Draped in a knee-length gray-and-white Chinchilla fur, the Grammy-winning artist Wyclef Jean roamed the aisles of South Philadelphia High School’s auditorium Wednesday afternoon, taking questions from any student bold enough to ask, and freestyling in four languages. Students’ eyes were fixed on the Fugees founder — some of whom seemed perplexed by who he was..

Jean was in South Philly to present a $50,000 grant from Toyota in partnership with the VH1 Save the Music Foundation that will be spent on technological upgrades to aid students in beat-making, songwriting, audio engineering, and DJ’ing. While other schools have received grants for traditional musical instruments, Southern is the first to receive a music technology grant through the program.

When Jean first took the stage, students turned to each other asking about his claim to fame, but that chatter ceased when Jean mentioned the Young Thug song named in his honor.

Wyclef Jean plays music with students, like senior Lanayjah Turner, 17, from South Philadelphia High School after announcing that the school will receive $50,000 to upgrade music technology.
Kristen Balderas
Wyclef Jean plays music with students, like senior Lanayjah Turner, 17, from South Philadelphia High School after announcing that the school will receive $50,000 to upgrade music technology.

“When y’all are listening to Young Thug, and his song is called ‘Wyclef Jean,’ I am Wyclef Jean,” he said to audience cheers.

He told the students of how he came from the New York City projects, eating “government cheese,” to watching his name being announced as a winner at the Grammy Awards.

“Education is important,” Jean told the audience of about 600 students. “Sounds corny, don’t it? You have to be educated for this new world. If not, you’re going to get robbed in the worst way.

“The secret to making it is, you got to do it the right way. You can’t use the 'hood for [an] excuse,” Jean said.

After the school-wide ceremony, Jean chatted with about 30 music students in a classroom workshop, where he broke down the piano’s C-chord into numbers, and even invited senior August LaReyy to transform the beat in his head into a reality on new equipment.

Unlike many of his peers, LaReyy, 17, knew who Jean was, and was speechless when he called him to the front of the class.

August LaReyy, a 17-year-old senior at South Philadelphia High School (on right) worked alongside Wyclef Jean (on left) to bring the beat in his head to life.
TyLisa C. Johnson / Staff
August LaReyy, a 17-year-old senior at South Philadelphia High School (on right) worked alongside Wyclef Jean (on left) to bring the beat in his head to life.

As a child, LaReyy listened to the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly With His Song” with his parents often, but never imagined that he’d be shoulder to shoulder with Jean.

About four years ago, LaReyy’s father died, inspiring him to pursue his dream of becoming a music producer. Working alongside Jean just “boosted my motivation,” he said.

“He actually got to know who I am as a music producer, like music producer to music producer, goat to sheep," LaReyy said. “It was really amazing how he gave me attention. Music artists nowadays don’t even do that,” he said, but Jean did. “That was really crazy. … My dad would be so proud.”

The grant is a part of the #ToyotaGiving campaign, which has donated $160,000 to four schools through a partnership with the VH1 foundation by providing under-privileged schools with musical instruments and supporting music education programs.

VH1 has partnered with the School District of Philadelphia for more than a decade, said Frank Machos, executive director of the district’s Office of the Arts and Academic Enrichment, so when the opportunity to apply for a music technology grant arose, it just made sense.

Machos said it’s “really important for us in Philly to really expand our music programs to reflect our kids and to reflect the music industry today.”