Lauryn Hill (AP/Evan Agostini)

"The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" turns 20: Hip Hop scholar Joan Morgan on its legacy

In her new book "She Begat This," Joan Morgan addresses the brilliance and complexities of an iconic hip hop album


Rachel Leah
August 17, 2018 8:00PM (UTC)

"The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," Lauryn Hill’s 1998 solo debut, is often lauded as one of the greatest albums of all time. Yet Lauryn Hill the artist is far more debated. Just this week, jazz composer and musician Robert Glasper made headlines for calling out Lauryn for mistreating artists and stealing music. "You haven’t done enough to be the way you are," he said, during an interview with 97.9 The Box in Houston. "The one thing you did that was great, you didn’t do."

But award-winning author, hip-hop journalist and scholar, Joan Morgan, takes on "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" and Hill herself in her new book, "She Begat This: 20 Years of the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill." And in it, she addresses the full breadth of Hill's legacy, one that is complicated, at times contradictory, and yet undeniably brilliant and historic, describing Hill as both a musical and visual intervention to hip hop and pop culture.

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Morgan doesn't minimize Hill's complexities either, though. In "She Begat This," she certainly highlights our own, questioning the way we dehumanized Hill as a musical Goddess and then attacked her for not living up to our projected expectations. There are still valid questions to be asked about Lauryn's integrity, but as Morgan shows, there's a far more pressing one about her humanity.

Morgan sat down with "Salon Talks" to discuss her new book and what "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" means 20 years later.

"The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" turns 20: How the hip-hop artist paved the way for millennial women

How Lauryn Hill redefined music.

Tell me what the book and why it was important to tell this story?

When I was asked if I would be interested in writing about the anniversary of the album and I thought about it, I'd seen a number of these books done on big cultural albums. They're usually done by music journalists, which I am by trade — I am certainly considered a music journalist — but I didn't want to write it like that. We can get geeky with music and so we'll go through the tracks, and we want to find the producer, and we want to know what kind of quirky things happened in the studio. It's appealing to the five of us that do that.

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To those of us who still read liner notes.

I really felt like for Lauryn, and "The Miseducation," that that album was so much bigger than just the album, and that there's so much to talk about — the fact that she's only really did one album. Then "Unplugged," which was an extension of the MTV project and so, I was really interested in visiting her legacy. I was really interested in the fact that the album came out in 1998 and just where we were in terms of not just hip hop, but just in history, at the end of the 20th Century, was fascinating to me, and to see how we would think about it 20 years later, pre-hashtags, pre-the digital age.

This was a concept album and by the 2000s, we're not even seeing concept albums, like we have a very singles-driven market. I just was interested in how we thought about Lauryn and how she shifted culture and what the significance was of the album beyond the actual album.

To tell this story, you deploy this really interesting format. You're in conversation with these many prominent black woman creatives and innovators. You have #MeToo founder  Tarana Burke, you have magazine legend Kierna Mayo, cultural critic dream hampton, image activist Michael Angela Davis, among many others, and you don't talk to Lauryn. Tell me about why you chose to speak with them and not Lauryn directly.

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Well, there are several reasons for that. I've known those women for a very long time and they are all the wonderful things that you just said, but I know them to be really fierce cultural critics and strong writers, and have incredible analyses. And basically, when these kind of things are done, it's always just one of us who gets to represent the female voice, because the keepers of cultural history, particularly with hip hop and music, I think in general, it's still a very male voice. I just wanted to flip it. I didn't think any group of male music journalists I could have gone to would talk about Lauryn more accurately, more passionately, more personally than this group of women.

I’m a magazine person that really misses magazines and so I wrote this like a special issue and it's kind of what a special issue would look like without images, without glossies. I wanted it to breathe in a certain way. I wanted it to not be an engaging read, but also not be a laborious read.

I didn't talk to Lauryn, because I was really clear that I wanted this to be a cultural history and I didn't want in any way to have it confused with an unauthorized biography. I wanted to know the culture's opinion of Lauryn and how she shaped and impacted their lives. I felt it would be much clearer without her voice, because ultimately, it's not really about Lauryn, as much as it is as what that icon and that iconic album meant to us.

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Right, and as you talked about, the way it shifted culture, as Lauryn the musician, the icon, the woman and this body of work. You also describe her as a visual and musical intervention. How was she intervening both visually and musically?

The end of the '90s is a really interesting time. We think of the '90s as sort of this golden age of hip hop. There are all of these different sounds that become accessible and acceptable to experiment in. So, of course, Lauryn comes to us via The Fugees in "The Score." But I write about this in the book, because it's also an extension of this '90s dancehall moment. So you have this explosion of black music diaspora-wide in the United States, it's being incorporated into hip hop in a different kind of way.  There's always been a Caribbean-American connection with hip hop from the very beginning, but this was really bringing full-on Caribbean identities and mixing them in with what [was] a more mainstream hip hop sound.

I think what was amazing about Lauryn is that there are people who still think she's Caribbean and she's not, but she really composes and standing from the position that the entire breath of black music, diasporically, was hers to play with and to own. She positions herself as a global citizen of the Diaspora and then makes music accordingly. It's 30 years after the Hart-Celler Immigration Act, which is when basically, Caribbean people West Indian-ized Brooklyn and New York.

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You've got two generations of people now who have grown up together, it's possible to go to a party and hear reggae and soul and hip hop all at the same party. I think a lot of people don't realize that that was a new thing. That wasn't happening in the ‘70s. That wasn't happening in the '80s.

And her visual intervention as well.

I think that for a lot of people, because we are in such a visual era, particularly with we're in the age of selfies, we're in the age of Instagram, we're in the age of Tumblr, we're in the age of Pinterest. So much of how we communicate these days is with the visual and we're also in an age where we're really used to seeing black women in advertisements of all kinds. We don't think anything about seeing a Gucci model with a teeny Afro or an Yves Saint Laurent model with cornrows. People think it was always like that, and it was not always like that.

When Lauryn drops "The Miseducation" there is no natural hair movement. There is no YouTube teaching black women how to deal with their hair naturally, there is no billion dollar natural hair industry where you can just walk into a store easily and get products. To wear your hair as short as I did in the '90s was always a conversation. There was an assumption about what my politics were. If I wanted to put on a weave the next day or a wig the next day, there was going to be a conversation about that. I didn't have a right to that sort of diversity.

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Lauryn showed up on the scene with and rose to sort of Beyoncé level of fame, insisting that she looked exactly like she looked. We felt the culture shift. I think that people also don't realize that, it's not just about visibility, there was a real feeling in the '90s that that a lot of women looked like Lauryn and she's singularly like a beautiful woman, but you could find Lauryns in Fort Greene, in New York, in the Bay, but they were considered not marketable, even by black magazines.

When Lauryn shows up on the cover of Essence magazine with her natural self and her dreadlocks, you don't see models gracing the cover of Essence in dreadlocks at that time and you certainly don't see them on the cover of like a Harper's Bazaar.

Time.

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Right? Time. She really kicked the door wide open for what we routinely, visually called Black Girl magic now, before we had the term and before we had the hashtag.

You spend some time talking about all the magazines that she graced and how incredible that was. Now this month, you have black women covering almost every major issue, Beyoncé on Vogue, Tracee Ellis Ross on Elle.

Rihanna.

Rihanna on British Vogue, Tiffany Haddish on Glamour; does it give you the same feeling or a different feeling seeing all of them?

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It gives me the same feeling and a different feeling. I am stalking newsstands so that I can make sure that I buy every single one.

Yes, they are all so beautiful.

I want them, but I also want the industry to know that financially, it makes a difference when you do that. With Lauryn, it was like, "Oh my God, I can't believe this is happening." This moment, this September it's like, "Oh my God. I can't believe how far we've come." That is really the work of people like Lauryn Hill, but also like Bethann Hardison, who advocated so tirelessly for black models to be given their due. I call it refusing to believe the lie that we're not commercial, that we don't sell, that we're not beautiful. This moment is an inheritance. It is really a cultural inheritance. Lauryn is really partially responsible for that.

One thing that was interesting that both you and Kierna, who wrote the forward talked about, is the reaction that Lauryn got when people found out she was pregnant. For various reasons, Kierna even talked about how looking back she realized there’s sexism tied to that, but in that moment it was, 'Oh, she's young, or at the zenith of her career.' I was wondering if you can tell us a little bit about that. 

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Well, I felt a couple of things in the moment. I definitely had the feeling of not it's a mistake, but definite caution, like being worried about the fact that she was so young, she was at the height of her career, and just becoming a mother, period. Kierna was right, it was a sexist reaction, but it's also real. We can't pretend that women don't get treated drastically differently than men do in the marketplace or in corporate America when a child comes into their lives. I worried about how she would manage all of that and also manage the level of celebrity that she was really quickly ascending to. I think the second child, I was like, "OK, what's happening? What's going on here?" I think I was substantially worried, but I also was pregnant.

Now I look back on it, I think that we’re really also seeing back then and seeing now, with Cardi B, how freely people think they can talk about women's bodies and their choices. I think that when women do it, it's internalized sexism and obviously, when men do it, it's sexism. We don't really respect women's individual choices about when they have children, how they have children, and that some people are actually have the material resources to be able to make what we would consider unorthodox choices about timing and pregnancy and be completely fine.

Yes, and I love how you talk about choosing motherhood as a form of resistance too. You wrote in the book, "the decision to do motherhood on one's own terms is a kind of resistance." And talking about black mothers, not getting the acknowledgment of "the strength it takes to choose motherhood in the face of both stigma and what the rest of society considers imperfect circumstances." I thought that was really poignant. The book begins with a conversation with your goddaughter, and she's not alone but she's not really interested in Lauryn's message anymore in the context of respectability politics. In the midst of our current culture of cancel culture and takedown culture, which is very prevalent, how do we reconcile empathy?

Well, I think there are a couple of ways that we have to reckon with that. One, I think this generation in many ways is incredible. I look at my son and my son's group of friends and my nieces who, I always love to tell the story about a number of my niece's mothers are actually either in [my book "When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost"], or acknowledged in "Chickenheads," and it took them years to know that because it took them years to read it. They were very nervous about me writing my first book on black women and feminism. They were like, "Girl, why? Black women just don't do that, write about something else."

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Their daughters read it, they started reading it at 13, 14, 15, 16 and have grown up with really strong feminist identities. I think that that's really beautiful and I think that they have language that we didn't have, but someone had to create that language. Those someones were me and Kierna and dream and all of those women, and Lauryn, who were trying to figure it out and we were not perfect while we were figuring it out. So when you look back at something 20 years later — there no words like heteronormative or cisgendered ...

Yes, gender fluid.

You have to remember that those weren't our words. Somebody was home noticing absences and creating space for things that we take for granted now. I'm always a little dismayed when people are really harsh on the way — feminists are very harsh on the way they think younger feminists perform feminism. I couldn't have imagined a star, a black woman who was a global pop star, call herself a feminist publicly in 1998, 1999. Beyoncé did that. Not only has she done that, but she has a female band, her shows are so girl power and she does it from the position of being a feminist. We still have feminists who feel like, "Well, she's not performing feminism correctly." I'm like, "Yes she's probably the young woman that is taking a 200 level feminism course now." The point is, is that no one is born a perfect feminist and people know that, but they forget it.

It's interesting too, because you end the book questioning our empathy or our lack of empathy for Lauryn and charging us to think about the way we dehumanized her by putting her on this musical God pedestal; the way we asked her to save hip-hop and criticized her when she failed to live up to our weighted expectations. How should we remember Lauryn and how should we honor her?

I think that one of the ways that you honor her is honoring her humanity, by recognizing that a 23 year old woman came out, was resolutely herself, unapologetically herself and gave us a space to enter and to grow in and that sometimes, that's enough. I think that, you know, if you are a person that still wants to see Lauryn perform, and you buy a ticket, you are buying it understanding that she might be 45 minutes late. That's not a secret anymore. I think that you stop saying things like"'waiting for her to save hip-hop" and you remember that she has six children and a life and that she's also been through some things. You also, in a larger sense, I think you just stop waiting for black women to save the world. It's not our job and I think black women also have to remember that and be kinder to Lauryn and to the rest of us, who breakthrough or have even some sort of success, is that maybe it's really just about giving you something from in 1998 that you could hold on to 20 years later and not continuing to do it repeatedly for the next 20 years. Someone else has to take that baton.


Rachel Leah

Rachel Leah is a culture writer for Salon. You can follow her on Twitter: @rachelkleah.

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