Cedric, Im on my way down to see President Obama and I want to talk with you about some things, Wyclef Jean told me last week. His words were part of perhaps the tightest, yet wide-ranging conversations I can remember having with a Hip-Hop artist.
Yeah, its not every day that you build with a musician able to move through diverse topics like street organizations (gangs); what it will take to get the industry monetized again (folks paying for music rather than copping it for free); and political events outside of America.
It came as no surprise then, last Thursday less than 24 hours after my airing a portion of our conversation (download and scroll to the 3 hour 7 minute mark of the Dec. 9th Edition of The Cedric Muhammad and Black Coffee Program at: http://blackelectorate.com/media/cmbcp120909.mp3)) that when I tuned in to news channel France 24 to watch international coverage of President Obamas Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, in Oslo, Norway, I see, who else, but Wyclef in the front row of the audience.
For the past month, it seems, some industry observers have been confused about Wyclefs latest project, DJ Drama Presents: From The Hut To The Projects, To The Mansion a rare mixtape-EP album. And one may think that Wyclef has contributed to that by speaking as much about his next album, expected this Spring, as he does his current one, which dropped in November. But thats only if you judge by appearance rather than listen carefully to the EP.
I initially saw From The Hut, To The Projects, To The Mansion as part of a brilliant (if not transparent) marketing strategy designed to preserve Wyclefs street credibility and to set up a contrast with the next album, which will have a different sound, and broader, more global appeal. But as I listened carefully to the mixtape EP I got the sense that this project wasnt a loss leader (a business strategy where a business offers a product or service at a price that is not profitable for the sake of offering another product/service at a higher profit) to set up the next album, but, rather a definitive statement of just who he, Wyclef, is. Confirming my reaction, Wyclef acknowledged that this is the album, in terms of providing a window into his life journey.
To see how skillfully Wyclef balances political, street, and spiritual elements the albums Walk Away, We Made It, and Letter From The Penn, are references.
What I think has made this project difficult for some to grasp (especially those who still cant accept the music industry made serious, almost fatal blunders in how it produced and distributed its product this decade) is that it comes from an artist who comes as close to the definition I have of a Hip-Hoppreneur (http://www.blackelectorate.com/articles.asp?ID=1812) as any I have built with.
Journalists who have been trained to focus only on one aspect of an artists personality and brand (especially in Hip-Hop) simply cant appreciate broader dimensions that make them successful, inside the studio and in what they do outside of it. They also fail to see that there are some artists who have deep non-musical skills that help them make good music, and that the music of a few special artists - regardless to sales count - translates into non-musical benefits that make them larger than life and extend their careers.
In short, Wyclef is one of a very few entertainers who appear as comfortable in the three roles I believe will be necessary for any artist to fulfill in order to be successful next decade creative risk-taker, business person, and leader (with political impact in America and abroad). The successful artist of the next decade will not be able to rely upon just hot music and selling a lifestyle and image. They will actually have to show that the street credibility and shot-calling they claim in songs is actually translating into power from the block to the board room, and across borders.
Wyclef may already be where others will have to go.
What he has, that most lack is not just profile, personality and awareness, but just as importantly - the maturity and courage to take risks, take stands, and take the initiative to encourage those who collaborate with him to do the same.
Case in point his creative relationship with DJ Drama.
Those who have heard it will note that one of the things that stands out on From The Hut To The Projects To The Mansion are how strong the interludes are, in terms of message and delivery, spoken by DJ Drama.
So wanting to know more about how they came about, I asked Wyclef did he write them himself.
I always write all of my interludes, but Im going to tell you whats deep about this, Clef explained to me. Me and Drama had a conversation and I said, Drama, on this one, youre gonna come different because they are expecting you to come like, Yo Drama Gangster Grillz! And I knew that Dramas voice sounds like a preacher. I knew he had so much to say. So Drama (wanted me to send him the album tracks) and when he heard what I was doing, he was like, I gotta just sit and write something for this I would say that every word that you hear Drama say in an interlude is something that he got inspired from, by listening to the music. He definitely went in. I said to Drama when people look back in history they are going to look at us and they are going to (ask) when they (DJ Drama and Wyclef) got together what did they do? And I was like, it has to be something historic, and he said the same.
To me, what Wyclef describes sums up the challenge for the street-oriented Hip-Hop artist seeking to stay relevant and thrive in the coming years - where a gangster image and hot music matter less than how much an artist is up on technology, how strong their business mind or team is; how aware they are of current events; and how much they care about their legacy, beyond the lifestyle-image they sell their current core audience.
For years the industry and culture has been in denial about what makes an artist street or real. Dumbing it or boiling it down to aggression, claimed gang affiliation, and a careless (eff the world) attitude, many artists, labels, and consumers forgot what really creates a following and generates record sales.
The result has been that somehow we are all supposed to accept that street artists are anti-intellectuals, who dont read books or newspapers, could careless about political events, and who never admit how powerless we all are in a world and system we dont run.
How soon we forget that Tupac was born to a family neck-deep in a political and community struggle, with a love for knowledge. How soon we forget the stance that Snoop Dogg took in relation to the execution of Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Crip co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams (much less what Snoop rapped about on Lil Ghetto Boy in 1992 or what he said at Saviours Day in February 2009). And how soon we forget that 50 Cent perhaps the defining street artist of this decade openly indicates that his avid reading (better yet, mastery) of 48 Laws Of Power has been a factor in how he makes business decisions.
One of the best books Ive ever read and one of 4 that I recommend to any and all youth is written by a proud member of the Bloods, Dashaun Jiwe Morris (http://jiweera.com/), a person whom Ive gotten to know over the past year and for whom I have great respect.
When we first spoke Jiwe told me a fact that is increasingly rare these days with book authors he really wrote it himself.
Anyone who has read War of The Bloods In My Veins: A Street Soldiers March Toward Redemption knows the author has extraordinary skill, with the ability to write to the head and the heart.
Rather than act as if his incredible writing talent, intellect and introspection isnt street, Jiwe proves the opposite.
That this is true for so many in the streets is why I gave 50 Cent the advice I did regarding how to market Beanie Sigel, should they collaborate together on an album and do business together.
You can read it at:
Part 1: http://allhiphop.malt.maven.io/stories/editorial/archive/2009/11/18/22031325.aspx
Part 2: http://allhiphop.malt.maven.io/stories/editorial/archive/2009/11/24/22040490.aspx
Todays artists and labels with tunnel vision, focused only on how hard they sound are an endangered species about to become obsolete (or at least laid off) by demographics (population changes), technology, and the seriousness of two wars and a recession (which demand greater substance and impact from artists who claim to represent whats happening in the hood).
In Wyclef, you have an artist who understands this and what it means to the future of the game.
Its a great opportunity for those who are aware, who understand the change (and accept that) everything cant stay the same. Were moving towards modern times, which deal with technology, and (where you) can get your information out there quicker. There are less people buying (music) and more people just grabbing it for free. They will continue grabbing it for free. But if they start to feel that you are beyond music and a movement I sincerely think that they will actually go back to the stores and pick up your music again. And that is what Im working towards, Wyclef told me.
High on his list of movement-oriented work are his efforts to broker a truce among street organizations on the ground and uniting them and others through the Internet. I went back to Haiti and started putting a truce together among the gangs. I had an epiphany that I would start a new gang, and online. The idea of this social movement is that you can be from any part of the world and if you feel like you are in a gang, we welcome you. Just come and talk to us on Twitter and the computer because you know that the opposite force uses the Internet to recruit people for other things. So I use them (Twitter and the Internet) to recruit them for the right side of the gang. This is a real movement. When we come to your town Im not only trying to perform, were trying to come to the schools, out to the community, and talk to kids in gangs and just try different things. Because we cant just sing about it, we gotta act on it. Weve seen everybody sing about it already, Wyclef explained to me.
Unfortunately in Hip-Hop too few artists are willing to even sing about it, not realizing that creative maturity, political influence, and greater reach in the local community and internationally, are a foundation of a lucrative career - not just posturing, and posing like you have rocks in your mouth.
They remain unaware and afraid to take a stance, not realizing that the artists with the longest careers across genres - are those who have moved beyond a street or industry image and built a movement of some kind out of their fans and consumer base. In a subtle way, this is what Jay-Z is pointing to in the first line of the first verse of Run This Town.
Never have I felt that more than when I heard Million Voices on Wyclefs 2007 album, Carnival II. On that song he justifies the call for a United States of Africa. This goal is not a pipe dream. In some shape or form the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now known as the African Union which represents the 53 nations of Africa - has been working to unite the continent since the 1960s. In 1991, the African Union, officially committed to building a common market or economy out of all of its countries. Last year, the AU established the First Congress Of African Economists to advise its efforts.
In 2001, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, speaking at Russell Simmons Hip-Hop Summit Action Network gathering, around the theme of taking back responsibility informed the artists who were present, about the United States of Africa effort and encouraged them to find ways to rap about it in their songs. He offered to make himself available to them if they desired more information or his advice and guidance.
To the best of my knowledge, since June of 2001, Wyclef Jean is the only artist who was present that day who has prominently weaved a mention of this incredible movement into his music.
To one degree or another I believe it is fear, ignorance and an unwillingness to grow, that has prevented other artists from doing the same.
But just because this particular group of artists is standing still doesnt mean that the rest of us are, or, that the world or even the music business will, for that matter.
In 1996, while serving as GM of Wu-Tang Management, I participated in a private meeting with executives from RCA Records. At a certain point they brought out our sales figures from around the world. It only included totals from the Americas, Europe and Asia. So I asked them, What are our sales figures in Africa?
After waiting a while they returned to the room with a new printout with Africa added to the list. The grand total, according to them, for the sale of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in Africa, a continent of nearly 1 billion people was 73 units sold.
I will never forget how I felt when I saw the number 73' on the paper. One day, in this column, I intend to share what I thought was the real cause of, or story behind the 73.
Today that memory stays with me as I build with entrepreneurs and musicians in Africa on business concepts and ways for artists in the States to sell records abroad, and vice versa.
Im no longer GM for Wu Tang but I have gone on to become a Member of the First Congress Of African Economists - named in 2008 by the African Union for my proposal for a single African currency backed by gold.
If you have the euro and you have the European Union, then you can have a United States of Africa, Wyclef said with passion last week.
2010 begins a new decade, one where I believe Hip-Hop artists will be guided by a different formula, what I now refer to as The Wyclef Doctrine.
Not just streets, and not just industry, but movement.
[You can watch and listen to the video collage of my thoughts on The United States of Africa, including Wyclefs words and music at
Cedric Muhammad is a business consultant, political strategist, and monetary economist. He is author of the book, The Entrepreneurial Secret: To Starting a Business Without A Bank Loan, Collateral Or Revenue (http://theEsecret.com/). He is a Member of the African Unions First Congress of African Economists. His talk show, The Cedric Muhammad and Black Coffee Program can be viewed every Wednesday from 12 to 5 PM EST (USA) at: http://www.cedricmuhammad.com/media/
He can be contacted via e-mail at: cedric(at)cmcap.com