'Wyclef Jean Is a Carnival'

It's hard to get much bigger than the Fugees were in 1996. But when the Grammy-winning hip-hop phenomenon started to languish, it was founding member Wyclef Jean who emerged as one of the genre's most consistently eccentric and compelling voices. The native Haitian, who emigrated to Brooklyn, N.Y., at the age of 9, has crafted a hip-hop catalog infused (some critics allege rather messily) with Caribbean beats, reggae rhythms and African accents. A prolific producer, he has also collaborated with the likes of Whitney Houston, Santana and Destiny's Child. In 2001 he became the first rapper to raise the vaunted roof at Carnegie Hall.

But even for a man with a resume as varied as Clef's, this has been a banner year. In October he released his fifth solo album, "Welcome to Haiti: Creole 101," a raucous shape-shifting tribute to his motherland. Last week he launched Yele Haiti, a nonprofit aid group raising money to rebuild hurricane-damaged schools in slum areas, with a concert in New York. He has also teamed up with the United Nations World Food Program to release a music video for his Creole song, "Gonaives," to raise money for Haitians. And just this week Jean learned that he was nominated for a Golden Globe award for his African-flavored "Million Voices," a song that appears on the "Hotel Rwanda" soundtrack. But after the Fugees held a surprise September reunion concert at a Dave Chappelle-hosted block party in Brooklyn, the question on everyone's mind is when they'll hit the studio again. Clef answered that, and more, in a recent conversation with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You're having a good week.

Wyclef Jean: Great week, man.

Tell me about the Golden Globe nomination. How does it feel?

It feels incredible to get a Golden Globe nomination. I feel like I'm just getting inside the music industry again.

You felt like you were on the outside?

Yeah sometimes you'll be doing so much that sometimes it can get discouraging. When you try to do real music, it don't sell. So sometimes it gets frustrating and you're like, "Yo, am I doing the right thing?"

What do you mean by real music?

Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Billie Holiday. To date everything that we're playing sounds good, but we're still sampling a lot of the old music. That tells you how good the music was back then. So I'm making new music.

You're up against Mick Jagger and Andrew Lloyd Webber, among others. Do you think you have a shot at this Globe award?

No, I don't think I have a shot. But just to be nominated, I get to wear my suit down the aisle.

How about an Oscar nod? There's some buzz that this song may be nominated.

This is how I'll have a shot at the Golden Globe and the Oscar nomination: you better say "Wyclef sung the best song, and I want y'all to vote for it!"

Talk a little about the benefit concerts you've been doing for Haiti. Have you been there recently?

I haven't been down there in a month and a half, but we're campaigning from the States, raising money. Next summer we plan to go out there and do a concert, which we canceled Dec 5. We had our own Yele Haiti concert we were going to do. We've been doing a few fund-raisers here in the States. There's going to be a lot of them. The objective is to raise a few million dollars and the focus is education, health, entrepreneurship and environment.

How much have you raised so far?

I can't jinx myself till next summer. By next summer we should have a sum of money that we're able to announce and say what we're going to do about it.

Are there any Haitian artists you're watching or musicians you're looking at producing?

There's a kid in Haiti by the name of Gracia Delva. He's one of the most incredible singers in Haiti and one of the most popular. People are thirsting for him in the States. What I plan to do early next year is to do three big fund-raisers where Yele Haiti brings him to New York City.

You've sampled music and worked in genres from all over the world. Is there a style of music that you haven't done that you're interested in doing next?

I like the world music, like when I did the "Hotel Rwanda" song. It just shows me that I have a catalog where I can just sing songs now. I think a whole album like that is pretty incredible.

Why did it take you so long then to do a whole Haiti album?

It has to be the right time. It has to be a time where you as an artist feel comfortable enough where you can do something in another language, your own language. You're not necessarily worried about record sales, but you're more worried about moving the population. You have to pay your dues first.

You did a Fugees get-together in September. Do you have plans for a reunion or working with them again?

I hope so. Man, I think it's going to be as mysterious as Dave Chappelle's block party.

One of the criticisms about you is that you're so ambitious and eclectic that you risk spreading yourself thin or getting messy will all the different styles of music. How do you respond to that?

You live once, you know? Unfortunately the average person lives up to 65. What you have to do is to make sure that when you're on earth you leave as many great things behind [as you can]. Thelonious Monk used to be playing in the club and they'd be like, "Why is he playing off key." And that is the music that everybody studies today. So Wyclef Jean is a carnival. It is a collage of sound that will last for over a million years.