Wyclef Jean Talks 'Carnival III,' Donald Trump & If He Regrets Running for President in Haiti

Wyclef Jean
Katie Piper + Karl Ferguson Jr

Wyclef Jean turned a summer Friday in the Hamptons into a private fiesta for the celebration of his forthcoming album Carnival III: Road to Clefication. The former Fugees frontman sported an elaborate white headdress while pounding on the drums and mingling with his guests, a mix of journalists, tastemakers, Heads Music label reps and guests of the lavish Hamptons mansion owners, before performing a late-night set that included his feel-good dance number "My Girl" featuring Sasha Mari.

Attendees zoned out to Carnival III with individual headphones, either laying out poolside or flocking to the private beach. Beyond "My Girl," Jean strummed his pain and joy with songs like "Hendrix," his latest single that tackles the temptations of a rock-star lifestyle; "Rich Girl," an infectious tune co-starring Pusha T; "Thank God for the Culture," a soulful thank you to hip-hop; and the uplifting finale "Carry On." After the sunny listening session, Billboard sat down with Jean to discuss his early carnival memories, current events, his stance on Trump and that time he ran for president in Haiti. 

Wyclef Jean Explains 'Carnival III' Collaborations, Making 'Acoustic Trap' & His Hopes for Fugees Reunion

Describe your first memory attending a carnival.

[My] first memory of a carnival is a place of escape. My first actual carnival as a kid was in Coney Island, Brooklyn. People think he's from the West Indies, but no, it's like my first memory -- when you come to America and go to a carnival. It's like being in a magical world as a kid. I saw a lot of clowns, people on stilts and circus women. I went on a roller coaster, I saw people on stilts. I saw the circus women and the girls flipping. I wanted to flip them then I wanted to go to gymnastics after that.

What is it about a carnival that made it a muse for your music? 

The carnival is a space where it doesn't have a cover and it can't be linked to any form of music. It's an eclectic zone of costumes, culture and people altogether. For example, Mexico and Cinco De Mayo, you attribute that. If you could actually take footage from all places in the world and put them together, it would still equal "carnival" because that's a place where there's no color. It just is. 

What was different about making Carnival III versus your previous two offerings?

I dropped the ball on Carnival II. I felt it could've been bigger because I was getting into politics. I was starting to shift away from music for a minute. So after I did "Sweetest Girl," I shifted into [running for president of] Haiti. I think with Carnival I, there was definitely a focus -- my picture of how I see the world. With Carnival III, it was like the world back to Clefication. It was like I saw all roots leading back to music. After everything I've been through, it's like music still has that power to heal. Then it just pours out naturally because it's the whole undertone of a carnival. Marvin Gaye had the song "What's Going On" and the whole thing with this album, it felt like where's the love? People forgot we're supposed to be having a good time with all this killing and everything.

Did you feel like you needed to make an uplifting album because of the tragedies being covered in the news?

In a non-calculated way, I just felt like we have to uplift ourselves. I'm tired of people saying, "Oh, somebody just got killed. Somebody has cancer." Even the person with cancer is like, "Sing me an uplifting song!" So the idea of this [album] is definitely uplifting but at the same time it still reminds... Like the last song of the album is called "Carry On." No matter what we do, we gotta carry on. And then on the bonus track "Hey Joe," I'm singing, "Hey Joe, where you goin with that gun?" And it's still like, yo, this is reality, and we can't run from realities -- we gotta spread them. I just felt like I wanted to make music to make you escape for a second. 

Do you feel music is going in the direction that it should be?

I look at my daughter -- she's 11. She listens to Wyclef and inspired "My Girl" but at the same time, she listens to [Desiigner's] "Panda" and knows every lyric. She listens to Coldplay and knows Coldplay. I just think what happens is when people like us are on our trail and we're coming back and we say we wanna do another album for the generation, the key is to do something so when Desiigner hears it, he gets inspired; so when Chance the Rapper hears it, he gets inspired; so when Drake hears it, they get inspired, because they grew up loving the sport.

When people like us from the '90s decide that we're gonna come back, we have to be like, "You don't have to change who you are -- you can still be you." Like on "Hendrix," dudes like yo, he trappin' on guitar, Clef sounds like Future with no Auto-Tune or it's like Future sounds like Clef with Auto-Tune. It opens the conversation for the kids. 

Why did you place Pusha T on "Rich Girl"? 

I'm a big fan of Pusha T. Pusha T is like Miles Davis to me -- the rap is just raw and real. It's new with the trumpet as you hear it [on the song]. I wanted to put that contrast with his voice, and the contrast just sounded incredible. 

Listening to your album, it feels like you were making a lot of music for a special bae, like "For A Man." Do you always feel the need to cater to women when you make music? 

Always! I mean that's a must. I come from a woman -- she's first. A woman is beautiful, she's always gotta hear that she's the one and you have to pay that acknowledgment. It's just, as a man, it's important. Men need to hear certain things too. I be talking for the dudes too that wanna hear something, but you know, the record "For A Man" is just telling women like yeah, you are doing the right thing. It's cool to be doing things for your man -- live for your man, die for your man, love your man, hire a stripper, put a pole in the middle, spend that money, get your freak goin', so you can remix it. 

One line from your album that stuck out was "Where I'm from, the good die young." Was there a specific incident, whether it was the recent Orlando shootings or police brutality cases across America, that made you head straight to the studio?

I'm always in the studio. You get inspired at certain moments, though. I would say a lot of different moments. When I saw what was going on in Baltimore, I went in and knew I had to do something. What's going on in Orlando, even just the gator story, and before that, the gorilla story, it's deep because you see all of that debate and talk. I'm a nerd and thought I was gonna be a judge but when you see the talk about the gorilla and then they had to take the gorilla out, it was a sad thing but if that gorilla had gotten scared in, he would've smashed that kid's brains out in seconds. We have all of these things happening in the world ... The shootings -- there's no words for that. We've seen it countless times, over and over again, on Obama's watch. I'm like one of those very militant [people] and a realist. I don't have any facade or hype -- it's just me. I understand gun control is very important but at the same time, it scares me because I think the mercenaries already have the guns and that they hide them in their basements somewhere. I see so many cowardly acts where so many innocent people are constantly caught out there with no firearms or no nothing. That makes me emotional because what happens if I'm in my crib and somebody just popped up on me, which these days is the number one possibility. Cowards like to approach people like that. That's why they're cowards. I just think we need more love in the world, and at the same time, we're approaching dangerous times. And during dangerous times, we gotta stick together.

What do you remember about running for president in Haiti? Do you regret that? Do you feel like you could've done more? 

I never regret anything because you know they say whatever don't kill you, make you stronger. I did shake Mandela's hand. I spent time with him. When people saw me with the Fugees wrapping that [Haitian] flag around me, I wasn't another rapper that wanted to speak from an emotional place. It's that same energy that made me feel like I could run for president. When I decided I was gonna run, I was gonna win when they did the data analytics. They used every power they could possibly restore to take me out. This is not Kanye saying one man having all that power -- it's not a song, not in pop culture. I'm one man who had all that power for real, like with one button, I could explode the country with five million Haitians with guns ready to blow up the place for whatever I say but I understood that the true ideology is not to let your ego get in the way. Egos will destroy mankind so I never did it for myself -- I did it for the people. If you do something for someone, you can't be mad if they throw rocks at you or they take you to a cross, you already accepted that they were gonna do that. You keep your eyes open and you await the resurrection because you already know it was over for yourself. Everything that I do for my people, I was doing for my people. At the end of the day, I just want the youth to get their share -- free education and the opportunity to work. 

Who are you voting for in this crazy 2016 election? 

Bernie Sanders had the right message. The youth just have to be reminded that they the ones with the power and that's what Bernie reminded us of. [In 2015], people were saying, "Yo, you were dissing Trump on stage" and I say no I wasn't dissing Trump, I was just making my political voice heard. I could never be in a position to support someone who thinks a minority group of people are all a certain way, because once you do that, you're targeting me, you're targeting Mexicans, you're targeting all of us. The reason the United States of America, the land of immigrants, is so special is because it takes all of us together and we become America. Everyone can see at this point that Trump is just an egomaniac. We definitely gotta make sure that we vote. 

You've also been working hand-in-hand with Heads Music and Heads Audio. 

I'm just excited about this new label and all the young artists on Heads Music. Also, while you're listening to my album, you're hearing different sound effects through a software that I'm building called Super stereo. Heads [Audio] has partnered up with creative technology in labs out of Singapore. This is crazy shit, so me, scientists and the head of Creative Labs, we got together. I was crazy and wanted to take everything that was stereo and turn it to Super stereo. One day, a man said we gonna take black and white TV and turn it into color. Another man comes out and says, "I wanna take color and turn it into high def." That's what I was doing with sound. I also got with [Heads CEO] Madeline Nelson and her thing was to build artist development from scratch. She has all these incredible artists, and so I came and was like, "Look, partner up with me on my software and we can do this! This music is gonna be your Smokey Robinson." And she said, "Oh, that means you'll sign to the label!" 


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