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Citizen Schools Students Interview Wyclef Jean

Diana Levine for AOL

Sixth- and seventh-grade students at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters prepared for weeks to interview Grammy winner Wyclef Jean. As part of the students’ Citizen Schools “Press Pass” apprenticeship, taught in partnership with volunteers from AOL Music, students learned how to research their subject, compose interesting questions, conduct themselves like professional journalists, then take their interview and turn it into a compelling story.

Jean was an ideal subject for the students’ long-awaited interview, sharing his colorful childhood and messages of inspiration to push the kids to reach for their goals. And even Wyclef had to pause to reflect on how well-prepared the students were to speak with him. “Who wrote these questions,” he asked. “These are better than what adults give me!”

Read the students’ full interview with Jean below, plus check out the BoomBox‘s heartwarming account of the afternoon the kids spent with the multi-talented star.

Isabella: At what age did you want a music career, and what was going on at that time?

Wyclef Jean: How old are you?

Isabella: We’re 11 and 12.

Wyclef Jean: Twelve, that’s good. When I was 11 years old, I started playing guitar. See, this is the age where y’all got to start it out.

Isabella: What musicians inspired you as a kid?

Wyclef Jean: There’s an artist called Jimi Hendrix. There’s a real cool artist named Bob Dylan. Y’all should check Bob Dylan out; he’s really cool. Some people might be like, “We don’t understand a thing he’s saying, Clef,” ’cause he sounds like this. [Imitates Dylan] But, if you could get past that tone, he says some stuff. [Also] artists like Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone.

Bryonna: Do you remember what you were doing when you were 11 and 12?

Wyclef Jean: Yeah, I was getting a whooping by my moms! Eleven and 12 years old in Brooklyn, I was in [Public School] 199, and I was just trying to figure out how to speak English, ’cause I couldn’t even speak English yet. So I was talking with the accent, very slow, trying to figure it out. I wasn’t bilingual at the time, and there was a class that would teach you English. So, that’s what I was doing at 11 and 12.

Bryonna: Was it hard when you were little because your father was a minister?

Wyclef Jean: Yeah. Who wrote these questions? These questions are good. These are better than what adults give me! Yeah, definitely. I would say when you’re the son or daughter of a minister, you get the extra pressure on you — like all eyes are on you. Every little thing that you do, they’re judging you for it. So, you got to look past it and look at yourself. At the end of the day, just know that God made you, so you can be your own individual and don’t let people give you that peer pressure.

Legacy: Do you like being a rapper/producer/singer? Which one do you like the most, and why?

Wyclef Jean: Well, when I rap I get to express myself in a way where putting words together is like poetry, and sometimes it’s better to talk in certain expressions than sing, you know? So I love, I love to rhyme when I want to express certain things. Singing [comes] naturally because I’m from the church. I would say producing and performing are my favorites. I love to produce artists — singing and writing. I’ll give you a cool example. When I was your age — not much older than you — I remember they said, “Clef, we want you to produce this group,” right? I get to the hotel where this group is staying and I said, “What’s the name of y’all?” They was like, “Our name is Destiny’s Child.” I said, “Let me hear y’all sing,” and they was like, “What do you want us to sing?” [I said,] “Sing a church song,” and the vocalist started singing. You know who that was?

Citizen Schools students: (Together) Beyonce!

Wyclef Jean: Beyonce. So, I always like the idea of when groups are not that popular yet, and you get to produce music for them and watch how they evolve to grow into these big bands. [It] is always a cool thing.

Legacy: Who are you influenced by and why?

Wyclef Jean: I’m influenced by my dad and my mom. [Wyclef mocks himself] “That’s corny, man. Tell me who you really influenced by!” But I say my dad because I just watched him work hard. He came to this country and he did everything he can. He used to work in the snow — anything he can just to make sure there was food on the table for us. And I would say my mom, ’cause my mom’s cool. Whenever I would get in trouble with my dad, my mom would always save me. So that’s why I like my mom — she cool.

Legacy: How do you think you influence adults and kids?

Wycelf Jean: If you see me do it, you know you can do it. Whenever you want to accomplish something, nine times out of 10 it usually starts off with, “OK, I want to do this, but can I really do it?” So, I think I influence certain people, inspire them. You know, there’s people that work in fast food restaurants — like I used to work at Burger King. So think about that. There’s probably a kid right now working at Burger King, and he’ll probably be on the side writing his little rhyme while he’s fixing you this burger. And the manager be like, “What you doin’, man? Shouldn’t you be fixing that burger?” [And he says,] “Yeah, yeah, I’m fixing the burger, but I’m writing a rhyme.” [And the boss says,] “Writing a rhyme? You need to go make another burger!” So in his mind, he like “Man, I’m gonna be workin’ at Burger King,” but he be like, “Nah, ’cause Wyclef used to work at Burger King and look where he at.” So, I always use like these little scenarios, these events, so you understand how close we human beings are. We’re really on the same level as much as you. All you got to do, if you really could not only dream it but really believe it’s a reality, and you can accomplish it.

Justine: How does it feel to be so accomplished?

Wyclef Jean: I really ain’t accomplished nothing yet. The day you get comfortable, you know that’s the day you feel you have nothing else to do. Right? I feel more like [I'm] working towards my accomplishment. There’s a lot more that I want to do for my country and help those people get out of the situation that they’re in right now. So for me, that’s more the focus, but when I look back at my wall of music and plaques of everybody I worked with, it’s a real cool feeling to see generations, you know? I could start off with the Fugees on my wall and end up with T.I. I think that’s cool.

Justine: Do you think you’ve changed because of your music career?

Wyclef Jean: I would say to an extent, I definitely changed. I remember when I was in high school, I asked a girl out to the prom. She told me she would go with me — I wasn’t as swag as I am now, though. Clef is swagged up now. But back then, even though I rhyme and everything, I was more on the geeky side, you feel me? And she was like, “I’ll go to the prom with you, Wyclef Gene.” So I’m like, “My name Wyclef Jean.” She’s like, “Okay, Wyclef Jean.” The day the prom comes, I get ready. I throw on a nice tuxedo, go pick her up [and] she not there. I had a LTD station wagon, an old station wagon. It was like a scene from ‘Napoleon Dynamite.’ So, I get to the prom [and] she’s there with a basketball player. And I’m like, “One day you’ll see. You’ll see. One day I’m going to be famous.” She’s like, “Whatever.” Years later, I’m back in that same neighborhood — got my shades on, nice car — and I see her. She’s like, “Hi!!” I’m like, “Hi…” I completely changed. So, karma is important. You always have to treat people nice; you never know where anyone is going to end up.

Taylor: You were born in Haiti. How did you react to the earthquake?

Wyclef Jean: When the earthquake hit I was devastated. Because I was so devastated, I got on a plane and I went right to Haiti, like in 24 hours. So think about it — I’m running into the earthquake. When I got to Haiti, I was still feeling the aftershocks, and the aftershocks still felt terrifying. All I thought about was, what happened to the people that was actually there before I was there? There [were] 250,000 people under the rubble. I got there, [and] you walk into a city and everyone in the city is just dead. But even though there was a dark side, I still always remember helping one little girl. I helped her out the rubble and I was like, “Where’s your mom?” [She said,] “My mom’s still under there.” I’m like, “Where’s your brother?” [She said,] “My brother still under there.” But she was like, “Maybe God sent you to get me out of there.” And she smiled, you feel me?

Taylor: How was your family affected by the earthquake?

Wyclef Jean: I had family that … I lost family in the quake, and also some of my best friends. Two of my best friends I lost in the earthquake; they died.

Sydney: I heard that you’re releasing an EP. Can you tell us more about it?

Wyclef Jean: The EP is six songs coming out on iTunes. It’s called ‘The Haitian Experience.’ The EP is just basically everything you’ve been seeing on TV for the past two months that I’ve been going through. If you was like, “If I could ask Wyclef a question,” I talk about it all on the EP. It starts off with this song called “The Haitian Experience” where I talk about coming to the States and how that was. I got another joint on there called “The Earthquake,” and earthquake is not just earthquake in Haiti — it’s Chile, Indonesia, and what would you do if the earthquake came to America? What would be our reaction? So we should start planning for disasters before they happen. So, the EP is supposed to lead you into the album next summer which is ‘The Haitian Experience.’

Sydney: How did Haiti inspire you to write the songs on the EP?

Wyclef Jean: The songs on the EP [are] the experience of the world. It’s sort of like, what’s my experience? Leaving Haiti at nine years old, coming to Brooklyn, then moving to New Jersey, then making it big, then traveling the world. And then taking the dream back to Haiti. That’s what the album’s about.

Sydney: Why did you want to become president of Haiti?

Wyclef Jean: I wanted to become the president of Haiti because when I looked at what has been going on in Haiti in the time from when my dad was leaving Haiti up to now, I feel that the population of the youth — over 52% of the population — has not been included in Haiti. The only way that I felt that the international community will pay attention to the 52% of this generation that is not really included in anything was if I ran for president, and could have been the voice of the youth.

Sydney: What are some of your future plans?

Wyclef Jean: I’m going to put this album out. We’re gonna do a big tour around it, so I’ll make sure I come and play in Brooklyn. I’ll play early too, so y’a'll can see me. On the ground, continuing working with Haiti. Continuing working with the foundation Yele Haiti, and continuing helping the Haitian people while I’m alive.

Citizen SchoolsReporting by Citizen Schools “Press Pass” Apprentices: Helen Bauer, Carl Brown, Bryonna Charles, Taylor Clark, Courtney Douglas, Ahmad Grinnage, Alanna Grinnage, Alyssa Grinnage, Campbell Harding, Lauryn Jean-Pierre, Tatiana Jones, Shakyra Lipscomb, Sydney Lyte, Ashley Mitchell, Essence Nipper, Isabella Oliva, Legacy Perrin, Justine Watkins, Eric Wefald

Citizen Schools “Press Pass” Teaching Fellow: Amy Parker

Citizen Schools “Press Pass” Citizen Teachers from AOL: Gaylord Fields, Tracey Ford, Melissa Olund

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