An Immigrant’s Story / By Wyclef Jean with Anthony Bozza
Illustrated. 250 pp. It Books/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.
By BAZ DREISINGER
Published: October 19, 2012
Boy grows up in the ’hood. Boy discovers crime; boy learns hip-hop. Boy gets signed, grows famous, garners girls and moves to the burbs — yet retains requisite authenticity acquired from said ’hood. Boy, aided by co-author, writes memoir.
So goes the habitual hip-hop bio-narrative.
So Wyclef Jean’s narrative does not go. This Haitian rapper’s life story begins with eating dirt — literally — in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and ends with a presidential bid. His memoir’s curious title is telling: many artists, selecting a précis for the span of their careers, might forgo “purpose” for one of hip-hop’s revered R’s — “real” or “rich.” His subtitle is even more telling: over and above a hip-hop story, Wyclef’s is “an immigrant’s story.”
That is what makes it a gem. This escapade-filled memoir — short on revelations or scintillating tone, but brimming with droll yarns — delivers a narrative that often gets short shrift in hip-hop historiography: a diasporic one. And considering how many hip-hop icons have Caribbean backgrounds — from Kool Herc and the Notorious B.I.G. (Jamaica) to Big Pun (Puerto Rico), Shyne (Belize) and Nicki Minaj (Trinidad) — that border-crossing narrative is vital to the music’s roots and culture. Hip-hop is a classic American rags-to-riches saga, yes, but it’s also a postcolonial immigrant story — as much Henry Roth as Horatio Alger.
Fittingly, “Purpose” opens with Wyclef saving babies. No, really; after the earthquake in Haiti, the rapper high-tailed it to his homeland to mourn and do his part: “That day Haiti was gone and Wyclef Jean was a ghost. I was a man, any man, on a ruined street, staring into an abyss.” He takes us back to his upbringing in Duvalier-era Haiti, where he was born Jeannel Wyclef Jean in 1972. “I am named after a holy man and a rebel,” he says: John Wycliffe, the 14th-century Lollard preacher who initiated the first complete English translation of the Bible. When their son was still very young, Wyclef’s parents left him and his brother with relatives and moved to America in search of that proverbial dream; after an “anchor baby” cemented their immigration status, they collected their sons and eventually settled in East Orange, N.J.
The book, written with the journalist Anthony Bozza, fits the model of traditional American immigrant literature. At the heart of it is the strict old-world father: a preacher who called hip-hop “bum music” and “never understood the possibility that the music could do more than just celebrate the lowlife.” Wyclef’s musical outlet was the church, where he and his siblings became “a Haitian-American Partridge Family” and then “the Beatles of the church bands in New Jersey,” slyly smuggling secular music onto sacred ground by peppering popular rock songs with Jesus references.
Vivid vignettes like these lend “Purpose” its charm; though they’re delivered in a bland, overly ghostwritten voice, Wyclef has enough childhood adventure stories for a G-rated sitcom. Hunting birds in Haiti, fending off neighborhood bullies by faking a Voodoo ritual, coming wide-eyed to America (the white pilot and stewardesses seemed like “aliens” with special powers, and the airport, a Tower of Babel: “J.F.K. was America, and all I kept asking my brother and mother was, ‘Where is everybody going?’ ”) — it’s “Huck Finn,” Creole style.
By age 17, Wyclef wore multiple musical hats — in church bands, the school jazz and choir bands, and a rap group — but hip-hop was more than mere music. In the context of “Go back to Jamaica” jeers — all Caribbean immigrants were derisively lumped into one category — and “Haitian Day,” when Wyclef says African-American youths beat up Haitians, it was a mechanism of both assimilation and ambassadorship: “It was about earning a place of equality for all of my Haitian brothers and sisters in school.” And soon, it was about breaking the rap mold. In a studio in his uncle’s basement, Wyclef and two New Jersey neighbors, Pras Michel and Lauryn Hill, became the Fugees, who “sold over 15 million copies but released just one major-label album” — a classic, “The Score.” The college-educated, musically diverse, diaspora-minded Fugees represented something radical. “We showed the world that kids like us could sing passionate songs. We could smile, make love and be happy,” Wyclef writes. “Hip-hop didn’t have to be about thug life; it could be just about life.”
Fueling the Fugees was hip-hop’s most storied, stormy love affair, between Wyclef and Hill, the ingénue. Their tale is every bit the telenovela: what began as a mentorship became an intense artistic bond — “She became my muse; she became this creative chariot” — and a torrid on-again-off-again affair involving infidelity, dramatic fights on airplanes, a child who turned out not to be his, and the constant presence of the woman who eventually became Wyclef’s wife. “I was torn between the impossible love affair, the whirlwind artist romance and the solid, good woman who demanded respect.”
“Purpose” is too cursory when it comes to Wyclef’s rich relationship with Haiti: his pioneering concerts there; the scandal surrounding his nonprofit organization, Yéle Haiti, accused of financial mishandling but, he claims, ultimately absolved by CNN and other investigators; his presidential bid, thrown out owing to residency requirements; his endorsement of the current president, Michel Martelly. But the memoir climaxes with a powerful reconciliation. When Wyclef’s father finally attends a Fugees concert and praises his son, who once told him that performing music, telling stories onstage, was “just like what you do in your sermons,” it’s a potent, ironic moment, endemic to immigrant literature. For all his labor to forge a new path, the rebellious son ultimately becomes a new-world remix — to use hip-hop-speak — of the old-world father. And it’s also, conveniently, hip-hop history in a nutshell: the old-school past, reincarnated in a thrillingly new-school sound.
Baz Dreisinger, an associate professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is the director of the college’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program.