When Aretha Franklin passed, I realized that her music — for me — was a rite of passage. I didn’t know I was grown until I understood one of her songs, just like I didn’t know love until I understood an Anita Baker song. But it was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill that would go on to be my baptism into heartbreak.
Released twenty years ago in 1998, the album was immediately considered a classic. Culturally adored, it was the first hip hop album to win a Grammy for Album of the Year, earning Hill critical acclaim from major media outlets that had overlooked our artists, especially our Black female artists.
Hill wasn’t just a star, she was our star.
Two decades later and we can still see the album’s impact today — artists from Beyoncé to Nicki Minaj to Janelle Monáe have claimed it as an inspiration, and it’s a legacy has been thoroughly explored from our perspective.
But award-winning feminist author and ESSENCE-alum Joan Morgan delves even deeper into the album’s legacy in her book, She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Having impacted a generation of women — writers, especially — in her own right, Morgan uses She Begat This to explore the complicated crowning achievement that is Hill’s first and only solo studio album.
“In 1999, we’re really struggling,” Morgan said about that musical moment in history. “There’s no question anymore — hip hop can be really misogynistic. We were struggling as Black women with our place in it. How do we really show up and love a thing that also sometimes calls us all outside of her name?”
“And then here came Lauryn. She was like a breath of fresh air. She was a life saver in some ways. She allowed us a point of entry,” she added.
In honor of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’s anniversary, ESSENCE spoke more with Morgan about the album and how it naturally evolved into a pivotal musical moment in time.
This album is considered a masterpiece on so many different levels. Why was it important to you to write a book about it?
There were a couple of things that I thought could be really exciting: One was to talk about an album that not only shifted culture — Lauryn was #BlackGirlMagic before the hashtag. We look at her now and say, ‘Of course that’s Black Girl Magic,’ but we hadn’t really come up with that language in 1998 yet. That phrase was not in our lexicon yet. And when I started to think about that, I was like this is an album that’s a culture shifter by a woman, who is a precursor for many of the things that we see now and take for granted.
Why do you think after all these years, even after Lauryn herself has been under scrutiny recently for showing up late to shows on tour, this album still resonates with us 20 years later?
The album strongly resonates for people as a marker for where they were at the time.When I ask people if they still listen to it, most people say they don’t play the album straight through. People definitely talked about it like a really good friend they had in high school or college and y’all love each other and have a lot of great memories, but you don’t hang out. They’re not really a part of your day-to-day lives…But they honored the time, and the history, and the space that the album made for them when they needed it.
I was nine when the album came out, and grew up with it. I didn’t really realize until recently how young she was (23 years old) when the album came out. Do you think that’s why she hasn’t put out another album?
I think the reasons that she hasn’t are ultimately her own, but certainly there are things that we know about her history that would have made putting out her second album complicated. And while she never called [Wyclef] out by name, many of us knew who she was talking about, for sure. She worked [out their break-up] through the album. Very shortly after that album is released, she’s pregnant and she’s moved on to another relationship. So we’re not gonna get more of the Miseducation. Then right after the album dropped, there was that very public lawsuit. So a lot of Lauryn’s critical acclaim was very quickly contested. So it put a shadow, a little bit, over that moment and that legacy.
What do you hope that readers, in particularly Black women, take away from She Begat This when they read it?
I sign the books, “we begat this.” I think the reason why I do that is because Lauryn gave birth to something really special, but it was because we were all giving birth to something really special. In that moment in time, particularly for Black women, we were birthing ourselves in a really specific and beautiful way that makes room for the very powerful incarnations in which we see ourselves. I also write “we begat this” because Lauryn in all her complexity is us. She’s not superhuman. She’s not a goddess. She’s very much us at our best, I think, and she may also be us at our worst. She was burdened for so long by people who wanted her to save hip hop and by extension, save us. I gave a talk in Philly at Uncle Bobby’s bookstore, and someone tweeted that I was really asking the audience to practice some forgiveness of Lauryn and ourselves, and understand that it should have never been her burden to save a genre. It was all of our work to step up and save ourselves.
Melissa Kimble is a Brooklyn-based writer, digital strategist, and the founder of #blkcreatives, a a community that advocates for Black genius across Creative industries. This interview has been edited for clarity.