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Wyclef On Staying Creative in the Pandemic, and Why He Loves Working With Women



October 7, 2020 8 min read

Wyclef Jean likes to feel comfortable. This much is evident from the shag pillows piled atop the white sofa in his home, where he’s hanging out for our Zoom chat on a recent Thursday afternoon. In a custom Soíremaín hoodie, he lounges deeper into said sofa throughout our conversation, occasionally springing forward mid-thought for emphasis.

Jean’s penchant for getting comfy and talking things through isn’t news to fans who’ve been listening to or watching the former Fugee’s pandemic-era  Run That Back, which will be dropping new episodes through the end of October. The show features the multi-platinum solo artist and producer’s musings on life and art, plus virtual conversations and low-key peformance sidebars with everyone from Clive Davis to Lena Waithe. It’s essentially the world’s most chill variety series.

Run That Back, like similar celebrity livestreams since lockdown, was borne of creative restlesness and entreprenurial necessity (see: a weekly segment sponsored by ). And it’s just one element of Jean’s current projects outside his recording career, which saw its latest installment in last year’s Wyclef Goes Back to School Vol. 1. He’s also venturing into the cannabiz. That’s in addition to investing in and advising for his business partner Madeline Nelson’s women-driven label/management firm, Heads Music.

Over the course of a spirited half-hour back-and-forth, Jean elaborated on a number of topics, including why female-driven projects function better and what he’s learned from Run That Back about compassion and creativity.

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At what point did the light bulb go off that you could stay engaged with fans while in lockdown?

When this happened, I was in the middle of scoring my Netflix movie and in the process of building my app [Sodo Mood Lab], and I was bringing people to the crib to start jamming. Then I noticed that ain’t nobody moving, everything is online. So I figured, let’s just try and start this thing off with the technology. I was bummed, but I was like, what I really can do is produce and remix records for a lot of our guests and still give them the shock factor without them being there. So this is where this started. That’s why I say it’s not really an interview, it’s a conversation. In the studio, this is how I talk, but the public doesn’t really know how I am with peers when a peer is within their space. 

Did you take notes on other artists’ livestreams and podcasts before starting Run That Back?

My note is it looks like we’re going into another 12 months of this. So how do you connect the livestream more? The idea of going on livestream because you’re playing music, no one really cares. You have to figure out how you put it in script form. At the end of the day, you’re like: I have to give a piece of myself to somebody. If somebody gives you 30 years, and they know all your songs and videos, this is your give-back time, so you have to be in a super-creative space. 

Image Credit: Courtesy of Siren’s Call PR

It’s a time for giving back, sure, but isn’t it also a time for clever marketing?

The part of it that’s the give-back is you’re putting content on platforms you don’t necessarily own the back-data for. The person making money as you put this content up is the person who owns the IPO. But a lot of us are thinking and creating situations within our own IPO, and in order to do this, we have to use these big platforms and stay consistent. If you’re invisible now, in 24 months, no one will give a fuck what you’re talking about. They’re like, where the fuck were you when we needed you as a person? I call it the Gary Vee syndrome: We fully understand where we have to go in the sense of staying relevant, and at the same time making it exciting and creating something that doesn’t exist that people will look forward to going into the future.

Given how nimble musicians have had to be since the industry started convulsing 20 years ago, you guys should be well-suited to this moment.

That’s so good you say that. Every person has lome kind of love for some kind of music, and then we look at the plethora of information on YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, Tidal, and as everything stopped [in the pandemic], now people are paying attention. So the playing field gets leveled, right? As musicians, there’s a great awakening. So within this great awakening, you could present to people what’s called a friendly reminder. I call this period the Great Reminder, because as musicians, it gives us an opportunity of a reinvention once again through the technology.

I’m curious what you’ve observed about how a woman like Madeline Nelson runs her business compared to the more traditional male executives you’ve worked with?

They actually care. There’s a real emotion there. They’ll let you know too much perks is going to kill you. You know what I’m saying? They let you know you’re going to rehab, and they will pick you up and bring you. Then they’ll pick you up when you’re out. They’ll show up in the dressing room and be like, “Do you have your condoms?” A male-dominated business, we’re like, “One plus one equals two. Two plus two equals four. OK. This is hot. Let’s get this.” We don’t give a fuck. You want to kill yourself, do what you do, but how much we made this year? But if it was a female, they’d be like, “Are you happy? What’s going on? Are you depressed?” I’ve noticed with Heads Music how they deal with depression. They treat depression like it’s a disease and will pick up the phone, call the artists [and ask], “Are you okay? What’s going on?” I’m like, are you guys running a psychiatrist lab here or a label? For me, that’s one of the strong points, wanting to see the artist do good on the charts, but wanting them to do better with their individual health and spirituality, which I find amazing.

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Is there anyone you’ve interviewed on Run That Back who you found particularly amazing?

Lena Waithe is a successful, award-winning director, has one of the one number-one shows on Showtime, The Chi, which is incredibly written, and she [wrote] Queen & Slim. It blew me away because she said that she did Queen & Slim because she didn’t feel like her voice was being heard on The Chi. So you have a number-one show, but you feel like your voice is not being heard. And that’s the thing, like why settle when you are in that space where you could constantly keep climbing? It’s like, I have all these Grammys, let me just let me be comfortable. Why? So what I learned from Lena Waithe was the idea of comfortability and saying I’m content with this. You should never do that. She said if she did that when she was doing The Chi, she would have never did Queen & Slim. And you can imagine what the next movie is going to be.

Is there a throughline in the stories these artists and business figures have shared on the show?

One thing I noticed from everybody is I don’t care who the celebrity is or what the success is, the most important thing to them is the person who picks up the goddamn telephone. They aren’t asking for a pitch. They don’t have shit to say but, “Are you OK?” The idea of, shit, if we pass away, the world keeps moving, and to think Covid had to happen for us to realize that makes us understand further, “Did we pick up the phone?”


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The Strand Calls for Help, and Book Lovers Answer



For months, the Strand bookstore in downtown Manhattan, from its fiction stacks to its cookbook section to its rare books, has been nearly deserted. But on Sunday, half an hour before the store was scheduled to open, about a dozen people lined up in the cool fall breeze, waiting to get inside.

They had come in response to a plea from the store’s owner, Nancy Bass Wyden, who announced on social media Friday that its revenue was down nearly 70 percent from last year and that the business had become unsustainable. “I’m going to pull out all the stops to keep sharing our mutual love of the printed word,” she wrote. “But for the first time in the Strand’s 93-year history, we need to mobilize the community to buy from us so we can keep our doors open until there is a vaccine.”

The Strand’s legacy has not been without complications, and Ms. Wyden has a tense relationship with the union that represents her employees. But it is a New York City institution, a throwback to a quirkier type of local retail, and many New Yorkers were unwilling to let it go down without a fight.

“I really couldn’t believe to see that such a big piece of New York culture is struggling,” said Victoria Pompa, 23, who came from Staten Island with her parents after seeing a post from the store on Instagram. “So we just wanted to come and show our support.”

Ms. Wyden said the call for help produced a boom in business on Saturday: a single-day record of 10,000 online orders, so many that the website crashed. That day was also the best single day in the month of October that the flagship store, near Union Square, has ever had, and the best day ever at the Strand’s Upper West Side branch, which opened earlier this year. In the 48 hours since the plea went out, the store processed 25,000 online orders, compared with about 600 in a typical two-day period.

One of them was a purchase of 197 books from a customer in the Bronx. “I’ll have to write her a thank you letter,” Ms. Wyden said.

ImageCustomers at the Strand on Sunday. Its owner said that the previous day was the best one it had ever had in October.
Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Ms. Wyden said that employees have canceled vacations and were coming in on days off to help with the surge.

“We’re optimistic,” said Laura Ravo, the Strand’s new chief operating officer. “We asked for a lot of love and we received a lot of love, both in store and online, and on social.”

With millions of people largely stuck at home, book sales are up this year. But much of that shopping is happening online, and independent bookstores across the United States have rushed to reinvent themselves even as they watched their sales crater. The American Booksellers Association said this month that more than one independent bookstore has closed every week since the pandemic began.

Among the stores struggling most are the larger independents, which have higher expenses for space and staffing and need more sales to keep going. They also tend to be more reliant on events like readings and signings for their revenue. The Strand usually hosts about 400 events a year.

In their place, the store has done online readings and is experimenting with offerings like a Book of the Month program and boxes of “book hookup” surprise titles, which are grouped by genre. The store is also providing private guided tours of its rare books collection, a staff expert to curate and stock home libraries, and “books by the foot” sold as decorative space filler in the new era of bookshelves as Zoom backdrops.

Still, when Ms. Wyden saw the store’s receipts for September — a month in which she had expected business to rebound as students returned to school and some businesses reopened — she said she realized that those initiatives weren’t enough. She decided to make a direct appeal to customers.

Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

“People tell me all the time that this is their favorite place,” she said. “They seem to always have a Strand story. I met somebody at a cocktail party and she told me about getting engaged in the rare book room. Two people came in yesterday, this was their first date.”

Ms. Wyden’s relationship with the union has been less romantic, with allegations of contract violations and union busting going back for years, said Melissa Guzy, a shop steward in the Strand’s art department. This summer, employees protested outside the stores saying that Ms. Wyden had laid off most of its employees despite receiving a Payroll Protection Program loan to retain 212 jobs.

The union also criticized Ms. Wyden for buying stock this year in Amazon, a company that is despised in the indie bookstore world. Ms. Wyden has said it was a way to generate money that could be put back into the store.

“Really, sustaining the stores, it’s been a marathon with no end in sight,” Ms. Wyden said. “So we really had to be careful with the P.P.P. loan money.”

Ms. Guzy said that despite their disagreements, she still hoped the store would survive.

Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

“When people support the Strand, they aren’t just supporting Nancy, they’re supporting us, they’re supporting the workers,” Ms. Guzy said.

There were no demonstrators outside the flagship store on Sunday, just a steady stream of customers in a line stretching around the block. Many, like Dan Bressner and Kaitlin Kwiatkowski of Manhattan, who were shopping together, said they had heard about the store’s plea for help and about its labor dispute.

“It’s awkward because the track record for the ownership here is not great,” Mr. Bressner said. “But it’s also an institution. My parents shopped here.”

Ms. Kwiatkowski agreed, and she bought three books that day. “We’ve got to do our small part,” she said.


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Wall St. Alarm at Surge of Virus Sends Stocks and Oil Lower



A rise in coronavirus cases in the United States, new restrictions on activity in Europe and a standoff in Washington over aid for struggling businesses and out-of-work Americans left investors reeling on Monday.

The S&P 500 fell 1.9 percent in Wall Street’s worst day in over a month.

“You can only pretend that Covid was not a problem for so long,” said Steve Sosnick, chief strategist at Interactive Brokers in Greenwich, Conn. “I think the market has finally kind of gotten it through its head, at the same time, that there’s very little shot at stimulus.”

Shares in Europe also ended lower as more limits were introduced to try to combat a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. In Spain, the government declared a state of emergency and imposed a nighttime curfew. In Italy, cinemas and gyms are closing and indoor dining ending at 6 p.m. In France, a six-week curfew for most of the country began on Friday.

SAP, the giant German business software company, on Sunday reported disappointing earnings, saying that demand for its products, particularly relating to business travel, was recovering more slowly than expected because of the new lockdowns. Its shares fell more than 20 percent on Monday.

“The real disappointing news is out of SAP,” said Matt Maley, chief market strategist at Miller Tabak, an asset management firm. “Their guidance is giving investors a reality check about what a renewed round of lockdowns will have on earnings.”

Several large American technology companies with similar businesses fell after SAP’s report. Hewlett Packard Enterprise dropped 4.4 percent. Oracle dropped 4 percent. IBM fell 3.3 percent.

Tourism-related stocks like cruise-ship operators and airlines were also hammered on Monday. These companies have suffered the most from lockdowns, travel restrictions and the drop in demand for flights, cruises and hotels as consumers around the world are encouraged not to take unnecessary risks. And their share prices have become something of a bellwether for investor sentiment toward the pandemic.

Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line were down 9.7 percent and 8.5 percent, putting them among the worst-performing stocks in the S&P 500. United Airlines fell about 7 percent, while Marriott International dropped 5.6 percent.

Worry spread to other markets as well, with crude oil futures down more than 3 percent.

Coronavirus case numbers have risen to new highs in the United States in recent days. At the same time, the prospects of more assistance for shuttered businesses and laid-off workers have dimmed considerably with the presidential election just eight days away.

Over the last couple of weeks, the outside chance that a last-minute stimulus package could be cobbled together by congressional Democrats and the White House has helped to offset concerns about the pandemic and fueled gains in stocks. But that optimism began to fade late last week as talks failed to advance, and, combined with the worsening virus, set off the sell-off Monday, analysts said.

“It’s a perfect recipe for a market pullback,” said Doug Rivelli, president of the institutional brokerage firm Abel Noser in New York.

Economists have warned that government spending is crucial to ensuring that the American economy is able to bounce back from the coronavirus crisis.

The political climate, with things as diverse as concern about a contested election and the potential vacuum of information that could follow Election Day as votes are still counted, has also increased turbulence on Wall Street lately.

Stocks rallied earlier this month on the expectation that a clean sweep by Democrats could lead to a more clear-cut outcome and a wave of government spending to prop up the economy.

But with the losses on Monday factored in, most of those gains have been erased, and the S&P 500 is now about 5 percent below a high it reached in early September.


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CDC Says Nurses Are at High Risk for Covid-19



Among health care workers, nurses in particular have been at significant risk of contracting Covid-19, according to a new analysis of hospitalized patients by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The findings were released Monday as a surge of new hospitalizations swept the country, with several states hitting record levels of cases.

About 6 percent of adults hospitalized from March through May were health care workers, according to the researchers, with more than a third either nurses or nursing assistants. Roughly a quarter, or 27 percent, of those hospitalized workers were admitted to the intensive care unit, and 4 percent died during their hospital stay.

The study looked at 6,760 hospitalizations across 13 states, including California, New York, Ohio and Tennessee.

Health care workers “can have severe Covid-19-associated illness, highlighting the need for continued infection prevention and control in health care settings as well community mitigation efforts to reduce transmission,” the researchers said.

From the beginning of the pandemic in the United States, front-line medical personnel have complained of shortages of personal protective equipment. Some of the shortages abated for a while, but supplies have become strained in certain areas of the country as a surge of coronavirus outbreaks has reached daily records.

“We need more testing,” said Michelle Mahon, assistant director of nursing practice at National Nurses United, a union whose members have been vocal from the beginning of the pandemic about the dangers they faced without adequate supplies and protection.

Calling the findings no surprise, Ms. Mahon criticized federal officials for not having more robust guidelines in place. Her organization, which issued a report on workers’ deaths last month, says about 2,000 health care workers have so far died from the virus.

She says that workers should be tested more frequently so they can be identified and isolated so the infection does not spread, and that supplies of protective gear remain uneven, with some facilities unprepared for an increase in cases.

Even though workers may be taking more precautions and treatments have improved in recent months, the analysis underscored how vulnerable many individuals are because of underlying health conditions, which include diabetes and high blood pressure. Almost three-quarters of those hospitalized were obese, a high-risk category for death, the study showed.

The majority had cared directly for patients, whether in a hospital, home or school setting. It could not be determined whether the individuals contracted the virus at work or in the community, but the study highlighted the potential risk faced by nurses who serve as front-line workers “because of their frequent and close patient contact, leading to extended cumulative exposure time.”

Most of the hospitalized workers in the analysis were female. They also tended to be older, and more were Black employees than the overall group of health care workers who contracted the virus.


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