I saw Lauryn Hill in concert plenty of times in our early and mid-twenties. So, I do not join the hoard of critics who bemoan her cancellations, tardiness and (so I’ve heard) unsatisfying performances. I have my memories, and they are absolutely joyous.
I have been to hip-hop concerts and even book signings for Black male artists I shall not name, and their fans seemed to eat up their aggressive and profanity-laden taunts to the audience. In many earlier cases, I attended those concerts on the campus of my prestigious majority-White alma mater. I was discomforted by how this behavior inflamed young White men to just bob their heads even more and, I guess, practice their swaggers. Most of all, I did not feel safe or supported in such a braggadocio atmosphere.
More recently I have been bothered by how progressive intellectuals remained still and enthralled while watching Black authors rip into heated tirades full of language the men knew a Big Mama or Sunday School teacher would whip their butts for- especially for the sin of carrying on like that “in front of White folks.” I do not understand how this behavior is paid for and satisfying, yet Ms. Hill is condemned for trying new things on stage or just not doing her shows. We all have prerogatives, and fans receive refunds.
Order Joan Morgan’s new book She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, an exploration and celebration of Lauryn’s influence on culture.
I was in college when The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill dropped in 1998. Prior to this, I had once traveled back home for the weekend and mistakenly left The Fugees’ The Score album on repeat in my Sony Disc player, which also functioned as my alarm clock. I returned to hear “Fu-Gee-La”, and breathed a sigh of relief. As the only Black girl on the floor, and just one of four in the entire dorm, I was going to search out my new sister who loved Lauryn as much as I did. Turns out all that Negress loveliness was blasting from my room. I was embarrassed, but many of the White do-gooders and baby feminists I shared the academic projects with assured me my mistake had blessed them that whole weekend. This was the Fugees’ and Lauryn’s charm and legacy. Like The Jackson Five and The Supremes and Whitney before them, they were pioneers of mass American appeal.
My intense attraction to Lauryn was obvious: a young chocolate woman with big lips, fuzzy brows, thick coarse hair and all her clothes on was my way in to becoming a “hip-hop head” (the popular music’s combative lyrics and hypersexual references to Black women kept me listening to Belinda Carlisle and The Smashing Pumpkins with Janet and Mariah sprinkled in). Lauryn picked up where Queen Latifah and Salt N Pepa left off, in optimistic youth-friendly empowerment and reflection of Black girls how I saw us in my everyday life: dressed preppy or headwrapped- out, confident, in control, going places.
As a much more ubiquitous and popular incarnation of those early rappers, Lauryn extinguished the unflattering Negress caricatures I was not only ashamed of but interpreted and appraised as, despite all the evidence to the contrary for bigots who were incapable of seeing me beyond their limited stock data and media-fed distorted imagery.
Of course I would have wanted Ms. Hill to join my favorites like Mary J. Blige and Janet Jackson, who provided me with a bubbling excitement each time they dropped a new album every few years. Since I moved out of my childhood homes and into my own, I no longer had to worry about punishing relatives with repeat plays of these sisters I fantasized being. While putting their albums on repeat for 24 hours a day two days in a row would have been extreme, I must admit playing their anthems was my empowering shield and gesture. I could let their sounds indicate my stands without me saying a word.
Over the years, I never lost sight of Lauryn or news about her- not just gossip and private matters, but her blessings of healthy children and all her largely unnoted community work. We all have different paths around the planet. Ms. Hill’s path may not be to act as the Black female Mick Jagger or Grateful Dead. Her path instead leads to this very era and time when young Black women (and the elders) are proud more of us can stand our grounds to remain as intelligent and unadulterated as we know the world is not hungry to see us as. Her path included signifying a new idea of fashion close to the makeshift quilting and recycling rampant in Black communities, from which haute couture secretly takes it trends and cues anyway.
Her path included exploding a door where Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott, India Arie and Nneka could emerge through: less explanatory about who they were and instead they could just be. Ms. Hill complicated the Negress image in all the right directions and ways, and she made it clear the auras of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone were more stubborn than stereotypes, and she made it known paying audiences were waiting for more like them. People should be grateful a major reason we can pay to see most Black female soul and indie hip-hop artist acts today is due to that time Lauryn was indeed showing up to fill the stadiums concert promoters once thought girls like her did not fill.
I imagine Ms. Hill does not have the budget for the teams of assistants and people who keep Beyonce, Shonda Rhimes, Janet Jackson and Erykah Badu going as working mothers- a consideration prominent men are not as constricted by. No matter how obsessed they are with their careers, they always have some woman to keep their home fires burning, even if it is not a wife but a mother or sister. Barack Obama displayed the most vigorous honesty about that, in his constant blessed praise of how nothing in his life was possible without Michelle
I have not bought a ticket to a Lauryn Hill concert in some time. None of her shows have been convenient to me. Chicago is not one of her stomping grounds. If she played the East Coast, where I travel and stay often, then I was not there when she played. But if the stars aligned with my schedule and news of one of her shows, I would still buy a ticket. And if she cancelled her concert or was late for it, then she would not be the first.
‘Difficult Artist’ is not a title Ms. Hill invented. Nor did she invent poor performances. In her last days, Billie Holiday suffered from the same criticisms of unreliability and disrespect to fans. I have argued it took the masses so long to recognize and respect Holiday that their comfort and approval did not matter to her once she did, but of course we do know substance abuse played roles in her changed character and abilities. I had the chance to see the late Amy Winehouse once. It was a disappointment to say the least. I was not the only one in the muddy Lollapalooza field wondering why she was not moving or seemed ready to fall over. I remember moving on to a lesser-known indie artist’s show at the same time. It was too sad to watch her.
Obviously, drugs and alcohol are not the problem with Lauryn Hill. I find it troubling to know she would actually get more sympathy from us if it was (When Amy Winehouse won a Grammy and had to appear from rehab to accept the award, Natalie Cole famously protested that no Black artists like Beyonce or Kanye should have been snubbed for setting a good example to young people that she felt Ms. Winehouse did not).
The witching crowd’s biggest problem may be Lauryn’s status as a star who emerged to make sure ‘bitch’, ‘hoe’ and ‘booty call’ were not titles she would bear at all. Her mass condemnation now just may be latent punishment for the Black female respectability and ignorance reversals she insisted on back then. But back then she was just too untouchable or dangerous to criticize for it in her zenith, with all the Grammys and artificial adoration she was rightfully uncomfortable to see as things to hold onto.