On the eve of one of the biggest events of Wyclef Jean's career — Friday's benefit for his Wyclef Jean Foundation at Carnegie Hall in New York, where he and Eric Clapton will duet on a new song Wyclef wrote — the soulful rapper held out a slim branch of hope that his group the Fugees might resume recording together.
"The vibe is definitely getting better,'' Wyclef said about the Fugees, who haven't released an album since 1996's groundbreaking The Score. "We're going to know what we're going to do by the summer, definitely.''
The members of New Jersey's Fugees — including Lauryn Hill and Prakazrel "Pras'' Michel — have gone on to solo success since The Score. There's been much speculation about infighting among members of the group.
But a Fugees reunion is not foremost on Wyclef's mind at the moment. The musician is set to lead a stellar lineup that includes Whitney Houston, Eric Clapton, Destiny's Child, Third World and Clef's Kids — a group of young musicians who will benefit from the concert — at the fabled Manhattan theater.
Wyclef hopes to raise $250,000 from the show, which will be a review of musical eras from the 1930s to the present. He has written a new song for the event, which he and Clapton plan to perform together.
"Selling all those records and having all those Grammys ... none of that matches up to seeing the kids play,'' Wyclef said. "Because when you see the kids play, you get this feeling on the inside of you that you've changed someone's life. That's ... the best feeling in the world, because that's the feeling that leaves with you when you die.''
Wyclef, whose recording career started with the 1994 Fugees album, Blunted on Reality, integrates R&B, soul, rock and Caribbean sounds to create a distinctive musical blend.
"He's a real collaborator, who has created a whole different shine to the music,'' New York urban-music impresario B. Bernard Brown said. "Everybody loves Wyclef, and that's hot. He's like a Stevie Wonder.''
His latest release is his solo album of last year, The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book, which includes "It Doesn't Matter," featuring wrestler the Rock and Melky Sedeck, the latter a duo comprising his siblings.
"Me being a black kid growing up in America, I go do a show and they label me a hip-hopper, a rap kid,'' Wyclef said. "Then I get the guitar and I start wailing, and certain people look at it like a culture shock: 'Wow, we didn't know people from the ghetto can do that!'
"So right there, you enlighten people. The stereotype some people have is no longer there.''
On the political front, Wyclef's "Diallo," from The Ecleftic, laments the death of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo at the hands of New York police. The song is only one of the politically fused stances Wyclef has taken in his career, another being his hit song with Carlos Santana, "Maria, Maria.''
Regarding that song, Wyclef said, "If you break down the lyrics and analyze it: 'Stop the looting, stop the shooting, pickpockets on the corner, the rich is getting richer, while the poor are getting poorer,' you have to be like, 'Oh, this kid is insane! Here he is creating a pop song and, lyrically, he keeps the lyrics real hard.' ''
The 30-year old was born in Haiti and lived in Brooklyn, New York, until he and his family moved to Newark, New Jersey, when he was 13, and music was his creative outlet.
"All I used to do, man, is music,'' Wyclef said. "Even when things would go down, my cousins would get shot, and I'm supposed to be there, I'm at band rehearsal.''
Another socially conscious New Jersey artist provided Wyclef with inspiration.
"I grew up with the music of Bruce Springsteen,'' he said. "When I was younger, my father used to work at a ... Ramada Inn in Fairfield, New Jersey. We worked Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and the bands that were playing in there, all they did was Bruce Springsteen covers. I just remember cleaning the toilets and listening to 'Born in the U.S.A.' You know, somehow it made me pick up my broom and broom faster, because the voice of this guy sounded like a hardworking man — a construction worker.''
Springsteen, like Wyclef, has sung about the Diallo shooting. The Boss' song drew the ire of police unions when it was performed on his last tour.
Wyclef still identifies with Springsteen's work, which also includes a song about the Diallo shooting, "American Skin (41 Shots).''
"You might call me the hip-hop Bruce Springsteen,'' Wyclef said.