The Fugees: Erasing Cultural Barriers

By Whetstone, Muriel L. | Ebony, November 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Fugees: Erasing Cultural Barriers

Whetstone, Muriel L., Ebony

Hip-hop's hottest musical sensation, the Fugees, are thrilling audiences across the globe with their unique fusion of streetwise rap and hip-hop, sprinkled with snippets of Caribbean melodies and classic R&B lyrics. In just nine short months, the New Jersey-based group has made an international name for itself as hip-hop stand-outs.

A welcome relief in a field dominated by rappers whose lyrics often concentrate on misogyny, violence and drugs, the Fugees - Lauryn (L) Hill, Wyclef (Clef) Jean and Prakazrel (Pras) Michel - are building a fan base as versatile as their music. From South Central to South Carolina to South Africa, loyal hip-hoppers and lovers of good music in general are boppin' their heads and tappin' their feet to the group's second CD, The Score.

"We just do what we do from our hearts. We don't follow the gimmicks," explains Hill, "If it sounds good to us, if it feels good to us, we perform it. We sing it. We play it. If it's not us, if it's fake, if it's a fabrication, then we don't mess with it because there are too many kids who are getting all the wrong messages."

In a genre characterized by repetitious, mechanical drum beats and pre-recorded music tracks, the Fugees' use of guitars, keyboards and other live instruments also contributes to its personal style and special brand of music. That's no more evident than during their five concerts, where every enthusiastic, freestyle performance is a little different from the last.

The Fugees are the heart and soul of the Refugee Camp, a loosely formed group of young rappers and musicians out of East Orange, N.J., where Hill was born and raised. Cousins Michel and jean are of Haitian descent. The group's name is a positive response to a negative slur against Haitian refugees who have fled their country to escape political and economic hardship.

"We decided to call ourselves the Fugees," says Michel, "because when we were growing up, people used to call us refugees - as if we were the only people seeking refuge from our land. What we're saying is that everyone is a refugee, whether mentally or physically, from your country, from your life. And it's in that sense that our music is refugee music."

Born in Haiti, Jean, 26, emigrated with his family to Brooklyn when he was 9. An accomplished keyboard player and guitarist, Jean usually opens a Fugees concert with a guitar rendition of Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing - played with his teeth, a la Jimi Hendrix.

Hill, 21, is enrolled at Columbia University in New York City, where she is tentatively planning to pursue a degree in history. As a high school student, she appeared on the soap opera As The World Turns and co-starred with Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.

A former student at Rutgers University, Michel, 21, is the third member of the group. He has delayed his studies in order to devote more time to music. Born in Brooklyn's Crown Heights, he is an offspring of Haitian parents. Michel's family eventually moved to New Jersey, where he met Hill eight years ago.

"She was cool," Michel says of their meeting. "I believe - because I'm a spiritual person, and I grew up in the church - everything happens for a reason. If Lauryn wasn't there, the Fugees wouldn't be what they are now. Not to say that we wouldn't be successful, but it would've been a whole different thing.

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