I have written for years about women and Hip Hop and culture, but I don’t think I’ve ever said more than a few words about Lauryn Hill. Like a lot of sisters my age, a couple years younger and a bit older, I have a great deal of attachment to the singer. But I haven’t always quite known what to say about her.
My thoughts on Hill regarding Blunted On Reality, The Score, and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was “awesome,” “awesomer,” and “OMFG, she’s not even a real person, how can she be THIS awesome?”—in that order. I needn’t say much more. Oh, and I took my acrylic nails off and stopped pressing my hair when “Doo (Wop That Thing)” came out. I was 14.
But after the “2001 MTV Unplugged” I was no longer a part of the group of women (and men) who seemed blindly loyal to, and almost obsessed with, the sister. I remember watching the concert with a group of my classmates as we prepared to perform For Colored Girls at our high school. We were on our deeply philosophical “we waz grown” Black girl shit at that time, and here was our Black shining princess—our spiritual big sister—on MTV doing about 30 songs that all had the same three chords. And her eyebrows weren’t groomed. And she had on a baseball cap. And she had on a boy’s shirt.
I was dismayed: “The fuck is wrong with her?” A couple of my cast mates were quick to defend her artistic choices and maintained that she was likely doing something that was too deep for us to comprehend. (Note: if you are on some Black power and/or artsy shit and keep your hair natural, many people will give you this same very pass . . . a fact I have taken advantage of for years. Thank you for letting me be mice elf.) I wasn’t with it.
“Something’s not right with her. I’m not gonna pretend to like these songs and I hope she’s okay, because she seems really…sad? Upset? Something’s not right.” So I was one of the few be-Afroed sisters around the way who didn’t cop “Unplugged.” I did download a few tracks from Napster. That’s about it.
As the years wore on, we all heard the rumors about Lauryn demanding to be called “Ms. Hill” by fellow musicians, and other less-than-sisterly behavior. And the stories of her blessing out her fans for not liking her new material . . . or for just showing up to see her in the first place. I was done. I thought The Miseducation was a happy accident. She was mad at us for co-opting her boho style? Well, someone shoulda told her she was hardly the first person to cut up some denim and add a little kente cloth to swag it out. Lauryn didn’t like singing the songs that made us love her? This wasn’t Lil Kim coming forward and saying she can’t stand behind “I used to be scared of the dick/now I throw lips to the shit”—you telling me you got all this resentment for “Heavy like the mind of Sister Betty?” Girl, bye.
To some level, I was hurt. Offended. We loved her and she was not trying to love us back. Combine that with some music I didn’t like and I was over her. Over. Only recently did I realize something: we may have crushed this woman with the weight of our expectations. Lauryn was in her early 20s when she became the biggest name in Pop music . . . for making songs talking about Black girl pain, and hood life, and struggle. That was a BIG deal. While I won’t engage all the foolishness of the rumor mill, she and Wyclef have both confirmed that they had a relationship outside of his marriage. She had a child with the son of one of the most famous musicians to ever live. Lauryn had a full and complicated life of her own, coupled with the weight of our expectations on her back. How many of us could balance all of that? At 25? Ever?
It’s been hard for people to accept that Lauryn is human as a motherfucker, just like us. Perhaps prettier (we won’t talk about my “Why, God, did you not make me look just. like. her?” period), more talented, uniquely insightful . . . but absolutely human nonetheless. And we hitched too many of our hopes and dreams to her. We didn’t ask “Who’s the next Lauryn?” We didn’t go out by the droves and support other female emcees (Can’t tell me there’s nobody out there at all like her so long as Mystic draws breath).
A whole lot of folks looked at Lauryn and expected her to tell them who to be, what to do, and how to dress along the way. And they wanted her to make sick ass music while doing it. Did Lauryn break down? Did she lose her head and get too egotistical? Did she simply say “Fuck this” and choose to put her family first? Did the pressure to match the success of The Miseducation render her unable to do another studio album? I don’t know, and I don’t know if we’ll ever know exactly why she was gone so long after putting out one of the greatest records of all time.
As Hill has allegedly returned to the studio to do a new record, it’s worth asking: what are we owed, if anything, from our artists? What are reasonable expectations when it comes to fan/performer relationships? When does our love for someone hurt them and make it hard for them to do what it is that we came to love them for in the first place? If Lauryn isn’t who we thought she was or who we want her to be, is it her fault for growing and changing, or ours for getting SO attached in the first place?
I think Lauryn is one of the most talented and beautiful women of her generation, and I sincerely hope that she makes a return to the global stage and blows us all out the water. I will not, however, hold my breath. I won’t sit in a concert and let her yell at me from behind the guitar about how she doesn’t want to perform “Killing Me Softly” unless she’s added indigenous Ethiopian percussions. Nor am I gonna tell her that she needs to perform what I want her to hear.
I appreciate the impact Hill’s earlier music had on me as a young woman, and what her words said to the world about our people and my gender. But I’m not gonna pretend she’s a goddess above and beyond the rest of us. She’s a human being and I think the best way we can show her some love is to treat her like one.