Text: Claude Grunitzky
1. Lauryn Hill is one of the most relevant musicians in the world, but she may also be her own worst enemy.
2. After six year in self-imposed exile, how can the reclusive star return to a world she has abandoned, and wake the people up with songs of freedom?
“Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need,” announces Lauryn Hill. “I’ve just retired from the fantasy part.” Reading into that confession, spoken candidly before a small, captive audience in a Times Square studio for the acoustic MTV UNPLUGGED recording in July 2001, any imaginative storyteller could have easily scripted the first chapter of Lauryn Hill’s chronicle of an exile foretold. Her tense, uneven performance on that summer night – where she delivered soul-searching lines like “I find it hard to say that everything is alright” and “Please help me forget about him, he takes all my energy” – amounted to a public display of anguish. A desperate cry for help, the disappointing UNPLUGGED session signalled the unravelling of a major star whose seemingly glamorous life had secretly veered into disarray.
When the UNPLUGGED record and DVD were released to relatively modest commercial success in 2001, many admirers realised that Lauryn Hill had already sacrificed herself on the altar of celebrity. Further back in our collective consciousness, the first public incarnation, Lauryn Hill (aka L Boogie), had retired with the Fugees in the early summer of 1998. The exuberant, freestyling hip hop princess the world had come to love for her sweet rendition of the song “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” had gradually cleared the stage for an emancipated, free-associating R&B queen, the one who emerged soon after the reggae-tinged battle rhymes of “Lost Ones” swept the streets of New York in the buildup to the total triumph that was THE MISEDUCATION OF LAURYN HILL.
Five Grammys and 12 million album sales later, the endearing, devout young mother and auteur who had opened her heart to the public and sung about her devotion to her son Zion, made a timid MTV comeback on that summer night by rocking a stone-washed denim jacket with jeans and a New York Yankees baseball cap. She slung an acoustic guitar, avoided direct eye contact, and told her assembled fans that “I used to dress up for y’all: I don’t do that anymore.” Oh la la la!
In May of this year, Ms Hill as she now insists on being called – walked, unaccompanied by publicists or assistants, two and a half hours late, into the Upper East Side Manhattan penthouse duplex that TRACE had rented for the cover shoot. Almost immediately, she asked our assembled production and editorial crew to leave the main room, where hundreds of samples of high end designer clothing, jewelry and accessories had been frantically curated to create the ultra-sophisticated new looks she had requested.
I had already interviewed her twice for this magazine, ten and seven years ago, in London and New York City. The last time we’d spoken was for a memorable December 1998 cover story she’d shared with D’Angelo. She was seven months pregnant with her second child, and on the day of the interview, she had found out that the newly released MISEDUCATION album was the best-selling record in America.
Nonetheless, this time around, when I greeted her upon her arrival for what would be her first magazine shoot and interview in years, she sent me off swiftly and said she didn’t remember me. (I had heard that she doesn’t even talk to the 18 musicians she has recruited for her band, that she only speaks to them when giving them orders, therefore I was not all that surprised by her new, distant demeanour.)
She then refused to let our makeup artist touch her face, and asked for a replacement to be sent over immediately. (Granted, the makeup artist she had requested was not available that day, but I had also heard that on the cover shoot for her upcoming album, which had taken place a few weeks earlier, the glam team had spoken of a nightmare experience, therefore our makeup episode was not entirely surprising either.) We sent our disappointed Japanese makeup artist home and called in a last minute favour. Our replacement – a fan – cancelled her plans for that afternoon, hopped on the subway and rushed in from the Bronx. (As we would discover on numerous occasions, the fans are out there, and they remain devoted to an idol they only know through their songs.)
When our photographer finally got to shoot the pictures that would appear in this portfolio, more than six hours after the TRACE team had arrived on set, Ms Hill asked for a mirror to be held to the left of the camera, so that she could approve her own reflected image, even before the photographer and his assistant were given a chance to frame each picture. The fact that one of our most esteemed fashion assistants would accept to hold a mirror next to a camera for a cover star was a first, as far as this team was concerned.
Our editorial staffers, all huge fans of L Boogie and Lauryn Hill, were starting to wonder who this Ms Hill really was, and why she was acting like a paranoid, egotistical diva. A series of intense, enlightening and, at times, baffling interviews would follow that initial false start. The interviews and conversations that fed this ten-chapter story were conducted over the two-week period that ended on Lauryn Hill’s 30 birthday, May 26th, 2005. I realised that Lauryn Hill was a young woman who refused to serve two masters. When everyone around her was telling her to chase the fame and fortune, she was looking to get closer to God. When she fell in love, she found out that dysfunctional people love dysfunctionally. Although our conversations revealed many traits of a tortured, stimulated, brilliant mind, they would provide some invaluable clues into the contradictions and machinations behind one of modern music’s true geniuses.
1. THE MISEDUCATION
Ms Hill gave the interview process a jump-start with a statement which seemed, at the time, to come out of nowhere: “When I was wearing tight, short clothes, when I was younger, it wasn’t to tempt men. It was the expression of art, and how we felt about the beauty of the body.” We came to realise that the image – her image – and its role – her role – within society were of real concern to her. She feels that one of the many problem with today’s society, comes from people’s adoption of popular styles, just because they want to be cool. The kind of people who wear the right Bob Marley or Che Guevara t-shirts, she feels, are always looking for what is cool, and that uniformity has killed most expressions of individuality.
“When I was picking my clothes,” she would later admit, “I didn’t think the world would come to see me as this Greek Goddess. I did it to be different, to set myself apart, because I enjoyed it. I had to create this unique collection of styles, that was absolutely my own, but after that I didn’t know how to feel about this absolute commercialisation of my identity.”
When, during the shoot, she gravitated towards an update on the classic Brigitte Bardot meets Jackie O look from the swinging sixties, albeit with a new, permed hairstyle that left behind the dreadlocks and natural hairdos she had made popular a decade earlier, it became clear that the new visual expressions of the Ms Hill personality could change with her moods. “People are afraid to embrace the world as themselves, of walking in this world as themselves,” she later said. “Society, which makes us emulate each other, has created this dynamic where we are all A’s and B’s, and not the whole of the alphabet, from A to Z. We need to embrace our individuality again, because it’s like generational abortion.” This idea of generational abortion would prove a major point in our various discussions because Ms Hill feels that the world has gone wrong, that this generation has gone wrong, that hip hop has gone wrong, and that she needs to “right wrongs,” an expression that came up several times during our conversations. In other words, it seems that this generation has been miseducated.
“I have to take a lot of credit for introducing taste and style to the world,” she told me, without the slightest hint of irony. “I think my contributions, and what I projected through my own identity, changed a lot of things. I remember wearing a skirt on stage, and that was illegal in hip hop. I introduced certain musical elements to hip hop that were not there before, and I used certain language that was deemed a little too articulate for hip hop, but at the time I wasn’t looking at it as a contribution. I was just being myself.”
That statement resonated loud and clear when I measured it against a telling anecdote, where the managing editor of this magazine told me when I was writing this story that Lauryn Hill was the main reason she herself had decided, a few years ago, as a teenager, to sport dreadlocks. “I wanted to be like her. She was my idol.”
2. THE EDUCATION
One day, on the phone, she said she wanted to talk about the contradictions in the UNPLUGGED album. “What I have learned in the past five years, is how the other half lives. I was trying to learn what normal was like, but then I realised that I was never normal. With the UNPLUGGED record, I was learning something. I had to understand that the truth that God spoke about in the Bible was the truth, and I almost went outside of myself to explain it to people.” That UNPLUGGED performance was just one performance, I told her. “But it was one crucial performance,” she interjected. “Even if it was an error, I spoke from the point of view of sincerity. Let’s take the whole notion of normalcy as an example. The fact that I considered myself normal was the problem on that record. I thought I was like other people, but then I found myself the object of envy, jealousy and resentment. And this was coming from the very people whose cause I was championing.
“Up to that point, there had been no real information on what had happened to the Fugees, or to me. There are a lot of people I could have exposed on that record, whose dark behaviour I could have exposed, but I didn’t and it cost me my freedom. On that record I was apologetic about certain things, and I wanted to show all of my flaws. First, the lyrics alone were ahead of their time. No one was writing like that at the time, but I was still a lot more articulate and well bred than I made manifest. Up to that point, there were certain rules in music and one had to stay in their box. I felt like I became a sacrificial lamb, because I was the first to come out of the box in that way.”
Come out of the box she certainly did, and many of the four million people who bought the UNPLUGGED album came out of the experience feeling unsatisfied. The guitar riffs were monotonous and repetitive. Even though they lyricism was groundbreaking in its proclaimed introspection, the record felt like one long lament on the world gone wrong. “I find it hard to say that everything is alright,” she sang, but in a year that would be forever defined by the traumatic 9/11 experience, no one wanted to hear songs with titles like “Adam Lives In Theory” and “Mr. Intentional”. Looking back, however, it must be noted that the UNPLUGGED record was influential in some ways, not least because Kanye West stole a hook from her “Mystery of Iniquity” and turned it into last year’s monster smash “All Falls Down.” Ms Hill feels that the situation with the “Mystery of Iniquity” (which contained the lyrics “You can’t handle the truth in a courtroom of lies”) is proof that Kanye West – though he may not publicly acknowledge this fact – might have been searching the web for some of the live music she was “just giving away at the time.” She says she was giving away “diamonds” – many of which ended up on the internet – because the studio experience had become claustrophobic.
For her comeback record, what people wanted was more of that emancipated MISEDUCATION sound, but in 2001, she was not yet ready to put out songs in the key of that previous life. “With THE MISEDUCATION I was overly gracious, to my detriment,” she says. “I thanked a lot of people on that record that I shouldn’t have.” She may – or may not – have been alluding to the musicians Johari Newton, Tejumold Newton, Vada Nobles and Rasheem Pugh, who sued her in 1998 – and later settled for an unspecified amount – claiming that they had produced 14 of the key songs on the MISEDUCATION album without receiving the credits and royalties they had been promised.
“There was a distortion of balance,” she added, “and I allowed people to take credit. Some people got too much, and some people got too little, like Johari, but at the time I was not aware of my impact on the earth. That was kept from me when I was with the Fugees, although when I was a child, I always had that effect on people. My father told me recently that when I was in high school, I wrote and recited like I was in college. My confidence was supernatural.”
3. The Love
After we left the Upper East Side apartment, we went to shoot the last picture in nearby Central Park. It was getting dark, but Ms. Hill had loosened up considerably. She became friendlier, and although she refused to shake hands (she refuses all physical contact with strangers, her general disposition was sunnier than it had been all afternoon. After we shot the last roll, I was invited over to her house for a proper face-to-face interview. On a Saturday evening, the ride from upper Manhattan to South Orange, New Jersey, takes more than hour, but we finally arrived at her four-bedroom house, a suburban outpost on a non-descript, tree-lined, residential lane. (She later told me that she purchased the large house for her mom when she first made money.) Two of her adorable boys jumped up and down in the living room, and greeted her with a loving embrace only a mother can receive when she comes home from work.
Edwin Marcelin is a friend and confidant of lauryn Hill’s. He also is a collaborator who has been shooting a very personal documentary on her life, tentatively titled, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. A black surfer type who had been working in the Stussy store when her met her in California in her Sister Act 2 days, they kept in touch after she went back to New Jersey and started studying at Columbia University. He had toured the world with her in the Fugees days, and now their relationship seemed to be based on mutual trust and admiration. Ms. Hill suggested that the three of us go to a local restaurant for dinner, and when we showed up at an Italian diner called Cafe Argula, we were informed that the kitchen was closed. I realized that, in some cases, there are no exceptions for celebrities. (Anyway, she would tell me, she thinks favors can pervert situations.) We sat at semi-private booth, ordered desert and the conversations turned to the topics of love, music and art.
“I grew up really appreciating Bob Marley’s music until I realized that I had certain gifts that he had not exercised,” she said. “I wasn’t utilizing all of myself. Many people are artists, not because they decide to artists. They stumble onto a talent, a favor from God, after He decided to anoint them, and give them a little more than others. But then they have to walk this fine line between being apologetic for their talent and being considered egotistical. The same thing people get celebrated for, that’s the same they get hated for. A true artist has to understand humility, and be aware of how the world treats its prophets. I always knew I was gifted. When I was a child, I was a little aware. I just loved. I was Love. I loved God. God was on my mind. With that consciousness, came the ability to solve problems, to do my best, to be perfect at everything, but I was aware that there were other forces that might resent me for those abilities.”
During a later conversation, she told me that the motivation for everything she has done is love. “I enjoyed the elation, and seeing the audience happy fulfilled, and being a star was a natural progression. You go from being very popular kid to being a very popular person, publicly. I was always extremely popular as a kid, but as a young woman I didn’t understand that dynamic. I made music out of love, and then I got a reaction, a big reaction, and it wasn’t healthy because I ended up pleasing other people who were dysfunctional and should not have merited this attention I was giving them. If there is one thing I tell my children, it is that they have to protect love. Our understanding of love has to grow, but first, you have to love yourself, and honesty is the very thing that protects love.”
4. The Hate
A few months ago, on a rainy New York weekend afternoon, I received a call from this magazine’s senior editor. She told me that the Fugees would be reuniting in Brooklyn for an impromptu performance related to the Dave Chappelle show. For some strange reason, I never made it to Fort Greene that day, but I know from the film director Michel Gondory, who filmed the performance, and from our editor, that the show was a milestone in its spontaneous combustion of the warmed-up fan base. That performance fed the rumor mills for months, with the sepcualtion of Fugees reunion saturating some corners of the hip hop blogosphere.
Two weeks before our cover shoot in May, a Fugees reunion of sorts was engineered at a tsunami benefit concert in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Although they were not scheduled to appear on stage at the same time, Lauryn met Pras and Wyclef once the beats from some of the songs from The Score were dropped into the amplifiers. She could hardly remember some of the lyrics from the old Fugees songs, so she searched the Internet for the rhymes and hopped on stage for an emotional performance that indicated that an imminent reunion was a real possibility.
At the Café Argula, the rhetoric contradicted these two recent episodes. “The Fugees was really something that I was a part of because the people that I was around at the time, it made them happy. Love is so powerful. The Fugees was supernatural love. That’s the kind of love that can scale mountains, and create paradigms and strange dynamics. It was a very special, and fragile love, but there is a bad pattern that can happen to people who are experiencing this vibrancy of life, and there are no warnings signs.
“What happens when you have a soul, and bare it on stage, in a world of manipulation? It does create conflict, a schism. There are some people who give themselves only partially because they know the business, and then there are some people who give themselves wholly and they get hurt. In order to bare one’s soul, one has to display their whole vulnerability, which most people will never do. Those people who bare their souls end up being the source of ridicule. I wonder if people see themselves as soul-barers. I don’t think people are made of steel; they are still flesh, and they get affected. Jesus himself experienced fear, sorrow and disappointment, but he had the greater good as his focus.”
Prior to meeting Wyclef and Pras, the only job she had ever had was at Foot Locker, where she worked for a year. Even then, she suspects that the only reason the owner of the store hired her was because he was looking to put an attractive black woman behind the counter, so that young black men would keep buying the really expensive sneakers they were into at the time. In any event, the Fugees drove her desire to create all the time. “When I first met the Fugees, I was impressed with Clef’s discipline with the instrumentation, “she would later tell me. “There were no black guys I knew who played the guitar like that. I saw a spark in Wyclef that was extremely attractive…at the time. I was his confidence, and I didn’t know what it was like to grow up with no money in Haiti.”
The fear, sorrow and disappointment that she talks about have been reported in the media many times. As she told me one afternoon, People want to know about my love life, because love is attractive. “It is no longer a secret that Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean were lovers during the time when the Fugees rose to become the biggest band in the world. Most fans speculate that the song “Lost One”- with the lyrics “It’s funny how money change a situation” and the chorus “You might win some but you just lost one”- was directed at the ex-lover who had betrayed her trust. There have also been rumors that Wyclef and some of the other people in her life took most of the proceeds off that blockbuster album. It has been reported that she has been stiffed, and that she should have made much more money off the phenomenal Fugees album sales and sold out world tours.
That is all water under the bridge, but Lauryn Hill is clearly a woman who has been hurt by the men in her life, and the Fugees experience is one she speaks about with much pain. (I attempted to contact Wyclef Jean, a TRACE magazine regular, on more than one occasion, through his publicist, to no avail. It has been said that generally does not talk publicly about fellow Fugees members.) Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and although she told me that she did not want to elaborate on that issue, one particular interview offered much insight.
“[With the Fugees], I took a lot of abuse that many people would not have taken in these circumstances. I cannot blame others, because I can see that a lot of relationships are analogous, but I didn’t realize what was going until it was too late. I had become used to improper dynamics, where people would transfer their hatred on someone else, thereby making a beautiful person ugly. I was young gifted and black in a world where you’re not supposed to know so much, and that brought out the hatred of others. I felt like Bob Marley in Trenchtown, a royal seed in the hood.
“Mozart said genius has less to do with love. There are people who can take three chords and make a masterpiece. As a young woman, I saw the best in everyone, but I did not see the lust and insecurities of men. I discovered what a lie was, and how lies manifested themselves. A friend of mine told me that a Bser cannot bull**** another Bser, and that they can only prey on honest people. Sometimes, people lie so much that they become lost. I liked people, and relationships, but now I know that the spirit of God is the most wonderful experience.”
It is safe to say that the Fugees experience was a rite of passage for Lauryn Hill. Although she got to experience fame and fortune as a 20-year old, the scars of visible, and although the world would see her as this hard woman of steel, she was always fragile. It remains unclear whether she will ever fully recover from that moment of weakness. Lauryn Hill got into business, not realizing that she was getting into business. To hear her tell the story, she did it out of love. But she was always conflicted.
“One day, when I realized what was going on, and how much I was being taken advantage of, someone told me that it was just business. I said, ‘It was?’ How could I accept that? How could I accept that what I was doing out of love was just business? It was like me looking my child in the eye, and saying to him, ‘Child, its just business. I gave so much of my life, but I didn’t see a lot of life reflected back.”
When Lauryn Hill was with the Fugees, there was a guy who had a crush on her, and one day he pulled her aside and said to her, “Every time I approach you, your crew gives me some negative energy. They intimidate me bad.” Lauryn told him he was crazy. They decided to do an experiment with her Fugees bandmates. Lo and behold, the bandmates rejected the guy as soon as he approached Lauryn. “The Fugees was conspiracy to control, to manipulate, and to encourage dependence. My own insecurities helped to seal it for a period of time. At the time, I was not allowed to say I was great; that was considered arrogance, conceit. I had to learn through violent, turbulent experiences.”
The trauma of the Fugees, and the subsequent meltdown-she calls it a “bursting of the glass”- from the Unplugged era could partially explain why she has withdrawn from the public eye and put a barrier between herself and the public, even members of her own entourage. “People felt that they were entitled to touch me, that they were entitled to a certain greeting. I literally had to reeducate people. You have to remember that I had been through a tumultuous relationship, a painful relationship, and I was still hurting, and I hadn’t healed. You will find that insecure women have a tendency to attract insecure men. My insecurities were awkward as Alek Wek’s insecurities would have been in 1956. I felt like I was that beautiful Sudanese woman who was being called ugly, just because they didn’t understand my beauty, with their inferior perspective.”
5. The Questons
Ms. Hill blames a lot of the generational abortion on the media and its manipulations. She feels that the media needs to write about superstars, and that the relationship is often artificial. When we were finishing dessert at the Café Arugla, she turned the table (figuratively speaking) on our interview process and asked to interview me, in another first for this journalist. Alluding to the time of the Fugees and all the media coverage, she stated that there was that gate between her and the public, and that gate led to social fear. “At that time, ten years ago, the press had people a little more hooked. There were just a few specialized media outlets then, so you guys have to compete to get the stories, and you cannot hold us hostage anymore.” I asker her is she disliked journalists. “No,” she answered. “I dislike manipulation.” Her point is that there is so much media now, and so many media outlets, that there is a tendency to create news. Because she feels that people have to weed through the sources to get a get a sense of accuracy, she decided to ask me some question. Below, please find some excerpts of the Claude Grunitzky (CG) interview, conducted by Lauryn Hill (LH), with Edwin Marcelin (EM) as a moderating spectator.
LH: I have some questions for you. Let me ask some of the questions now. What distinguishes a high level journalist from a low level journalist?
CG: A high level journalist is seeking to bring out the truth, because there is only one truth, whereas a low level journalist relies on hearsay and lies because we are living in a world where lies sell more than the truth. TRACE magazine is about the truth, and in its first year, it was even called TRUE magazine.
LH: Do you find that most people you interview are trying to win your favor?
CG: Actually, yes, I do. I think that most of the people I interview are trying to show a sympathetic side of themselves, because they want the world to have a image of them that they have already crafted and perfected.
LH: Do you get intoxicated off of that power, or do you put them at ease, or do you take advantage of their vulnerability?
CG: I try to put them at ease, and I try not to take advantage of their vulnerability.
LH: What about the intangible things that happen, like enlightenment, and passion?
CG: I think it is the journalist’s responsibility to report on the intangibles, and pick up on things that may not be easily perceptible.
LH: What do you think of the state of media, and the rapid moral decline?
CG: Well, the fastest growing form of journalism is the press based on sensationalism…
LH: Yes, tabloid journalism. Do you realize that what you perceive as honest might be perceived as dishonest, unauthentic, corny, and make someone else throw up? Do you think that you can actually know these people that you are writing about?
CG: No, I don’t think I can say that I know them at all. I can hardly say that I know myself at all.
LH: Good answer. That’s a good answer. Do you think that most people perceive themselves as authentic? Do you remember when, seven or eight years ago, hip hop was obsessed with the “real”? Yes, the real, even if it was limiting in its definition of real? I mean real as poverty, real depravity, real anger, real intimidation, real rage. Even if it meant that it left out real happiness, real joy, real passion?
EM: Real sobriety, real health?
LH: This man here (speaking of Edwin) says that when I accepted those Grammys, I should have said this Lauryn Hill accepting, not this is hip hop. That would have been real nobility. Actually, it was real vanity.
6. The Answers
With every global star, there is an expected relationship with the public that shapes the creative process. Lauryn Hill, who also writes poems and screenplays, refuses to be influenced by the public. “I love the public, and making music for the public, but I am also aware the public is fickle.” She once asked me if I liked the Neptunes’ music. I said I loved their music. She then asked me to imagine myself in a store buying a Neptunes record. “When you go to a store and buy Neptunes record, that is an exchange. After that exchange, what do the Neptunes owe you? Nothing.
She told me that in the old days, she didn’t know how to respond when people came to her and said, “I love you.” “Saying ‘I love you, too,’ that would have been insincere,” she added. “I was never a chit-chatter. There is just so much empty discourse. Even in the Fugees days, when we were on tour and the boys were out playing, I stayed inside, I created, rested, and waited for the next opportunity to do something. I found that any casual demeanor was insincere, with ‘Hey, how aaaaaaare you?’” Even when she started making efforst, in the name of civility, she says she developed a habit of saying things just because they sounded nice, and that she ended up confusing goodness with niceness. Later, she learnt that “niceness should not be prioritized over the truth, or honesty.”
Even before she put out the critically acclaimed Miseducation, an album known for its honesty, she saw a void in the social dynamic, which translated into success in the marketplace. She was happy when millions of people brought her record, but she says she expected that, “when you do something good, you expect that to happen. It’s like being in a room when a beautiful woman walks in. When you don’t notice that beautiful woman, that says something about you. I poured love into that record, how could the world not love it? Even though I was upset at someone, it was still coming from love.”
Another bone of contention is technology, and the role it is playing in our lives. She feels that we must stop digital dependence and that we have to reverse our relationship with computers. Computers should be used as a tool to enhance creativity, not replace it. “Technology changed the craft. Technology has advanced so much that you now have software that simulates authenticity. They create authenticity around your subject, whether it’s photography, graphic design, or whatever. Nowadays, it takes no time to master one’s craft. The whole world has become one big sample.” What about the Fugees? I reminded her that she rose to fame by sampling as well. “Yes, we did a little sampling,” she said, leaving it at that. “Technology is everywhere,” added Edwin. “Everyone is trying to capitalize on it. When I look at people in art school now, there is no real desire to make art. Art students just want to get a job, and they can do an assignment in one night, with these computers.”
“You can do that with education as well,” she added. “Who needs to use a brain? Who needs a curriculum anymore, with the way things are speeding up? How will we compete when the technology becomes obsolete? How will we keep up? When I was growing up, I loved the records as a child, and noticing a difference in the records that came out after 1974. The technology ruined the post-74 sound. I hated it.
“Now, when I hear the record company people talk, it hurt my ears. They talk about numbers, equating them to success in music. It’s a blasphemous way to speak. Everything is calculations. There is something about spontaneity that is beautiful. And no, every moment cannot be spontaneous, but we cannot make every moment of our life a program.”
7. The Compromise
The painter Francis Bacon was disdainful of much of his work from before the year 1944 and destroyed the majority of it. He also destroyed an unknown number of works throughout his lifetime. When I told Ms. Hill about this, I was hoping that she would draw a parallel to her own life, knowing that I had heard the she is sitting on many songs that she refused to release. “Maybe some people are creative,” was her response, “because they have to blatantly honest, but commercial success doesn’t always welcome blatant honesty. It puts a strain on the people who are being celebrated for their gifts and talents. These gifts and talents come from lack of compromise.”
When I interviewed her in September 1998, she told me about the pain she’d experienced when the record company forced her to put her cover of the old Fankie Vallie song “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” on the Miseducation album. Sitting at the Café Arugla, I asked her what level of commercial success one has to achieve to reach a point where they don’t have to compromise anymore. She was visibly pained by the question, and said that question would merit an entire discussion of its own. “If an artist is not conscious,” she said, “they can be traumatized. What I understand now, that I didn’t understand then, is the art and commerce can be opposed like black and white.”
One of the discoveries that came out of our various interview sessions, was her deep disappointment with the current state of music in general, and hip hop in particular. It started when I asked her about her feelings towards the state of the Hip Hop Nation. “The fact we are calling it Hip Hop Nation is dangerous,” she said. “Hip hop was a folk expression, and changed unapologetically, and didn’t ask for permission from corporate sponsors on what it was going to do next. That’s why it was exciting. Hip hop was born out of black people who had something to say. Earlier today, [Edwin and I] were talking about how hip hop used to have air of exclusivity, or intimacy, of relevance, that is lost. Hip hop has been sold to convenience.”
In the same way the rapper Common wrote a wonderful ode to hip hop in the classic song “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” Lauryn Hill gets nostalgic when she talks about hip hop yesteryear, yet she says she is constantly self-evaluating. “My intent is not create problems. My false nobility, which was born from the remnants of political correctness, was the contaminate in the expression of pure truth. No one really knows the source of things, or how they really happen. What I do know, is that I could have sold hip hop music the way people did past that moment seven, eight years ago.”
In her mind, hip hop as a whole ceased being interesting about seven, eight years ago, and although she grew up in a hip hop world where people would accuse her of speaking like a whit girl, and would shame her for coming from a place of privilege, she feels that the contradictions have only increases in the last few years. “Young people are being encouraged to throw out their work ethics, their intelligence, and that is something to be repulsed by, That is pure grime. These same people who glorify the hood also flaunt the materialistic lifestyle, which costs money, so no wonder you have so many people who are caught up in the contradictions of this barbaric society.”
I asked her is she could name any musicians who could redeem music of today, I listened to a Destiny’s Child song the other day that was beautiful. I always thought Beyonce’s voice was beautiful. I can’t knock the whole industry, Today, what we have is banging beats. The DPs (directors of photography), the art direction, they have reached an all-time high. It’s just the music…It would be great if people were just allowed to be.”
8. The Promise
Ms. Hill says that she can create exponentially, and that it’s like a fountain, but outside of the acoustic songs on the Unplugged record, the world has not heard a new recording in seven years. The public has been waiting patiently, but although she is said to have recorded dozens on new songs, none have been released outside of the internet. “The only reason I haven’t released a lot of music up to now,” she told me, “is because the songs were transitional. The music was about how I was feeling at the time, even though it was documenting my distress as well as my bursts of joy. The process that I’ve been going through requires privacy, and it deals with the birth of a new confidence, a new direction.” She owes her record company, Columbia, six albums, and the public is getting impatient. Musicians and producers have complained that they were hired for studio sessions, only to be sent back or see their work rejected with no explanation.
I would find out that Lauryn Hill creative process operates differently. As with the Trace magazine staffers on the cover shoot, or the assistances that she admittedly sometimes calls at 2am or 4am, she expects everyone to be at her beck call. Nothing personal, that’s just the way she works. She told me-and recited wonderful excerpts-of a poem, “The Middleman,” that she wrote, in 15 minutes. “I was getting a massage, pregnant with my fourth child, when I stopped to write the bulk of this poem. These people who assist me have to be like midwives, on call. That’s what happens when creativity comes; there is gestation period. You can’t induce a baby in three months. That’s how people get burned out very quickly. There is not enough respect. Look at the old opera world. These voices were holy vessels that manifested the depth and breadth of obedience, discipline and sacrifice, sonically.
“There has to be a guard at the gate, when you manifest yourself wholly to the public. That vessel is integrity, conscience and character. That guard of integrity usually gets killed, or fired. It’s your conscience. He was so important he was given a title: The Intangibles. Maybe I’ll name my album The Intangibles. [These record company people,] they crunch numbers, because they’re not talking about the intangibles, which are love, drive and passion. I don’t think making money is a problem, but there is a hierarchy, and people have to respect the process.”
9. The Death
For all intents and purpose, in the public imagination, Lauryn Hill has gone into exile. There is no dialogue being engaged with the public right now, and who knows what the kingdom after the exile will look like? Now the mother of four children, the youngest being one year old, Ms. Hill cannot deny that she has a responsibility to her offspring, as well as to the millions of fans who are quietly waiting her return, but she says that she is still healing. “I’ve experienced real disappointment, and I hadn’t experienced real disappointment up to that point.”
The point is most likely the moment she reached a trouble zone in her relationship with Rohan Marley, the father of her four children and the man she calls her husband. “I married the son of the man of freedom, she told me, but its unclear how much freedom she has found in that marriage, and how much of that disappointment and those feelings of betrayal will make it onto the next record. A few days before this issue went to press, I ran into Rohan Marley at a private dinner held a mutual friend’s house in the hills of Kingston, Jamaica. The last time I had seen him was at the Lauryn Hill/D’Angelo cover shoot at Sun Studios in Manhattan, back in 1998. At dinner, he came off as charming, and extremely friendly gentlemen, essentially the same happy-go-lucky fellow I had met seven years ago. I told him about the story I’d just written, and he smiled. I added that our cover story was an honest, detailed, critical, appraisal of Lauryn as an artist, and as an individual. He asked what I meant by critical, smiled again, and said, “There have been so many lies written about us in papers. All those things written about me cheating on her, or having other children, that was all lies.” He then proceeded to tell me about his new venture, a Jamaican coffee business that he was in the process of launching.
Ms. Hill was reluctant to discuss the details of her new record, but one emotion she always reverts back to, is love, and her love of God. “I don’t come from a religious background, I don’t use that term, but my faith, my belief and my love of God were strong because I felt incredibly loved, and blessed. I was very happy, and I wanted to share the happiness with everyone. Looking back, I had to learn the hard way that everyone didn’t grow happy like me.”
Hearing her recite scriptures on a regular basis, I told her that, having grown up myself in a family (in my case religious) women‘s propensity to get hurt, and blinded by spirituality. “Many people do it to their detriment,” she responded. “They refuse to see the bad against the warnings of the Holy Spirit, and that’s being disobedient. Everyone who listens to the voice God will have conflict. Many times, you will find that people who have God’s standards prefer to be liked, to the detriment of being what they are supposed to be in the world.”
What we noticed on the cover shoot, is that Ms. Hill is no longer trying to be liked. She does not mind venturing into uneasy relationships with her fans, because she is the most distrustful of the groupies. “I was reading a Bob Dylan interview somewhere,” she remembered, “and he was talking about the people who would show up on his porch and share their revelations that were brought by his music. Situations like those show that we have to be careful with the power that we have. We have to discourage any disillusionment, any perversion of what the fan dynamic is supposed to be.” She says that there was a time when she was afraid of confrontation, although she has now changed. “I am a real person,” she reveals, “which means I changed my mind, and there is the occasional mood swing. When someone steps on my foot, it might hurt and I might say ‘Ouch!’”
10. The Life
The life that Ms. Hill wants to live will be devoted to God, and she no longer wants to be that perfect person who has to break herself to appeal to broken people, because she knows that broken people are very good at disguising themselves. She feels that we live in a makeover society where everyone has been given a false sense of confidence. “What I want to now, is to manifest the truth, unapologetically; to remain clear; to maintain integrity; to never take advantage of people, even though there may be enticement to do so. Maybe I am just an uncanny public figure. Or maybe I am just reestablishing a dynamic that I am more comfortable with now. I realize that I had top heal. I was carrying a huge burden, and I wasn’t being acknowledged for it. I don’t think I was conscious of my role, of my public role. I did it because I was in love with what I did.”
Jayson Jackson was Lauryn Hill’s manager in the glorious, late 90s Miseduation days. He had met her when she was 17 years old, and they became good friends. The year was 1993, he was am intern at Columbia Records and she was a high school senior on her way to Columbia University. They would talk on the phone for hours, exchanging what the calls “post-high school and post-college idealistic views of the world.” During that time, I would visit Jackson in his Lafayette Street office in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, and he would tell me about the exciting film projects they had coming up, and how deeply involved Lauryn was in the scripts. One day, he was unceremoniously fired by his friend-turned-client. That was around the time she decided to distance herself from most of her close collaborators and associates. I asked him why their relationship turned sour. “According to her, I stopped being her friend, and just existed as her manager, Jackson told me over the phone last month. “In some respect, she was right. There are things that you tell your friend, when they’re not acting right, that you wouldn’t tell a business partner. In business we were close to infallible, and quite successful.” He says he has not heard any of her new music, mainly because he has not felt the need to ask. “I hung out with her October 2004, but I realized that we have to learn to communicate as friends again. I miss her friendship.” Jackson now manages Mos Def, Q-Tip and the promising young Costa Rican singer Debbie Nova.
Lauryn Hill is very uncomfortable with unconscious, materialistic, consumer society we are living in, because she feels that people are purposely avoiding confrontation in their lives by just consuming all the time, in their relentless pursuit of numbness. “I was in Manhattan the other day,” she remembered, “and I saw all these widescreens outside of the subway stations, and I wondered to myself whether we really need to be marketed to all time. The world has become one big marketplace, but no one asks whether the human compassion has gone. I guess it’s for sale now.”
Ms. Hill wants to live, to think, and to assume the responsibility of consciousness. Whatever new music comes out of this new life will most certainly be vibrant and honest. She has been practicing martial arts in the morning, and she has also been active in ballet. She is very fit, physically and mentally, and even though there will certainly be reunion pressure coming her way from the Fugees Camp, and the record company, the musical outcome will no doubt be led by honesty. I recently heard two tracks that Wyclef has produced, with the hope that she will just come in to the studio one day and bless the songs with that old L Boogie sassiness. She says she is very hard on Wyclef, when it comes to beats and music. Sometimes she even gets nostalgic, and she admits that the fact that we can still collaborate on music is clearly an expression of greater love.” She says that she recently saw the Nas video for their song “If I Ruled the World” again, and that she was impressed by the strong imagery contained in the clip, which featured her with Wyclef and Pras. “Two black men standing on the side of this black woman, that was strong.” There is obviously a thin line between love and hate, and when she told me that “When we get on stage today, there is an undeniable synergy,” I realized that, although their relationships fell apart over love, money, and ego, that contagious energy that fueled the Fugees hit machine a decade ago was still an incredible rallying point for all three band members. Who knows? Maybe God is so great that the power of forgiveness will smooth things over ahead of a Fugees reunion.
As the waitress came to inform us that the Café Arugla was closing, Ms. Hill turned to Edwin and asked him he believed our best days were in front of us, or behind us. “I am very confident in the future,” answered Edwin. Ms. Hill has erected these walls around herself, because she feels that it has become increasingly difficult to get an honest opinion from people. “For an honest opinion, people will send you an invoice,” she says. “That is the sick society we live in. People are sending out invoices against God’s wills.”
Lauryn Hill, or MS. Hill, or whatever we choose to call her here, is an artist for whom making music is like having an emotional experience. Despite some disconcerting signs that point to the contrary, she is having a love affair with God, and with Life. She told me, one day, that releasing music she was not satisfied with would be like being intimate and not reaching satisfaction. She will allow the audience to participate in her emotional experience, but they will have to pay price of admission, and that price will be honesty. Watching her in the beginning of the summer of 2005, Lauryn Hill reminded me of Marvin Gaye in the beginning of the summer of 1971, when his masterpiece “what’s Going On’ was being released. She is an artist aware, and she will question the state of the world today, because her soul may be living in another era. When I was giving her a ride home from the restaurant, the Cassidy song” I’m A Hustler” came on the radio. She remained quiet when Edwin said, “There we go again.” Then, she retorted, “Actually this one has some old school quality to it’s that’s not so bad.” One of the most memorable insights she gave me during our moments of truth, was the disclosure that she is no longer making music soley for herself, but also for her children. “If I make music now, it will be to provide information to my own children. If other people benefit from it, then so be it.”