Ms. Lauryn Hill's music is a weapon for change
It’s Africa hot! Seriously, it’s topping 30 degrees at 9:00pm in the moonlit courtyard of BBnZ Live Studio in Accra, Ghana. The intimate crowd is buzzing, and my brother, Kwame, is restless. His record label is hosting a pop-up event featuring Ms. Lauryn Hill and she’s scheduled to arrive any minute. It’s not just any week in Accra… It’s Afrochella — the biggest live music event of the year, and Ms. Hill is taking a brief break from her ‘Miseducation’ 20th Anniversary World Tour to come to Ghana and show her support for our burgeoning Afrobeat music scene.
Lauryn arrives. The crowd goes crazy. Her performance is incredible.
Singer, songwriter, actress and activist, the legendary Ms. Lauryn Hill combines hip hop, reggae, and soul into a unique sound that continues to captivate us. Her voice, her message, and her actions moved a generation to question the expectations and assumptions that we attach to fame, womanhood, and race.
In her own words…
“As artists, we have an opportunity to help the public evolve, raise consciousness and awareness, teach, heal, enlighten and inspire in ways the democratic process may not be able to touch. So we keep it moving.” — Ms. Lauryn Hill
Drawn to perform from a young age, 13-year-old Hill would first find her feet at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, where she met Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel. Together they formed a band called Tranzlator Crew, that would later become known as Fugees. Prior to the fame, in this playful freestyle on Dr. Dre’s legendary ‘Yo! MTV Raps’, you can see the chemistry between Lauryn, Wyclef, and Pras.
Ready or not, refugees taking over
Fugees’ second album, The Score, dropped in 1996 and was an instant classic, selling 17 million copies and making the Fugees the highest selling hip hop group of all time. Ms. Hill’s raspy and soulful voice defined their sound, and placed her at the front and centre of the music industry. Her eloquent flow and slick wordplay also cemented her place as a legendary MC, among hip hop’s elite.
“The subconscious psychology that you use against me / If I lose control will send me to the penitentiary / Such as Alcatraz, or shot up like el Hajj Malik Shabazz /
High class get bypassed while my ass gets harassed” — Ms. Lauryn Hill, ‘The Beast’
In 1997, after the fame and critical acclaim of The Score, Ms. Hill began recording a solo project in Tuff Gong Studios, Jamaica: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The title was inspired by The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933);the seminal work of the eminent black historian, Carter G. Woodson. The album received universal critical acclaim, and sold 12 million copies globally, making Ms. Hill a multi-millionaire and a world-renowned music icon. However, not long after its release, Hill disappeared from the public eye. Her public persona has since been shrouded in controversy, mystery and misinformation — She has been described by critics and fans alike as enigmatic, crazy, genius, militant and everything in between.
Ms. Hill keeps it moving.
Ms. Hill: The Activist
The skewed public perception of Ms. Hill too often misses what lies just beneath the surface: over the last decade, she’s made meaningful contributions to several socially conscious initiatives, using her voice as a vehicle for social change.
“We’re in this war. Well, there’s always a constant spiritual war, but there’s a battle for the souls of black folk, and just folks in general, and the music has a lot to do with it.” — Ms. Lauryn Hill, Interview with Rolling Stone (1999)
While serving a three-month prison sentence for tax evasion (which is another story in itself), Hill absorbed herself in the writings of philosopher and revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, a central figure in the Algerian War for Independence and the fight for the decolonisation of Africa. Following her release from prison, Ms. Hill narrated an acclaimed documentary, Concerning Violence, by Swedish filmmaker, Göran Olsson, which explores Fanon’s most influential work: The Wretched of the Earth (1961). The film depicts the vehement struggle of an oppressed peoples’ fight for freedom and draws parallels with the current climate of economic imperialism, which cripples many African nations today. Ms. Hill’s voice, intense and raspy, lends a certain weight to the words. It is authentic and, at times, profound.
“The naked truth of decolonisation evokes for us the searing bullets and bloodstained knives, which emanate from it. For if the last shall be first, this will only come to pass after a murderous and decisive struggle...”— Ms. Lauryn Hill quoting Frantz Fanon in ‘Concerning Violence’
What happened, Miss Simone?
It would take a Hollywood budget and a civil rights icon for Lauryn Hill to return to the public consciousness. In mid-2014, Ms. Hill received a call from an old friend — Jayson Jackson, a producer who had collaborated with her to create Miseducation, was working on a new project: a Netflix documentary exploring the life and times of the iconic musician and civil rights activist, Nina Simone. What Happened Miss Simone? presents a gripping view of reality through the lens of a gifted artist agitating for change during an era where lynchings were commonplace and to be black was to be less than human.
Ms. Hill’s voice defines the soundtrack of the film. From the soulful rendition of Feeling Good, to the touching, Black is the Colour of My True Loves Hair, Lauryn’s interpretation of her predecessor’s work is powerful. While Miss Simone laid the foundation for contemporary black artists like Ms. Hill, their stories also bear close resemblance. Both women refused to succumb to the expectations of a white majority, Miss Simone fiercely opposing Jim Crowe Segregation, and Ms. Hill fiercely opposing the local ‘War on Crime’ and the global ‘War on Terror’.
Always authentic. Driven by inspiration.
Teach the kids about Ms. Lauryn Hill…
Notes & Quotes:
“[I wanted to] write songs that lyrically move me and have the integrity of reggae and the knock of hip-hop and the instrumentation of classic soul. [My engineer and I worked on] a sound that’s raw. I like the rawness of you being able to hear the scratch in the vocals. I don’t ever want that taken away. I don’t like to use compressors and take away my textures, because I was raised on music that was recorded before technology advanced to the place where it could be smooth. I wanna hear that thickness of sound. You can’t get that from a computer, because a computer’s too perfect. But that human element, that’s what makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I love that.” — Ms. Hill on the sound of Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
“In November 1997, I get a phone call asking if I was available to come to Chung King Studios. Lauryn came in eating spaghetti pomodoro and garlic bread and explained where she’s trying to go with this album and how she wants it to be a reflection of all of us. I was an 18-year-old girl that just wanted to sing. For “Doo Wop” she said, “I wanna play with ’50s and ’60s harmonies, like barbershop guys on the corner and then we all just jumped in harmonizing a cappella “whooo whoo whoo whoo.” She directed us and from there history was made.” — Lenesha Randolph (backup singer) on recoding hit single, ‘Doo Wop’
It’s about 3:15 AM, and in the dimly lighted sound booth of Chung King Studios, in lower Manhattan, Lauryn is seated sideways on a wooden stool, in dark jeans and a gray zip-up sweat shirt, a beige knit cap containing her dreads. Behind her, a herd of empty mike stands rests like a flock of black and silver flamingos. At her feet sit a half-finished Nantucket Nectars lemonade and two lyrics-coated legal pads. Lauryn is working on a rhyme for a new Curtis Mayfield song from the upcoming Mod Squad movie soundtrack, produced by Atlanta’s Organized Noize, who have worked with Goodie Mob and OutKast. She comes up with “There ain’t no excuses/’Cause in every situation man chooses/His own plate/His own fate/His own date at redemption/And only fools and babies get exemption/In the hereafter school/See, we all stay for detention/ And, uh, did I mention/It’s either ascension or descension/No third dimension/So pay attention.” — An excerpt from Rolling Stone’s 1998 cover story, ‘Lauryn Hill: Lady Soul’, by Touré
“It’s not a stretch to say that I learned about Nina through the prism and perspective of Lauryn… Simone was prolific throughout her career, but like Hill, chose personal and political conviction over commercial appeal during the Civil Rights era. The film documents Simone’s vivid genius and the ways it tormented her — and does not spare the harsh realities of her late career, particularly during her self-imposed exile. It is impossible to watch the film without thinking of Hill… Many times during the making of this film, when I would look at rough cuts, there were situations that very much reminded me of Lauryn, and at many times moved me to tears. My hope in people seeing this film is that they understand better what it means to be an artist, and what it means to be a popular artist.” — Jayson Jackson, Producer of ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’