My name is Nel Usted Wyclef Jean. I was born in a small village in Haiti. Man listen to this: I lived in a hut and when I tell my daughter I took a donkey to school she laughs and says “here you go again dad with the donkey story!” Yes, that was my reality. For fun, me and my brother ran around the cemetery when it was raining, chasing lightning and thunder. That was our Coney Island Rollercoaster before we landed in Marlboro projects and went to the real Coney Island. What a culture shock! We went from putting oil in the lamp for light to real electrical poles with city lights! Wow. We went from walking miles to the well to get clean water, to turning on a faucet and water appears – looked like magic to me – but hold up, I didn’t know how to speak English. How was I gonna communicate? Some of my family came over crossing the Cuban waters to Miami, some made it, some died at sea, and now look at me, a refugee in New York City. I had to learn to speak the language.
I will not lie to you, in the beginning I saw drugs in my neighborhood, I could take a gun apart and put it back together like drinking water, and I have shot a few rounds on the project roof. I sold a fiend a Sony Walkman, and in return she gave me a 22!
But thank God for my Momma, she taught me the real weapon was not a gun but my guitar and my voice. In my daddy’s church I was like Eddie Kane from The Five Heartbeats – minus the drugs and the downfall – I’m talking about his swag. Yes, I am a P.K., and some of you are like what does that mean? A P.K. is a Preacher’s Kid! Real talk, the hardest thing was balance for me, because my dad wanted me to be a preacher but the way I learned how to speak English was listening to Hip Hop music. My daddy called it devil music and said I couldn’t serve two masters. I loved my dad to death, so I had to live a double lifestyle with my music for a long time without him knowing. I was a choir boy in the house, and outside the house, I was one of the most feared battle rappers to come out of Vailsburg High School in New Jersey. But one day in Vailsburg High, my life changed when I joined the jazz and chorus program because my choir teacher forced me to do it. I thought rapping was much cooler until I discovered Jazz and realized this is the genesis of it all. Somehow, I learned how to play over seven instruments – don’t ask me how I learned I am still trying to figure it out. Most were self-taught, then I learned how to read sheet music years later. To be honest, I miss those days of practicing my instruments 24/7, but the best thing about what I do when I wake up every day is the discovery of music, to know I played a part in a lot of people’s careers, some big superstars, and continue to discover new talent. I feel that’s part of my calling, but I ask myself sometimes why come back? And, after 100 million albums worth of wok, I can hear Quincy Jones’ voice telling me “your biggest years are ahead of you…”