Musician and statesman Wyclef Jean visited Penn on Feb. 24 to speak about his experience moving to the United States from Haiti, how he pivoted his career over time, and advice for creating tangible change in the world.
After achieving success as a part of the hip hop group Fugees, Jean has acted in television and movies, been involved with Haitian politics, and launched a solo music career — performing at Penn's Spring Fling in 2004. After speaking with over 100 students at the Wharton School, Jean sat down with The Daily Pennsylvanian to talk more about his perspective on the issues that college students face at Penn.
1. How to adapt to moving somewhere new
While he was born in Haiti in 1969, Jean moved to New Jersey — by way of New York — with his family when he was 9 years old. Although leaving home for college presents a variety of challenges, Jean said that moving away from what you know is always difficult.
“You have to understand that is going to be hard,” Jean said. "I don't want you to take the word hard as, ‘man, this is disastrous,’ but it is going to be hard in the sense of missing where you are from.”
Reflecting on his experience within his own family, Jean said that cell phones and the internet have helped people’s ability to stay in touch over long distances.
“The technology definitely helped, but, at the same time, don't have fear of going out, talking to people, and making new friends. Get into the energy,” Jean said. “Remember, life is about adventure, and without adventure, you don't have life.”
2. The importance of reflecting on your roots
Even after leaving Haiti as a child, Jean said that he still sees it as his duty to advocate for the people and the country. He has focused on raising relief funds for those affected by earthquakes in the country, and in 2010, Jean unsuccessfully attempted to run for president in Haiti.
“It’s that cliche phrase: You don't know where you're going, unless you know where you're from,” Jean said. “When I came to America and people asked where I was from, I say, 'I'm from Haiti by way of Africa’ because that is important to who I am.”
Jean said that he recommends that people create change within their own communities because that is where the biggest impact can come from. During the Wharton event, Jean talked about how he was able to encourage members of his community to find creative outlets.
“I was able to inform the crowd because I am from the crowd,” Jean said at the event on Friday with Wharton Executive MBA candidates. “In order for me to take the gun out of your hand and replace it with a guitar, I have to have had my own gun in my hand.”
3. Start small when tackling big problems
When it comes to creating a new project from scratch or addressing systemic issues with his work, Jean said that it is essential to break the idea down into more manageable portions.
“Start small, and deal with the problems one at a time,” Jean said. "If you solve one part, you can solve two.”
A big part of creating change, according to Jean, is being true to yourself. He said that if he had only created the music that people expected and wanted from him instead of the music that he was passionate about creating, he would have lost relevance a long time ago.
4. There is no need to jump into making life decisions
Jean recalled how he felt pressure from his parents to become a doctor from a young age. He said that he understands that young people still feel this pressure today.
For his own daughter, Jean said that he tries to make sure that she knows that she has time and can change her mind later in life.
“You have the resources and everything you need to succeed,” Jean said. “It starts with the confidence within yourself and a will to do what you want to do. Be selfish for yourself please.”