By Robert Lee Mitchell III
Lauryn Hill recently pleaded guilty to tax evasion last June. She claimed she didn’t pay her taxes because she went “underground.” Let’s take a look back at the woman who changed a generation.
In 1998, Hill’s solo debut album was released to critical acclaim. To date, the album has sold over 19 million copies and was nominated for 10 Grammys of which Hill took home 5 in 1999. This feat is remarkable because Hill, a young black woman, was an unwed mother. In an era when black women were seen as video vixens or welfare queens, Hill showed us that despite the negative tropes, a black mother’s love could endure society’s attacks. Instead of hanging her head in shame and apologizing for Zion’s conception, Hill sung a love letter to him. In the song “To Zion,” Hill pushes back against the salient advice her peers gave her in a poetically aggressive way:
“Woe this crazy circumstance / I knew his life deserved a chance / But everybody told me to be smart. / ‘Look at your career,’ they said. / ‘Lauryn, baby, use your head.’ / But instead I chose to use my heart.”
Lauryn Hill was special. She was an actress, a singer, a songwriter, and even a rapper. Her voice, a voice that only pain and experience can give one, told the story that so many of us were living to hear. Love was exceptional, love was rare, love was fleeting, and love was worth the chase.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill arguably changed the political landscape, too. Lauryn Hill rejected the big-C conservatism—government legislating morality— for her own particular brand of Politics. Hill sung passionate songs about individual choice and personal responsibility. She made her politics so accessible that we could all ascribe to it. Don’t like abortion? Cool. Don’t have one. As she sung in “To Zion,” there were some who demanded she make a choice—a false binary between family and career—Lauryn rejected this false binary. For the first time in our generation, Lauryn proved that a young black woman could have it all.
The magic of the Lauryn Hill brand wouldn’t last long. Hill’s business partners sued her for song royalties, claiming they were co-authors to the soundtrack of our generation. The media hounded her about dates, particularly when new music would be forthcoming. Wyclef Jean toyed with the idea of shaming her in the media, ultimately claiming that he had an affair with her. Hill released an MTV Unplugged album, which made people question her sanity. And the father of her children, Rohan Marley, denied paternity for one of more of her children, ultimately leaving her for a Brazilian model.
Despite all of the personal turmoil, Lauryn Hill still matters. NPR and The Grio have published articles about Hill in the last year. And we wait with bated breath, hoping this time the rumors and newspaper articles are accurate, hoping that Lauryn Hill really is working on new music.
I don’t know what it’s like to feel needed by strangers and I never want to know. But I do know that Lauryn Hill has paid a price to give us what was seriously lacking in the 1990s: a love to be proud of, a politics to believe in, and a light to show up the path forward. But the question remains, will Lauryn Hill be able to fill the same gap for this century?
Yes, we still need Lauryn Hill today. Perhaps we need her more now than ever. But the Lauryn Hill we’ll receive will be a more mature, guarded, and fragile one. We have to come to terms with the fact that the Lauryn Hill of today is not the Lauryn Hill of 1998. The challenges facing the second decade of the 21st century are not the challenges we faced at the close of the 20th century. Yet, and I say this for a generation whose voice is not heard, we need Lauryn Hill more now than we did when she appeared on the solo music scene.
Here’s hoping that Lauryn Hill is up for the challenge.