Published by Gusher Magazine Fall 2019
Lauryn Hill released just one album 20 years ago, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (MTV Unplugged doesn’t count), and still, nothing soundtracks a break up better than the shimmery, opening notes of piano on “Ex-Factor.” Both Drake and Cardi B sampled Hill’s masterpiece on two of 2018’s biggest hits. They are recapturing the way hearts ached 20 years ago as Hill sang, “Is this just a silly game that forces you to act this way?” for a new generation. Still, today, there are just as many reasons to praise Hill as there are to critique her.
If you tell a friend you have tickets to see Lauryn Hill live, they will likely respond with “good luck.” In recent years, Hill has notoriously showed up to shows as much as four hours late, and when the performance does begin, her classics are sped up to a tempo so pulsating that Hill is constantly catching her breath between bars.
Fans and critics take to social media, writing tweets like, “Why are people still buying Lauryn Hill concert tickets? She hasn’t attended one of her own concerts since 2013.” About her challenging relationship with punctuality, Hill wrote on Facebook in 2016, “I don’t show up late to shows because I don’t care. And I have nothing but love and respect for my fans. The challenge is aligning my energy with the time, taking something that isn’t easily classified or contained, and trying to make it available for others. I don’t have an on/off switch. I am at my best when I am open, rested, sensitive and liberated to express myself as truthfully as possible.”
When I picked up Joan Morgan’s She Begat This: 20 Years of the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, I didn’t know which portrait of the artist I be reading: the often idealized musical genius of 20 years ago, or the off-kilter woman that does not care enough about her legacy to begin a show on time. In this short book, Morgan paints a complex portrait of Hill — depicting the artist that captivated you when you first heard the boom bap of “Lost Ones”, while also revealing that this is a person that was sued for not properly crediting the songwriters and producers who helped make her album.
Morgan (who pioneered hip-hop feminist theory with her 1999 book When Chickenheads Come to Roost) reminds us just how much Hill’s album reflected the social, political, and musical landscape of its time. Morgan reminds us of Bill Clinton’s punitive ‘96 welfare reform bill that coerced mothers back into the workforce. So on the song “To Zion”, when Hill sings about her decision to carry her firstborn son despite pressure from those around her to have an abortion to avoid impacting her career, it feels, as Morgan writes, like “a revolutionary act.”
Through the stories of Black woman stylists, activists, music executives, DJs, and critics quoted throughout the book, Morgan brings home the impact and influence of the album on black women and girls from the 90s to now. As stylist Michaela Angela Davis says, “Lauryn Hill, for me, is the visual precursor to #blackgirlmagic. This generation owes her their inheritance.”
In She Begat This, Morgan grapples with the legacy of a polarising figure. As she has written previously, Ms. Lauryn Hill embodies what she calls, “A feminism that fucks with the grays.” Uncomfortable, yet vital nonetheless. A musical genius, she is also a woman struggling under the expectations set by herself and others.