Wyclef Jean - Then, Now, and Forever.
They say, “if you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the moment.” I find myself looking to the past a lot in my life, more than I should, I admit. Perhaps because I am a very nostalgic person, or perhaps because I can’t let things go, or maybe I’m depressed. Maybe it's the type of artist I am; who tends to write about situations and things that have happened to me in my real life, and as time passes these experiences that I’ve turned into lyrics inevitably always become the past. I would also say that I am very anxious. Constantly worrying and afraid of what my future will be. Clearly, I am not living the moment..
I was hesitant to write about Clef because it felt so long ago, far in the past. I had talked about him so much already throughout my life it felt irrelevant to me now. Over the years so much of my press and interview questions have remained focused around his discovery of me and that time in my early career. I’ve tried to shift the narrative to not feel stuck having his co-sign be my only claim to fame and continually talk about the same old Wycelf story. I even felt embarrassed at times, worried he was annoyed being mentioned in my life still. The other day when my manager and I were thinking of other things for me to write about for my site his name came up. I rolled my eyes and said “I’d think about it.” I thought about writing the same story of how we met, what he taught me, what I learned, what I would have changed if I could go back.. I thought that was too easy and again I had already said all those things. I thought about talking about all the crazy shit I saw on tour with Clef, lil Wayne, & Akon. But, that felt too easy too. Then I didn’t want to write about him at all, and then, I became obsessed with trying to find something else to say about him, something important, just something else. I kept going back to the question - If I am living in the past and living in the future where am I right now? If Clef is a part of my past, is he a part of my future? or more importantly is he a part of my present?
Suddenly, my mind transported back to when I was sitting in the lobby of Platinum Sound Studios with blonde hair in an Abercrombie skirt, waiting for a session I had booked to record vocals for a commercial. A man in a full red tracksuit kept running by the lobby. He was going back and forth between the two main studios. After maybe the fifth time he walked by me he stopped, and said. “Who you waiting for?” I shyly told him about the jingle session and he said. “Why don’t you come wait in the studio with me.” This is the first memory I have of clef, how we first met.
Flash forward, “If you don’t make it, it's not because you’re not beautiful or talented enough, it’s because you don’t know who or what you want as an artist” another memory plays. Clef jumping on my piano during a concert, and as the piano slowly kept rocking away from my fingers I remember thinking, “do I move my bench closer? What do I do?" I found the clip on youtube of this show. Walking out to millions of people night after night that had no idea who I was. Picking girls out of the crowd to come backstage with us. Showcasing for Major Labels, not getting signed twice, meeting Angelina Jolie, partying with Angelina Jolie, being exhausted on planes, singing lil Wayne's verse live when Wayne didn’t make the show, clef coming up to me in the green room and whispering “You don’t have to do it this way.” When you’re the main artist you can have no one backstage before your shows.” Breaking up with my high school boyfriend that we had decided to go to college in NYC to be together, being so angry that Clef didn’t just write me a hit song like he had done for countless artists. Watching him write with Shakira, meeting Lauren Hill, realizing Sweetest Girl was derived from the Wu Tang Clan song C.R.E.A.M, dropping out of my jazz conservatory, fighting with my parents about my career… Jesus Christ. I take a breath and try to stop the memories that are flooding my brain. Why are these all coming up? Because I don’t know what to write about? Because I'm writing about him right now? Is it just me remembering the past? Here I go being nostalgic again..
Memory is such a tricky thing. I read that the brain is not a true recording device, meaning- it can’t recall any moment in time and accurately depict what happened. Memories are heavily influenced and based on feelings we had surrounding the event or experience. Well, fuck me. What does that even mean? Where am I going with this? I pause and think about all these memories and what they might really have been back then and what they mean to me now. I didn’t know where I was going back then. I didn’t know where I even wanted to go. I didn’t know what kind of artist I wanted to be. Hell, I didn’t even know I could be an artist for my job. I didn’t know anything about the music industry. I just re- sang a sample on one of Clef’s songs so he didn’t have to pay for it and suddenly I was somebody. But, perhaps Clef knew where I was going. Perhaps he knew he was preparing me for my future. Maybe he was envisioning my future to give me the best chance of succeeding. Maybe I should ask him.
So I did.
I texted him the other day and we talked on the phone for a few hours. We talked about what he was working on, what I was working on, the state of the world, and then I asked him what he remembers back then. He laughed and said, “All I know was that you were a real artist when I met you, and that you had to find your own way to succeed and own being a real artist.” Sounds cliche, but that's what he said. “I couldn’t write you a hit, because you didn’t like the songs we were writing together,” which was true.. “You didn’t get signed because you weren’t ready and I pushed you because you were on the radio which is something that some artists never get in their entire career. It’s not always a shoe in, and sometimes it is, it’s just how the industry works” “I’m happy you didn’t get signed back then because you would have gotten lost, you were just starting out. You didn’t know how to believe in yourself yet. You got a taste of how the industry ran for the biggest artists during that time and you kept up with us.” “ You had the gift, you just needed to experience life, make your own decisions, fail, and learn how to own being the artist you want” “You did it backwards. Artists work for years to discover their sound, their self, and then get discovered, and some never do” You were discovered because you had talent, but hadn’t done any of the work at becoming an artist yet.”
I'm sitting in my LA apartment, it’s August 14th 2020, and I’m listening to Clef talk about my future and old memories on the phone. Clef always had this way of telling it to you straight even if you weren’t ready to hear it. He also had a way of telling you things that you might not understand until later. He had a way of making anyone he talked to feel special. He always brought up my talent. He always tried to inspire me, and right now, in the present, he was doing just that. Wait, so is this my present? “Niia, you’re from another time, you’re just on this earth now. You can’t do anything else but be an artist then, now, and forever.”
But, am I the artist I am now and will be because of you? “I gotta go. Be an artist.” Click.
I chuckle to myself and sit on my sofa alone. I wonder if he thinks I am an artist now. A real one. I feel happy and embarrassed. It's funny because I understand what he meant back then about "being an artist" now. I laugh again and shake my head. What does this all mean? What's my point? I laugh again realizing I needed Clef's validation and affirmations about my past and future. I guess he’s still part of me. I look around my room and feel strange. I don’t really have any more questions. For the first time I was not wondering what was or what will be when it came to wyclef and I. It just was, it just is. I had known I was my own artist for a while now. Going off on my own, writing new music, failing, trying new things, working with new teams, etc.
The future has ways of surprising us, and nobody can be completely prepared for what the future will bring. It is harder to guess what memories from our past will be relevant for understanding our life in the future. But I have a feeling the ones with Clef have been, are, and will always be a part of mine and i've finally accepted this.
I still think about the past and worry about the future but I’ve found a sense of peace in my present for now when it comes to Clef and it feels really good. The last thing I’ll leave you guys with are some lyrics I wrote about him. I wrote a song called Secrets of the Trade a long time ago, in the past.. They were true back then, are still today, and I think will always ring true. Perhaps I’ll write about him again sometime in the future x
Secrets of the trade
Cased in wood and stored to keep
A grave souls guards secrets asleep
Resign your liberty
Hollow out your code for me
Busy with a mind undone
You pass your piece saving sun
Things take away
Secrets of the trade
Friend of fire
teacher of truth
Do I have more to learn from you?
Our we volumes of one book
Will I search forever for your hook
Secrets of the trade