Known as the Oscars of the advertising world, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity has been recognizing excellence in branded communication for over six decades. The week-long event includes various industry leaders judging works across different cultural categories that have made an impact.

We sat down with Wyclef Jean, who is serving as the Entertainment Lions for Music Jury President. As President and Chief Strategy Officer of Sodo Mood Lab — and an iconic musician who has blessed us with his solo beats and masterpieces with the Fugees — he brings both his expertise in the field and thoughtful point of view on social justice to breathe new life into the Cannes Lions festival.

Read on to learn about his take on brand authenticity, how brands can get social justice right, and more.

What does authenticity mean to you?

The business that we're in, everyone has something to sell and everyone has a pitch. I say that the best way to sell a product is not to promote it, but to show me how much you feel about the product, internally. I'll give you an example. We're doing a movie with Netflix, right, and you know how you go in and you do the pitch? This is supposed to be about my life story, the first 10 years of my life. We walked in and — you could imagine a trillion pitches a day for Netflix, right? What they bought into was just the facts of the conversation. So I feel like what's authentic doesn't have to be pushed on. It's something that someone can speak about and you can feel the belief for it, and that's what makes me buy into it.

What is your advice to brands who are trying to be authentic while trying to meet a business goal?

It's a very tricky slope. That's the reality. I mean, we have to admit that. You can either get it right or get it wrong, there's nothing in between. And in order for you to get it right, you have to make sure you are hiring the right creators who fully understand that culture. That's the number one thing. If you're going to talk to me about Brooklyn, Flatbush Avenue, and it's a creator who understands the area and understands the dimensions, it’s going to come across real. And the best way to do that is to make sure you are hiring the creative who is entrenched in what you are trying to convey to the public.

Yeah, until businesses hire diverse perspectives, we're not giving creators equal opportunity to create or speak to people in authentic ways. And now brands are more vocal politically — can you talk to me about brand authenticity as it relates to social movements, like Black Lives Matter?

This is a great question. Let's just say, what side of history do we want to be on? Let's start off with that. Because I think all of us are students of history, and when we go back and we look at history, we always cling to the side of those who sacrificed themselves so we can have justice, so we can have freedom. There has been a lot of blood shed. I mean, we're talking about Black Lives Matter, but let's think about Martin Luther King. Let's go back further; let's think about Harriet Tubman, let's think about Frederick Douglass. Let's go back even further; let's think about the idea of going to a place, chaining a bunch of people, literally bringing them to areas, stripping them of their language, stripping them of their names. And then applying parts of a constitution, which inhibits them at times to be proactive in certain parts of the justice system and the economic system.

The system is not — it was never — set up for us. This is so important to understand, because if a brand can understand that reality then... It starts off with us looking at each other in the face. I mean, I remember having a conversation with Nelson Mandela in South Africa, I got a one-on-one with him. He is one of my greatest heroes and I got to ask a question. One of my questions was, “If somebody did something to my wife or my daughter or my sister, if they murdered and killed them, how can I face this person?” What's this idea about court? You show up, you speak to your oppressor. I could not do that. You know what I'm saying, right? And for you to suffer the way you have suffered and to rise, and this is still your act of forgiveness… So he said that you have to be able and be willing to forgive, but in the process of forgiving you don't forget, and you don't forget the course of history. If you actually want to change it, both people have to sit down and look at each other face to face and say they want to change it.

So my question to the brands is, “Do you want to be involved in Black Lives Matter because of the climate, the temperature that we’re in? Are you in it because it's the cool thing to do now?" It wasn't that cool to do when they were putting the dogs on us, or the idea of chains and slaves, but now it's cool, right? So if you can look at me in the eyes, like the Mandela model, and say, “You know what, Clef, in order to deal with this issue, we have to understand how much hate, how much murders, how much the system is not rigged for minorities. And we are willing to participate in that part.”

If you are telling me Black Lives Matter, and you are not participating in some form of prison reform policy, I'm going to look at you as bullshit. If you are telling me Black Lives Matter, and in the structure of your billion-dollar corporation, you do not have an active plan on how you will have representatives go to rural communities and start to teach classes on generational wealth, I'm going to take you as a bullshitter. So at the end of the day, I think that these are my strong requirements to brands. Really make sure that you are not just tapping into the subculture because it's the thing to do at the time, but you are actually tapping into the idea of real change and to the idea of, “Let me use my corporation now for reform, let me use this for policies, for legislations.” These are my words to the brands.

Those are very important words, and it doesn't get more to the point than that. Right now with social justice being what everyone's talking about, there's so many brands that want to do the right thing but for the wrong reasons – it feels inauthentic. For them, it's to capitalize on the moment, it's to monetize, it's to push their agenda. But these aren't the right reasons, and I'm happy you’re calling this out. People probably don't even realize that you're having these conversations, for example, with Cannes Lions. Tell me about your involvement with them.

It's an honor. I'm very excited about that. I got into Cannes Lions a few years ago and just started learning. I learned so much being on a jury, about how brands operate, and about the cultural relevance of music in brands — the creativity is limitless. Also, what I was amazed by was some of the documentaries I got to see and how a lot of the creators are using their platforms to bring the idea of social change, the idea of a new way you should look at the world.

As a juror, I've watched and I've had to judge a lot of it. So I’m very excited; despite Covid, because we would physically be there. I mean, people would have seen Wyclef jumping from the balcony as he always do with his guitar in his hands, which we look back to getting to pretty soon.

But we’re in a very serious time, and I feel us, as creators, as brands, we have a moral obligation at this time that we must set. That's where we are pushing towards. Unification, unity, how do we show love in a form of creativity in different ways that people have not seen yet? I'm also looking forward to how that is conveyed within the year through imagery, through different brands, and through music.

The 2021 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is scheduled for June 21 to 25 and is fully digital. Click here to learn more.

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