Rock and Roll Book Club: 'She Begat This' celebrates 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill'

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Joan Morgan's 'She Begat This.'
Joan Morgan's 'She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

How pathbreaking was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill? When Cardi B hit number one last year with "Bodak Yellow," that made her the first solo female hip-hop artist to do so since...yep, Lauryn Hill, whose "Doo Wop (That Thing)" topped the Hot 100 in 1998.

As Joan Morgan points out in her new appreciation She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the fact that Hill and Cardi are musically worlds apart obscures some key commonalities in their experiences. Both made their way in what remains very commonly a men's world: popular music generally, and hip-hop specifically. Both became famous both because of the music they made and because of who they are, but both also faced pushback for sharing their truths. Both became mothers at the peak of their fame, and wrestled with the often-negative public responses to that.

It's impossible to say what Cardi B will be doing 20 years from now, but few in 1998 would have predicted that Lauryn Hill would be at the point she's at in 2018: still essentially touring behind Miseducation, having never released a second studio album. Hopes were impossibly high for that album, until most fans gave up hope entirely, and much of this slim volume reckons with what that means for her millions of listeners.

First, though, Morgan — an academic known for coining the term "hip-hop feminism" — takes us back to 1998. Hip-hop was at a tipping point: having gone from exciting invention to sprawling genre, it had produced a decade of classics and was reaching new commercial peaks, but it was not yet the lingua franca of popular music that it is today.

Much of Hill's achievement was exploding the boundaries of that genre, particularly for women artists and fans. She didn't fit the mold of then-popular female rappers like Lil Kim or Foxy Brown; she was the Ivy-educated daughter of an English teacher and a computer consultant. She both rapped and sang, and was a full creative counterpart to her wildly gifted Fugees bandmate Wyclef Jean. That group's Caribbean ties and sound connected Hill to a global sensibility that looked beyond the decade's east/west coast rivalry. Leaning towards live instrumentation (her Unplugged release ended up amounting to her second album), Hill was alongside the Roots as a sonic bridge between hip-hop and the decade's acoustic side.

In short, Miseducation was not only a brilliant album, its popular and critical success changed the game for what hip-hop meant in music and pop culture. Her breakthrough could be compared to Aretha Franklin's "Respect," or Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Fittingly, Hill co-wrote and produced Franklin's 1998 song "A Rose is Still a Rose," which went up against Hill's own "Doo Wop" for R&B Song of the Year at the Grammys. ("Doo Wop" won.)

Morgan looks at Hill's legacy through the lens of our present moment, when black girls and women have mobilized on social media: still fighting for rights and recognition, but fighting with newfound visibility. As journalist Kierna Mayo writes in a foreword:

Miseducation arrived in a time before the hashtag. To be a caesar-cut-rocking Joan Morgan (as she was back then) or dreadlocked L-Boogie, a hip-hop generation naturalista, was to be part of a glorious, unspoken sisterhood — one not popular enough yet to be affirmed by aisles upon aisles of products, hair-texture ranking systems, A-list black celebrities, white women's magazine covers, or the very men of hip hop that too many of us desired but who gave us very little attention.

Much of She Begat This finds Morgan talking with women (and, sometimes, men) about what Lauryn Hill's masterpiece meant. They talk about how empowering it was to see Hill writing her own music (as opposed to being a protegé project), what it meant to see Hill on the cover of Time (she was the only African-American musician to appear there in all of the 1990s), how significant it was that she was a dark-skinned star (Morgan writes about the history of colorism in Jamaica), and the importance of her natural hairstyle (demonstrating that a natural look, in the popular eye, didn't have to equal Rastafarianism).

"She dared to be intersectional," says creative director Michaela Angela Davis in conversation with Morgan. "She dared to be sexy and military and radical and retro and chic all at the same time. That was revolutionary for the time."

Davis and Morgan compare Hill to Solange, whose recent album A Seat at the Table inspired many to mention Hill's precedent. Solange, though, didn't have the weight of the world dropped on her shoulders the way Hill did. "Lauryn offered Solange a template for what a black woman's vulnerability and exploration could look like," writes Morgan. "Lauryn didn't have a template from her generation. She had to find that in the previous generations' soul singers. But as for how a woman could do that with hip hop and R&B, she had to create that model for herself."

And yet, Hill has been the target of constant criticism. Morgan and her interviewees argue that Hill's been the victim of a double standard: how much has Hill been criticized for the ubiquitous hip-hop offense of showing up late to shows, the book asks, while R. Kelly has been allowed to thrive for years despite repeated, credible accusations of sex crimes?

While the book's not a history of the album, Morgan does walk us through how Hill hooked up with Wyclef Jean (both professionally and personally) for a breakthrough with The Score (1996) — and then fought for the right to release a solo record that wasn't just "a Fugees record without the guys." Eventually, she basically leaked the track "Lost Ones," and "it was the '90s equivalent of a viral sensation," writes Morgan.

Morgan mentions the dispute with the collective New Ark over songwriting and production credit, which resulted in a lawsuit that Hill settled in 2001. The allegations of "theft" have recently resurfaced; Morgan and her interviewees seem to agree with Hill that publishing rights weren't sewn up as properly as they should have been, but that nonetheless "stole" isn't the right way to characterize the dispute. With Hill coming out of the Fugees, Morgan notes, both she and her label had a stake in portraying her as a "triple threat" performer, songwriter, and producer; to acknowledge that she's not a Prince-like self-contained record factory is not to diminish her genius.

The author met Hill, she notes, in 2009 — by which time she was insisting to be referred to in publicity as "Ms. Lauryn Hill" and in person as "Ms. Hill." They spoke for an hour, Morgan writes, and by the end of their conversation, Morgan realized that "not only has L-Boogie left the building, but the Lauryn Hill icon we helped create may very well also have been an illusion. Her decision to become Ms. Hill liberates both herself and us from who we needed her to be."

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