed at this year’s Essence Festival. What hopes should Fugees fans have of seeing you reunite? What does the future hold?
A: I think it’s a good future. We told the fans we really were ready to go. When the COVID happened, it was real… All I can do is tell fans to buckle up and big things are definitely ahead.
Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival
When: Sept. 1 to 5
Tickets and info: montgolfieresgatineau.com
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