Ms. Lauryn Hill Speaks in Depth About Fame, Racism, and 'Miseducation'
In the late Nineties, the story of popular music became the story of Ms. Lauryn Hill. She first rose to fame as an actress and a member of the Fugees, whose second and final album, 1996’s The Score, remains one of that decade’s biggest albums. Then, at just 22 years old, Hill took a huge leap and decided to go solo. Released in 1998, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill filled clubs, radio stations, and MTV with her smooth voice and biting rhymes. Hill herself became as big as her music, appreciated in the fashion world and sought after by movie executives for roles she would eventually decline.
Miseducation took home five Grammy Awards and led to a huge tour. But by the early 2000s, Ms. Hill left behind the fame and the industry almost entirely. She has never released another studio album; her last full-length release was MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 from 2002, where she performed new songs in an acoustic style to a largely tepid reception.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill lives on. More than 20 years after its release, it is still regarded as one of the best albums ever made, landing at Number 10 on Rolling Stone‘s voter-based 500 Greatest Albums of All Time List this past fall. Many of her songs continue to permeate culture, like the single “Ex-Factor,” which has been sampled or interpolated on major hits by Drake and Cardi B. Beyond that, the album’s impact on multiple generations of musicians is unmistakeable. Everyone from Rihanna to St. Vincent has cited Hill as having heavily influenced their own music.
The years that followed Miseducation have been complicated. After the album’s release, some of Hill’s collaborators filed a lawsuit claiming she did not properly credit them for their contributions; that suit was settled out of court three years later on undisclosed terms. In 2012, she was charged with tax fraud, and went on to serve three months in prison. More recently, she has found herself back on the road more frequently, sporadically releasing music but mostly basking in the collective love and power of Miseducation through special performances of the album.
For the latest episode of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums podcast, Ms. Hill granted a rare interview on the making of Miseducation as well as what happened after. Over e-mail, she spoke candidly about protecting her family and the little support she had after her first album cycle ended. Excerpts from the interview can be heard in the podcast episode, available on Amazon Music, along with tales from several of the musicians who were part of those sessions, like “Commissioner Gordon” Williams, Lenesha Randolph, and Vada Nobles. Ms. Hill’s written responses are here in full.
When you began recording Miseducation, you were 22 and already experiencing immense success with the Fugees. What were you hoping to prove with this album?
As far as proving myself goes, I think that’s a larger and more involved story best told at a later time, but I will say that the success of the Fugees absolutely set up The Miseducation to be as big and as well received as it was. When I decided that I wanted to try a solo project I was met with incredible resistance and discouragement from a number of places that should have been supportive, so that had a motivating factor, but it was less about proving myself and more about creating something I wanted to see and hear exist in the world. There were ideas, notions and concepts that I wanted to exist, I set off in a particular direction and kept going. Initially, I intended to work with other producers and artists but found that what I wanted to say and hear may have been too idiosyncratic at the time to just explain it and have someone else try to make it. It had to be made in a more custom manner. The team of people who would ultimately be involved, we all witnessed as it took form. It was unique and exciting.
You’ve said you found yourself especially creative during your pregnancy. How did that experience shape you as a songwriter?
It’s a wild thing to say but I was left alone during my pregnancies for the most part. It was like all of the people with all of their demands had to check themselves when I was pregnant. The resulting peace may have contributed to that sense of feeling more creative. I was pregnant with my first child during the making of The Miseducation and the situation was complicated, so I was motivated to find more stability and safety for myself and for my child, that definitely pushed me to disregard what appeared as limitations. If I struggled to fight for myself, I had someone else to fight for. This also introduced my first son’s father, Rohan Marley, into the picture, who at that time, was a protective presence. If there were people or forces attempting to prevent me from creating, he played a role in helping to keep that at bay.
During those times especially, I always wanted to be a motivator of positive change. It’s in all of my lyrics, that desire to see my community get out of its own way, identify and confront internal and external obstacles, and experience the heights of Love and self-Love that provoke transformation. I sang from that place and chose to share the joy and ecstasy of it, as well as the disappointments, entanglements and life lessons that I had learned at that point. I basically started out as a young sage lol.
When you look back on it now, is Miseducation the album you intended it to be?
I’ve always been pretty critical of myself artistically, so of course there are things I hear that could have been done differently, but the LOVE in the album, the passion, its intention is, to me, undeniable. I think my intention was simply to make something that made my foremothers and forefathers in music and social and political struggle know that someone received what they’d sacrificed to give us, and to let my peers know that we could walk in that truth, proudly and confidently. At that time, I felt like it was a duty or responsibility to do so. I saw the economic and educational gaps in black communities and although I was super young myself, I used that platform to help bridge those gaps and introduce concepts and information that “we” needed even if “we” didn’t know “we” wanted it yet. Of course I’m referring to the proverbial “we.” These things had an enormous value to me and I cherished them from a very young age.
I also think the album stood apart from the types and cliches that were supposed to be acceptable at that time. I challenged the norm and introduced a new standard. I believe The Miseducation did that and I believe I still do this — defy convention when the convention is questionable. I had to move faster and with greater intention though than the dysfunctional norms that were well-established and fully funded then. I was apparently perceived by some as making trouble and being disruptive rather than appreciated for introducing solutions and options to people who hadn’t had them, for exposing beauty where oppression once reigned, and demonstrating how well these different cultural paradigms could work together. The warp speed I had to move at in order to defy the norm put me and my family under a hyper-accelerated, hyper-tense, and unfortunately under-appreciated pace. I sacrificed the quality of my life to help people experience something that had been unreachable before then. When I saw people struggle to appreciate what that took, I had to pull back and make sure I and my family were safe and good. I’m still doing that.
This album permeated culture in a way that few albums have before it existed and made you a massive star. How were you handling the public gaze at the time?
There were definitely things I enjoyed about stardom, but there were definitely things I didn’t enjoy. I think most people appreciate being recognized and appreciated for their work and sacrifice. That, to me, is a given, but living a real life is essential for anyone trying to stay connected to reality and continue making things that truly affect people. This becomes increasingly harder to do in the “space” people try to place “stars” in.
The pedestal, to me, is as much about containment and control as it is adulation. Finding balance, clarity and sobriety can be very hard for some to maintain. For example, being yes’d to death isn’t good, and people fear stardom can only result in this, but if the actual answer is yes, being told no just to not appear a yes-man is silly. Never being told no if the answer is no by people afraid to disappoint will obviously also distort the mirror in which we view ourselves. On the other hand, a person with a vision can be way ahead, so people may say no with conviction and resist what they fear only to find out later that they were absolutely wrong.
The idea of artist as public property, I also always had a problem with that. I agreed to share my art, I’m not agreeing necessarily to share myself. The entitlement that people often feel, like they somehow own you, or own a piece of you, can be incredibly dangerous. I chafe under any kind of control like that and resist expectations that suggest I should somehow dumb-down and be predictable to make people feel comfortable rather than authentically express myself. I also resist unrealistic expectations placed on me by people who would never place those same requirements on themselves. I can be as diplomatic and as patient as I possibly can be. I can’t, however, sell myself short through constant self-deprecation and shrinking.
“The entitlement that people often feel, like they somehow own you, or own a piece of you, can be incredibly dangerous.”
Is there a version of “Lauryn Hill” that you feel people expected of you, and how did that compare to how you saw yourself?
Absolutely, which I touched upon in the answers before this one. Life is life, to be lived, experienced and enjoyed with all of its dynamism and color. If you do something well that people enjoy, often they want the same experience over and over. A real person can be stifled and their growth completely stunted trying to do this without balance. It’s not a fair thing to ask of anyone. We all have to grow, we all have to express ourselves with as much fullness and integrity as we can manage. The celebrity is often treated like a sacrifice, the fatted calf, then boxed in and harshly judged for very normal and natural responses to abnormal circumstances.
I saw someone lambasted once for discussing episodes of anxiety before going on stage, as if anxiety was only a condition of the non-famous. It was absurd, like someone with a record out can’t get a common cold. Someone in love with the art doesn’t not experience fear or anxiety, they just do their best to transcend it or work beyond it so that the art or the passion can be made manifest. Some days are better than others. For some people it gets easier, for some it doesn’t. The unfairness, the harshness was excessive to me. I didn’t like how I was being treated at a certain point. I just wasn’t being treated well and definitely not in accordance with someone who’d contributed what I had. I had a ton of jealousy and competitiveness to contend with. That can exhaust or frustrate your efforts to make anything besides primal scream music, 😊.
Provoking that kind of aggravation was probably intentional. You have to find reasons to still do it, when you’re exposed to the ugly. People often think it’s ok to project whatever they want to on someone they perceive as having “it all” or “having so/too much.” Hero worship can be an excuse for not taking care of your own sh#t. The flip side of that adulation can turn severely ugly, aggressive, and hostile if people make another person responsible for their sense of self-worth. You can either take that abuse or say no to it. After subjecting myself to it for years, I started to say no, and then no turned into hell no, then hell no turned into f#ck no…you get my point. 😊
If you could talk to yourself at 22 now, what would you say?
I’d share the things I do now with my 22-year-old self. If I had known what I know now, things would probably have unfolded differently. I would have continued to invest in people but I would have made sure I had people with the love, strength, and integrity around me to really keep their eye on the prize and my well-being. The world is full of seduction and if they can’t seduce you, they go after the people you love or depend on in some way. I would have with greater understanding tried to do more to insulate myself and my loved ones from that kind of attack.
Looking back on that period of your life, do you have any regrets?
I have some periods of woe, some periods of sorrow and great pain, yes, but regret is tough because I ended up with a clarity I might not have been able to achieve any other way. I would have done a few things differently though if I could go back. I would have done my best to shield myself so that I could better shield my children. I would have rejected the manipulation, unfair force and pressure put on me much earlier. I would have benefitted from having more awareness about the dangers of fame. I would have been more communicative with everyone truly involved with The Miseducation and fought hard for the importance of candid expression. I would have demanded what I needed and removed people antagonistic to that sooner than I did.
You have released music since Miseducation and have continued to play live. Do you ever foresee releasing another full-length studio album?
The wild thing is no one from my label has ever called me and asked how can we help you make another album, EVER…EVER. Did I say ever? Ever! With The Miseducation, there was no precedent. I was, for the most part, free to explore, experiment and express. After The Miseducation, there were scores of tentacled obstructionists, politics, repressing agendas, unrealistic expectations, and saboteurs EVERYWHERE. People had included me in their own narratives of THEIR successes as it pertained to my album, and if this contradicted my experience, I was considered an enemy.
Artist suppression is definitely a thing. I won’t go too much into it here, but where there should have been overwhelming support, there wasn’t any. I began touring because I needed the creative outlet and to support myself and my family. People were more interested in breaking me or using me to battery-power whatever they had going on than to support my creativity. I create at the speed and flow of my inspiration, which doesn’t always work in a traditional system. I have always had to custom build what I’ve needed in order to get things done. The lack of respect and willingness to understand what that is, or what I need to be productive and healthy, doesn’t really sit well with me. When no one takes the time to understand, but only takes the time to count the money the fruit of this process produces, things can easily turn bad. Mistreatment, abuse, and neglect happen. I wrote an album about systemic racism and how it represses and stunts growth and harms (all of my albums have probably addressed systemic racism to some degree), before this was something this generation openly talked about. I was called crazy. Now…over a decade later, we hear this as part of the mainstream chorus. Ok, so chalk some of it up to leadership and how that works — I was clearly ahead, but you also have to acknowledge the blatant denial that went down with that. The public abuse and ostracizing while suppressing and copying what I had done, (I protested) with still no real acknowledgement that all of that even happened, is a lot.
“I wrote an album about systemic racism… before this was something this generation openly talked about. I was called crazy.”
I continue to tour and share with audiences all over the world, but I also full-time work on the trauma, stifling, and stunting that came with all of that and how my family and I were affected. In many ways, we’re living now, making up for years where we couldn’t be as free as we should have been able to. I had to break through a ton of unjust resistance, greed, fear and just plain human ugliness. Little else can rival freedom for me. If being a superstar means living a repressed life where people will only work with you or invest in your work if they can manipulate and control you, then I’m not sure how important music gets made without some tragic set of events following. I don’t subscribe to that.
Lastly, I appreciate the people who were moved by this body of work, which really represented a lifetime — up to that point — of love, experience, wisdom, family and community investment in me, the summation of my experience from relationships, my dreams, inspirations, aspirations and God’s ever-present grace and Love in my life through the lens of my 20-something but wise-sage existence, lol. I dreamed big, I didn’t think of limits, I really only thought of the creative possibilities and addressing the needs as I saw them at that time. I also had the support of a community of talented artists, thinkers, and doers, friends and family around me. Their primary efforts (THEN) seemed to be to help clear a path and to help protect. However, when you effectively create something powerful enough to move the bulls#t out of the way, all kinds of forces and energies may not like that. They may seek to corrupt and discourage, to disrupt and distract, to divide, and sabotage…but we bore witness to the fact that this happened — a young, black woman through hip-hop culture, a legacy of soul, Spirit and an appreciation for education and educating others communicated love and timeless and necessary messages to the world.
The music business can be an industry of entanglements, where a small number of people are expected to be responsible for a very large number of people. It’s hard to find fairness in a situation like that. Now, I look for as much equity and fairness as possible. I appreciate being loved for my contributions to music, but it’s important to be loved for who you are as a person just as much, and that can be a delicate but extremely important balance to achieve. Experiencing that is important to me.
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