It's been 40 years now since Wyclef Jean and his family emigrated here from his native Haiti, going from Croix-des-Bouquets to Brooklyn in the late 1970s. He arrived there as a child, at a time when New York City was going through musical shifts that would quickly spread around the world. Punk rock and disco were just beginning to yield market share to the first generation of rappers and DJs; within 15 years, he and his friends would themselves be central players in that scene, and today he's regarded as an elder statesman, looking outward to new musical ventures.
One of these ventures occurs on Saturday night, March 10, when Wyclef Jean performs at Daily's Place, in collaboration with the Jacksonville Symphony. Conductor Courtney Lewis will lead the musicians in support as Wyclef runs the gamut of his vast musical output. The three-time Grammy winner released his ninth and 10th solo albums last year, including Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee.
Wyclef Jean is best known, of course, as a member of the Fugees, among the best-selling rap groups of all-time, two decades after their commercial peak, moving at least 22 million units since 1996. He is also remembered for his highly controversial candidacy for president of Haiti in 2010, which began and ended under somewhat bizarre circumstances and occurred in response to the catastrophic earthquake there in January of that year, one of the most deadly natural disasters in human history. Jean remains highly active in the internal politics of his homeland. He exchanged emails with Folio Weekly recently.
You are known for ripping many, many mics on the daily. But exactly how many mics? Is there a set number of mics to be ripped on the daily, or does it change depending on your schedule?
Well, the idea of ripping mics on the daily is a penmanship exercise of rhyming where we write 16 bars a day at least. So, all the way up to today, every day, I have 16 bars in my head of new content.
Have you performed in Jacksonville?
Yes, I've played in Jacksonville, but this is going to be the first time I rock with the orchestra.
How long had you wanted to put together symphonic renditions of your work?
For me, I'm no stranger to orchestra music. The first time I put an orchestra together was the Philharmonic Orchestra for my single, "Gone 'Til November." I was the first rap artist to ever perform in Carnegie Hall with an orchestra. My love for the orchestra goes back to high school ... my music teacher had me discover two forms of music, jazz and classical, and then taught me how to write sheet music. I fell in love with the composers George and Ira Gershwin and Quincy Jones, and it's been off to the races since then.
As a vocalist, are there any challenges to performing these songs in front of an orchestra, as opposed to their traditional arrangements? Do you have to vocalize differently?
No, you vocalize the same. It's just the composition within the structure of the orchestra ... you write the composition around the vocals, not the vocals around the composition.
Out of all your songs, which ones do you think come across as really special when performed in this style?
I think Live Nation's "Symphonic Hip Hop," in general, is a body of work that always works great with orchestra music when it's done right. So I don't have one particular record, but I think it's a body of work that comes off well.
Have you heard the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra before? How do you like them?
I heard of them, I've listened to them, and I think they're great. It's going to be very funky.
How has the process of collaboration-across genres and cultures-changed you since you began in the music industry in the late '80s? What from those experiences bubbled over into the other spheres of your life?
I attack music from the point of view of a composer first. In my brain, I never look at it as a collaboration, I look at it like I'm about to write Porgy and Bess. I think about who's best for the cast. Music is an ongoing learning experience. We can't never stop learning. Like, what I love most about music today is, this is what I wanted to do in the early '90s. I didn't understand why I couldn't put out a hip hop album, a country album, a reggae album, a jazz album out, all at the same time. That's why I love this era.
What can America do to do a better job helping the people of Haiti?
The way Americans can help the people of Haiti is through legislation and policies. Haiti doesn't need aid, it needs more entrepreneurship. The idea of how do we transform aid into better policy, better legislation is what we go for.
How do you feel about the recent reports of misconduct by Oxfam staff in Haiti? Had you heard about any of that from your contacts?
I'm saddened and disturbed by the report.
Your current tour itinerary keeps you on the road through at least May. Will you be gone 'til November?
For sure, I'll be gone 'til November.
A Night of Symphonic Hip Hop featuring Wyclef Jean, 8 p.m. March 10, Daily's Place, EverBank Field, $25-$198, jaxsymphony.org