For the parents of 450 lucky Passaic music students, the answer to “what happened in school today?” probably ran along the lines of “I learned that Wyclef Jean was a music nerd just like me.”
“I can imagine those conversations happening in a few hours,” said Passaic schools’ Performing Arts Supervisor Latasha Casterlow-Lalla, “and they’ll be like: why didn’t you tell me?”
It’s probable, she said, that many of the students invited to take part in a special assembly featuring a three-time Grammy winner probably didn’t fully comprehend that they were in the presence of rap royalty.
And Jean is rap royalty. His collaborations first with Lauryn Hill as part of the Fugees and later with other world-acclaimed artists were a staple of teenage soundtracks.
“He’s a big star in NJ. It’s like if Bruce Springsteen or Frank Sinatra came to Passaic,” Passaic Mayor Hector Lora said.
Jean was on hand Tuesday at Passaic’s School 21, the Sonia Sotomayor School, as the headliner of Tuesday’s nationwide rollout of the rebranding of Little Kids Rock as Music Will, a charity that focuses on teaching kids music.
Passaic was one of three school districts where Music Will was rolling out its new brand. The others were Brooklyn, featuring Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, and Los Angeles, with Smokey Robinson.
As part of its rollout, Music Will founder Dave Wish said his group will donate instruments, a new music curriculum and training for 12 of Passaic’s schools.
“Music is something we need every day,” Wish said. “Music is what makes all the various cultures coherent.”
Music Will specializes in providing music education in the patois of today’s students.
For Jean, Tuesday was a chance to give back. He told students he was a nerd who played in the school band.
He was largely self-taught, and his first instrument was the trombone. After moving to this country from Haiti, he cemented his love of music.
At 15, he joined the jazz band at Newark’s Vailsburg High School, and soon after he was its leader. His big break came in rap music as the genre was rapidly gaining popularity. It led to other forms of success, in music production, films and television roles, as well as proficiency in playing 15 instruments.
“I want everybody here to understand the power of dreams,” Jean told students. “I never wanted to be a superstar. I wanted to leave my mark.”
He encouraged the kids to dream big, “as big as they can,” to learn about what came before them and use it to find ways to build on the past to make the future better for themselves, for their community and for everybody.
For Lora, the influence of Jean, Wish and Casterlow-Lalla is huge because it shows Passaic’s students that they can find a career path in music, whether performing, producing or any of the other myriad jobs in the music industry.
“Many have talent, but when talent is used to bless and inspire others, it becomes a gift,” the mayor said. “I am overwhelmingly grateful for this amazing and gifted artist coming to our city of Passaic and inspiring our youth.”