Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
How The Fugees' 'The Score' Brought Haiti And Hip-Hop Together
The Fugees' The Score was a cultural moment for Haitians across the world, but more specifically Haitian-Americans, normalizing and legitimizing all they had to contribute as part of hip-hop and pop culture at large.
The release of The Fugees’ sophomore album, The Score, is an indelible moment in hip-hop. Powered by the project’s first single, “Fu-gee-la,” which arrived officially a little over a month before the album’s February 1996 release, The Score was both critically acclaimed and a record-breaking commercial hit, becoming the best-selling rap album ever at the time of its release. Twenty-five years later, as fans cautiously get hyped about a confirmed Fugees reunion tour, it remains the best selling album by a rap group in the U.S.
Beyond what The Score represents to hip-hop fans — especially the generation that came to love it as one of many in a year of amazing hip-hop albums — The Fugees’ career-saving second release was a cultural moment for Haitians across the world, but more specifically Haitian-Americans. The children and grandchildren of immigrants who had arrived to this country instantly became double-minorities. Kids whose parents avoided teaching them French or Haitian Kreyol in hopes of protecting them from the discrimination that often comes with accents in America, and who were teased mercilessly because of the cultural norms their parents insisted on maintaining despite their new residence or naturalization status.
For the Haitian-American kids who didn’t quite fit in with the other English/Patois speaking West Indians in Brooklyn; who dealt with all the H.B.O. — “Haitian Body Odor” — jokes in the early ‘90s; and who literally formed a gang in South Florida to put an end to the bullying, The Score was a long-awaited, grand-scale win.
What’s fascinating is that there isn’t anything inherently Haitian about the album In fact, Haiti isn’t referenced until the end of track 10. The first word of Kreyol is spoken near the end of “No Woman, No Cry,” and followed by a few notes of Kompa music. Honestly, the most Haitian thing about The Score may be Wyclef’s accent as he covers the Bob Marley & The Wailers classic. The “Fu-gee-la” video certainly gave off strong Haiti vibes despite being filmed in Jamaica. The fact that the Refugee Camp global mix version of “Fu-gee-la” finds Clef, Pras and Lauryn rapping in French rather than Kreyol, is a testament to what Haitian cultural identity was in the U.S. in the late ‘90s.
Despite being only 720 miles away from the southernmost point in the U.S., Haiti always seemed like a much more distant place from the American purview, especially in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as most global conversations about Haiti centered around political unrest and poverty. Haiti’s unique culture as one of a small handful of French-speaking countries in the West Indies has also served to isolate Haitians living in the U.S. There are musical and culinary commonalities with Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but the history of colorism in all four countries, as well as the complexities of race relations in the States, result in differences that overshadow the shared roots. Those who assimilate broader West Indian culture — attending reggae and soca events and relying on Jamaican restaurants to quell cravings for rice and beans, for example — often do so at the cost of their own cultural traditions. We might get three songs “for the Haitians” at any given West Indian party, and one of them is guaranteed to be a song by Kassav, who hails from Guadeloupe and Martinique.
The Score was an instant point of pride. It was like seeing these two Haitian kids with funny names, and the same unidentifiable, neither Haitian nor American accent, as some of our cousins who opened a world of possibilities for the rest of us. It was a turning point that allowed first and second generation Black children of immigrants to stop wanting to Americanize their French names. It made international superstars of Wyclef Jean and Prakazrel Michel, and brilliantly allowed them to introduce Haiti and Haitian culture to the world. When The Fugees arrived in Port-au-Prince in 1997 with global cameras in tow, it was the first time many saw Haiti as more than poverty and boat people.
Without the success of The Score, you don’t get four songs in full Haitian Kreyol on Wyclef’s 1997 solo debut Wyclef Presents The Carnival, as well as features from Kompa megastar — and former Haitian President — Michel Martelly, and Jacob Desvarieux and Jocelyne Beroard of the renowned French Caribbean band Kassav from Guadeloupe. And you certainly don’t get the Yele Foundation, named after the Carnival song where Wyclef laments the suffering of his people. Without The Score, Pras doesn’t get the access to produce a documentary granting viewers an unprecedented look at the Haitian electoral process.
Haiti has remained in near constant turmoil since the 2010 earthquake that got Clef caught up in some philanthropic hot water, and the subsequent election that posited both he and Pras into Haitian politics. But the two OG Zoes have been relatively quiet. Their impact is certainly felt in the path they cleared for a new generation of Haitian artists, many of whom have collaborated with Wyclef and consider him an uncle or big brother figure.
Relative newcomers like J. Perry, Kanis, Michael Brun and DroxYani (a duo composed of two of president Martelly’s sons) are at the forefront of a movement bringing Haitian music to non-French-speaking audiences since Tabou Combo took the New York City disco scene by storm in the ‘70s. Like Wyclef and Pras, these artists certainly use their platform to bring attention to the political turmoil or impact of environmental crises that are exacerbated by the country’s lack of infrastructure. But they also create moments of joy for the people of Haiti. They create a connection to home for those who currently find themselves homesick, heartbroken and abroad. And they continue the work The Score started by keeping Haitian artists in the international public eye. Of course Wyclef and Pras’ legacy is also felt in artists like Mach-Hommy, Zoey Dollaz, Flipp Dinero and Kodak Black, who seamlessly incorporate their ancestral culture into their regular rap lives.
The Fugees almost lost it all by releasing a hyper-regional debut with Blunted On Reality. Their sophomore album not only gave them a fresh start and culminated in international success for the group, but it served to normalize and legitimize Haitian-Americans and all they had to contribute as part of hip-hop and pop culture at large.
Tai Saint-Louis is a Haitian-born, Atlanta-based journalist & content development consultant. Over the course of her 20 year career she has contributed to Mass Appeal, Ebony.com, WatchLoud.com, Bossip.com, Creative Loafing, Scratch, XXL, The Source, Upscale Magazine and AllHipHop.com, and worked with brands including the Combat Jack Show and A3C. She is also the co-author of The Art Behind The Tape, the first coffee table book about the history of mixtape culture.
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