Clef's big treble

Emma Forrest meets The Fugees frontman and turns cartwheels in exchange for his new solo album
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We are backstage at the Birmingham NEC when Fugees frontman, Wyclef Jean, insists that I do a cartwheel. He is talking about his early childhood in Haiti and reminiscing about teaching himself to do backflips when I casually say "Oh, I used to be a gymnast" - I don't add, "when I was 10". So now he's pointing at the corridor saying "go on then, do a cartwheel". This man has sold 11 million albums worldwide. I have to do it. As a posse of PRs, support bands and roadies gather round, I take a deep breath, do a run-up and launch my feet over my head, falling hard onto my palms. The walls of the corridor are narrow and I am quite proud that I don't bang into them.

"That," declares Clef, solemnly, "was terrible." Not only does he mock me, but he summons his bandmates to recount how bad it was. "Yo, Pras, see her? She just did the lamest muthafucking cartwheel ever!" He is still talking about it in the hotel lift, telling the beauteous Lauryn Hill about what a lousy cartwheel I did. She is seven months pregnant with Stephen Marley's child, has a temperature of 101 and generally has better things to worry about. But still Clef shakes his head and snorts. "Lamest cartwheel I ever seen." "I'm sorry," I wail as the doors close. I am justifying myself to someone who has been the subject of more media derision than practically anyone in modern music.

The Fugees' first album, the lo-fi Blunted On Reality, was a well-received underground hit. Its follow-up, The Score, powered by the mega-hit "Killing Me Softly", is one of the biggest-selling albums of the Nineties. But the group are no longer seen as hip or on the edge, at least not by the rock press who have a very short fuse with black acts.

"They're just a covers band," sneers NME, which seems to resent any rap act that doesn't remain confined to the ghetto. The others just about get away with it: Lauryn is the knockout with the stunning voice and Pras is enough in the shadows not to warrant criticism. But Clef is the man who says "One time! Two times!" over every song. He's the one who ruins it. Except he isn't. Wyclef is the driving force behind The Fugees, the composer, the producer, the mind. He's the one who makes it, a fact proven by his rapturously received solo album, The Carnival. Even NME had to give it 8 out of 10. He is oblivious. "Whatever they saying, it doesn't affect us," he says. "We the ones that gotta walk on Flatbush [Brooklyn]. I didn't think this would happen. As a kid, I thought I was destined to die in a shoot-out. You don't worry about what people saying about you."

Wheeling in a ghetto blaster to give me a sneak preview of Wyclef Presents The Carnival, he doesn't even ask what I think of it, such is his confidence. The record features New Orleans heroes The Neville Brothers, Bob Marley's backing band, The I-Threes and Latin diva Celia Cruz on a re-working of Pete Seeger's "Guantanamera". Clef is a devout Bob Dylan fan and there is a folky lilt to The Carnival. It's unusual for an artist to become more daring with mainstream fame, but that's what he has done. The superb "Gone 'til November" even features Wyclef conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Jeans are a successful bunch: Clef's brother Sam is a hotshot lawyer. On the way to Birmingham, Sam flicks through a recording contract his neighbour's daughter has been offered, tutting and circling in angry red biro.

"When my brother was in college, I was on the streets," explains Clef. "When he'd come home, there were certain areas he couldn't go. I had to take him. My brother is my direct opposite, but I always made sure he was protected, without him even knowing." The boys grew up in Haiti, torn between their minister father and voodoo priest grandfather, before moving to Brooklyn when Clef was nine. "They gave me spiritual insight. I was on the streets but I was always aware of the fact that I had a soul. Someone put a gun to my head and I said `You cannot shoot me. You are not authorised to shoot me'. He started running. Next day everyone said, `We heard about what happened. Who was that giant nigger you had with you last night?' Then I realised that the power of faith overrules everything."

In America, Haitians are treated badly. Stereotypes of voodoo still abound along with false accusations accrediting the start of Aids to the island. Wyclef is fiercely proud of his home. While waiting for the new album to come out, he began sending tapes to Haitian radio stations, which people listen to obsessively as hardly anyone can afford to buy CDs. Needless to say, the record company, terrified of bootlegging, were less than thrilled.

"I don't never look at it like that," Clef says. "If your records ain't selling, it's because you lack creativity. It's not because a hundred thousand kids bootlegged your CD. My interest has always been to appeal to those with nothing. That can't change just because The Fugees is big."

The next step was a Fugees benefit concert in Haiti last month. "If I tell the label I wanna do this, they can't tell me no. If I say I want to do a show in Haiti, they can't say no. They can say they not going to put no money behind it and I'll say `cool'; I got my own money."

He is willing to take the risk, scathing of bands who make a lot of money and then don't put anything back into the community. `In July, I want a Viper so I can ride around with the top down. But in September, I know I gotta send $50,000 to the charity fund in Haiti because I promised the kids I'd send them instruments. That comes first."

For all The Fugees' hard work, at the time of writing, Clef's worst fear had come true - the money from the Haiti benefit concert has gone missing. If the money isn't in the fund by the end of the month, Wyclef has sworn to go over there himself and get it back. You'd better believe him. As I leave the Birmingham NEC, Wyclef is telling more people about my poor cartwheel. Then he does back flips all the way down the hall - five in a row. He seems to stop upside down in mid-air, as if his beard is a helicopter propeller. If anyone is going to mock my cartwheel, then I'm glad it's him.

`Wyclef Presents The Carnival' is out on Columbia Records.