This article originally appeared in the January 1999 issue of TOURNAMENT. In light of the Fugees reunion, we’re reposting it here.
Baby on board Lauryn Hill feels “fat and deranged,” hanging out with her mother and toddler son, Zion, in the kitchen of her New Jersey home. “I’m due for tomorrow,” she jokes. In fact, she has a month left and is still relatively active, planning to attend a screening of Beloved Later in the night. Hill originally had a starring role in Oprah’s epic slavery, but had to give up when she realized she was pregnant. But while the film ignited no box office fires, Hill’s first multi-stage solo, Lauryn Hill’s poor education, spoke deeply about the daily experiences of millions of young black women in 1998. And in a fractured musical landscape, he simultaneously united the SoundScan masses – from hip-hop heads to fraternity rats to the maidens of Lilith Fair – and a established Hill as one of the terrible few career artists to emerge this year.
Both inspiring and sometimes difficult, Bad Education is the most “feel-good” record of the year, and not just because you can feel good about yourself for loving it. When a black artist brings people like that together, it seems the societal gaps are a bit narrower. “In New York, I had Italian cops who came to see me at the Port Authority [bus station] and tell me they love the record, ”says Hill. “I think the world is much smaller than I thought [it was] to grow.”
At a time when much of big label hip-hop and R&B seem to be shunned by an army of production chains, the Fugees member wrote, recorded and produced a very personal, almost coming-of-age opus. entirely alone. From spirituals to Stevie Wonder to dancehall, Hill has harvested black music history for an idiosyncratic brew – sung melodies, daring production, enviable rhyming skills, back-to-church vocals – which definitely played people, but also challenged them to meet his ambitions halfway. Like her partner in the “I Used to Love Him” duo Mary J. Blige, Hill asked us to share her world, representing it graphically with precision and poetic insight: the neighborhoods that spawned her (“Every Ghetto, Every City “); the loves that marked her (“Ex-Factor”, “When It Hurts So Bad”); and motherhood, she says, saved her (“To Sion”, a tribute to her first son).
“I thought hip-hop and R&B as we know them now isn’t as personal and intimate as the music I want to make, it’s mostly very boastful and cool,” she says. “I was nervous that people couldn’t identify with each other, or that they thought I was a Martian. Knowing that people have reacted in this way makes me realize that they are in fact very ready for the truth and real experiences. Indeed, Bad Education set a first week sales record by a female artist.
Such success has a way of reshaping the way the music industry treats women in general. Draw Dixon. Arista A&R rep largely responsible for setting up Hill’s production tasks on Aretha Franklin’s 1998 single “A Rose is Still a Rose” says it was initially “hard to do people believe that this 23 year old African American woman best known for singing the hell out of [the Fugees’] The cover of ‘Killing Me Softly’ is also a really talented writer and producer. Soul singer Kelly Price, full-fledged screenwriter / producer / artist / mom, hails Hill’s foray into the male-dominated world of R&B music production. “In every struggle there has to be a pioneer who is known to have led the way,” says Price. “In this particular battle, Lauryn is the chosen one. Getting out there and going through the hard times makes it a bit easier for me. “
But Hill’s almost baffling perfection – brains, good looks, talent, mass success – and a slightly elevated and powerful traditionalism have taken hold of some people’s skin. Without a doubt, many artists took offense at the song “Superstar”, which tells an anonymous offender “whatever you drop is so tired”. Then there’s a candlelit moralism that sometimes surfaces at a time when people certainly don’t want their pop preaching. It is true that it breaks the hip-hop chains of ghetto reality and underscores an affinity for the great tradition of women raising the race. But while berating the sisters for “showing your ass because you think it’s a trend” (“Doo Wop”), she criticizes the same women who get harassed by her hip-hop brothers, and who never had voice when Lil ‘Kim and Foxy arrived. It didn’t help that HIII bared a large chunk of his own flesh on the covers of various magazines. Equally problematic are the lyrics of the song, “Hair is woven like Europeans / False nails are made by Koreans”. Despite Hill’s defense that “it was just a rhyme,” it sounds both anti-Asian and as commonplace as any hype man’s call to “just girls with real hair.” “. Flip through any dark hair magazine and you’ll see cranky weaves that Barbie wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.
At the Diva Hair Salon in Columbia, South Carolina, where fake hair starts flying as early as 6 a.m. on Saturdays, sleepy-eyed customers have a lot to say about it. “Isn’t Lauryn wearing a weave in this video?” Asks salon owner Sharon Robinson. “No,” said a pretty curly-haired teenager, “it’s a wig. “Well, a wig and a weave are first cousins.” They are from the same family, ”says Robinson with a laugh. Another stylist, sporting skillfully woven bangs, believes Hill is “trying to reach a certain type of woman.” Of course, no one in the crowded shop thinks she’s talking about it.
When I tell this story to Hill, she screams. “Oh yes. That’s it other girl with weaving! She adds that it is not a question of a “specific sister” of which she speaks, but of a “state of mind”: “Versatility is beautiful. I’m not saying women can’t straighten their hair. It’s the idea that anything contrary to that is hideous – a type of attitude of self-loathing – that I’m talking about. But this is only a woman’s story. What I say should not be confused with what I say anybody how they should live their life.
Hill knows what it feels like to have people telling him how to live. Her first pregnancy was met with plenty of ‘bad career’ advice. “I had a conversation with [jazz vocalist/activist] Nina Simone, “said Hill,” and she said, ‘Lauryn, I don’t think a woman can have a family and be in the music business.’ It was something heavy. So far, however, motherhood has worked to Hill’s advantage. The baby-positive song “To Zion” was immediately covered by radio programmers, although it is not an official single. This very public account of her pregnancy gives her a foundation and a credibility that differentiates her from pop stars with plastic appearances. And as Sheri Parks writes in the book Lion Mother of the American Soul, “The Black Mother is one of the most enduring images in pop culture for white and black audiences.” You can bet, however, that point guard Hill will continue to put his distinct twist on the whole traditional mother issue. “I don’t want to be a matron,” said Hill. “I don’t want to weigh 300 pounds making pancakes!” “