In Defense Of Ms. Hill
It’s finally time to stop letting folks from outside of our community tell us how to feel about Lauryn Hill
By Talib Kweli Greene
Yasiin Bey and I make beautiful music together. We are yin and yang, our styles complement each other very nicely. While it’s always a treat for us to perform together as Black Star, the style and pace of our solo performances are different. Yasiin and I have very different philosophies when it comes to stage performing. While I like to do songs back-to-back at a non-stop pace, make sure I do my hits and have my DJ hype up the crowd and do my ad libs, Yasiin prefers to take his time and does not like too much talking from his DJ.
Yasiin once explained to me that when people pay to see him, they are paying to see what he feels like expressing. So it doesn’t matter whether he does his “hits” or not. That was a great lesson for me.
“My songs are personal music, they’re not communal. I wouldn’t want people singing along with me. It would sound funny. I’m not playing campfire meetings. I don’t remember anyone singing along with Elvis, Carl Perkins or Little Richard.” ~Bob Dylan
Many fans will disagree with Yasiin’s stance here. They are missing the point. The artist is a human being, not a product. Sure, the artist makes products that are for sale, but the artist is not forever in your debt because you may have purchased a product from them at some point.
When you buy an album from me, I receive money and you get music. It’s a fair and even exchange that begins and ends once I receive my money and you receive your product. If I don’t value myself as an artist — especially working in a market that has decided that recorded music is not worth spending money on — then who will?
Artists make art for themselves. Art is an honest expression. Artists who pander to their fans by trying to make music “for” their fans make empty, transparent art. The true fan does not want you to make music for them, they want you to make music for you, because that’s the whole reason they fell in love with you in the first place.
I wrote my first rap when I was 12 years old. I had no fans. I didn’t write it for the fans, I wrote it because I had something I desperately needed to express. When Black Star came out, Yasiin and I did not have a huge fan base. We did that album for us. It is that honest personal, expression that fans crave.
The great thing about making art for yourself is that if you do it well, millions of people will relate to it and embrace it. They will support you and make it possible for you to have a career and feed your family, all with your art. These are your fans, and their passion, dedication and contribution to your life are to be cherished and respected.
However fans are not your boss, and listening to them when it comes to creative decisions is a slippery slope. I am not obligated to make the same album over and over again just because fans demand it. I am allowed to try new things, succeed at them or fail at them. I am allowed to not make music anymore ever, if that’s what I choose to do. I am allowed to give a shitty show or not even show up if I feel like it. Hopefully that will never happen, but if it does, it will never take away from the quality of the work I’ve already put out into the world.
Years ago I was in the audience at the BET Awards waiting to see Lauryn Hill reunite with the Fugees. Rumor had it that Lauryn was trying to perform a poem instead of her hits and the BET brass wouldn’t allow it. If this was true, it meant that BET loved what Lauryn Hill had given us in the past—enough to use her name and image to draw in viewers, without paying her—but had no respect for what she wanted to express on this day. This moment was the inspiration for my song “Ms. Hill.”
Lauryn Hill gave us two Fugees albums, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill and MTV Unplugged 2.0. How arrogant would I be to say she owed me anything? What kind of self absorbed, entitled nonsense is that?
When I was going to NYU, rooming with John Forte, we were hanging out with Ms. Hill, who was attending Columbia University. She used to come visit me at Nkiru Books in Brooklyn, the store I used to work at that Yasiin and I eventually purchased with our show money. We would hit up the African Street Festival at Boys and Girls High School and then go see professors like Dr. Frances Cress Welsing speak.
Before the Fugees blew up, this 19 year old, beautiful Black woman rocking dreadlocks was studying at an Ivy League college and already had two movies and a soap opera under her belt (King of the Hill, Sister Act 2, As The World Turns). This was an impressive young lady. When the Fugees did hit it big, they changed the musical landscape forever. The Score raised the bar for hip-hop and gave the people of Haiti something to be proud of. It sold 30 million copies and ended up on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Albums of All Time, due in no small part to Lauryn Hill’s incredible singing and rapping.
They sang about love, unity and they took pride in creating music that addressed the ills of their community in meaningful ways. The Fugees live show blended all of the elements of Black music and made for an experience that was unique in the world of hip-hop. They inspired millions.
Shortly after becoming one of the most famous women of color in the world, Lauryn Hill founded the Refugee Project, a charity organization that sought to change the attitudes of at-risk youth. She took inner city kids from New York City to Camp Hill, which she also founded, in the Catskill Mountains. She traveled to Kenya and Uganda to help build wells that would provide clean water, and she organized free concert in Harlem in 1997 designed to get people in that community to vote. All of this Lauryn Hill contributed to the world before giving us the classic that is The Miseducation.
If you’ve never listened to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, you haven’t lived. The album is a stellar piece of work. It is the pure, unfiltered, unflinching voice of a 24-year-old female MC/singer pushing back against the walls of the neat little box the world expected her to fit in. Tears came to my eyes when I first heard this album. “Ex Factor” is searing, “To Zion” is soaring, and “Lost Ones” remains a club banger.
No matter what Lauryn Hill decided to do after she gave us The Miseducation, never forget that she already gave us The Miseducation. It was the most critically acclaimed album of 1998 and has become a modern classic. The following year, Lauryn Hill became the first woman ever to be nominated in ten different Grammy categories, and she won five of them, including Album of The Year. This was another historic first for women. During the acceptance speech, Lauryn Hill claimed us loudly and proudly by declaring “This is crazy. This is hip-hop.” For this, I will always have Lauryn Hill’s back. For this, I will ride for her whether she ever releases anything ever again. She’s already given me so much, I feel I owe her more.
“I saw the same thing as Clef and Lauryn, when they saw it
Lauryn went looking for God and Clef kept touring”
~me, “Before He Walked”►
Around the early 2000s Lauryn Hill stepped away from the limelight to focus on spirituality and family. That, to me, is a respectable decision. When the Fugees reunited briefly to perform at Dave Chappelle’s Block Party in 2004, someone in the crowd yelled out “Lauryn where you been?” Ms. Hill responded by pointing at one of her children and saying “that’s where I been.”
It also seemed like the pressure of being so famous was weighing on her. The Lauryn Hill I knew at 19 was never into the hype of being a celebrity. She was an artist, and it seems like the celebrity worship she was surrounded by pulled her away from being an artist. When she did show up for shows during this period, she was heavily criticized for her appearance, her performance choices and for sometimes arriving late. Fans who claimed to love Lauryn during the Miseducation era turned their back on her. This mass abandonment of one of our heroes allowed a white, male writer named Stefan Schumacher to think it was OK to pen an article titled “It’s Finally Time To Stop Caring About Lauryn Hill: I Used To Love Her. I Don’t Anymore.”
When you pay for a Lauryn Hill concert you are not paying for her to do what you want, you are paying for her to do what she wants. She is not an iPod nor is she a trained monkey. She doesn’t have to do her hits and she doesn’t have to do the songs the way you want to hear them. She doesn’t owe you that. The world does not revolve around you, and you ain’t gotta like it. Get over yourself. If you have a negative experience at her concert, go home, put on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and the next time she does come through your town, don’t go to her concert. Problem solved. Just because you had a negative experience at a Lauryn Hill show doesn’t mean her contribution to the world is invalid or deserves to be disrespected.
In Schumacher’s incredibly self-absorbed takedown of Ms. Hill he describes her as “an artist who hasn’t produced anything of relevance in the last two decades.” Because of this $88 is too much of a ticket price, even though he goes through pains to explain that he isn’t broke. I wonder how much Rolling Stones tickets are going for these days? What was their last “relevant” hit? I’ve never seen the Stones, but I hear the show ain’t what it used to be. How good could it be? Those guys are senior citizens. I went to see Mötley Crüe this summer. Fun show, I was on the list, but tickets were being sold for over $200.
Schumacher writes like a stalker. Actual quote from his piece, “What’s she doing with her time? How many kids does she have? Is she broke? Will she return to her former glory?” I’m like, dude. Fall back. Get out her business and her pocket. Don’t be a creep.
She doesn’t owe you, or any of us, this information.
Schumacher describes himself as part of Ms. Hill’s dedicated fans. I call bullshit. Ms. Hill’s dedicated fans accept her for who she is, they don’t write hit pieces about how she is no longer a good artist because she isn’t what they want her to be. Lauryn’s greatness does not diminish because of lack of commercial output. A “dedicated” fan would never suggest something so disrespectful.
I have to respect the fact that Stefan Schumacher seems to be a fan of the Black Star album, which dropped the same year as Miseducation. He mentions it favorably in his piece. However, defending the honor of someone who has given as much to me and my community as Ms. Hill has trumps any of that for me. Who knows when I will do something Mr. Schumacher doesn’t like or understand, and then I will be the one he is writing hit pieces about. Maybe I’ve already done that. Sigh.
D’Angelo and Sade have made us wait decades for music. Dr. Dre’s Detox may never be released. I don’t know the exact reasons why, nor do I care. Dr. Dre gave me N.W.A, The Chronic, and 2001. He owes me more? Nah. I feel like The Chronic was so good, I may need to give him some more bread, even with his Beats/Apple situation.
True fans celebrate what they have already received, they don’t whine like spoiled children about not receiving things they were never owed in the first place. When (and if) an artist shares their art, it is a privilege not a right. Try to remove your personal feelings from that equation.
I saw Lauryn Hill perform a full set at Brooklyn Bowl this summer. It was intimate, and the house was packed with dedicated fans. These fans weren’t yelling out song titles or getting upset because Lauryn was performing newer renditions of classic records. We came to see what Ms. Hill came to express, nothing more, nothing less.
She started her set with Bob Marley classics, which got the Brooklyn crowd going quick. Once she had us in her grasps, she did soul/doo-wop drenched versions of songs from Miseducation. They were well thought out, upbeat and reminiscent of the music that Lauryn, who was born in 1975 like me, grew up on. It occurred to me in this moment that these were the live versions of the Miseducation songs she had been working on for the last few years.
Lauryn had transcended her L-Boogie phase a long time ago: she was now intent on presenting the entire canon of Black music on stage. It’s never been just about her or her music. When she did bless the crowd with some songs from the Fugees album The Score, not only did she perform her verses, but she performed the songs that the Fugees sampled to create their songs. It was a musical history lesson, and it was a brilliant performance. Maybe if we watch what Lauryn is actually doing instead of complaining about what she is not doing, we can continue to be inspired by her.
In 2005, Lauryn Hill told USA Today, “If I make music now, it will only be to provide information for my own children. If other people benefit from it, so be it.” If anyone deserves to be able to say something like this, it is the legendary Ms. Hill.