In the wee hours of a weekday morning, I sit on a crowded couch in the unreasonably cold waiting room of a midtown Manhattan recording studio with plenty of time to think. It will be hours before the artist formerly known as Lauryn Hill emerges to begin our interview—an inconvenience that her people acknowledge and apologize for repeatedly. For reasons the Fugees camp cryptically describe as “complicated,” assembling Pras Michel, Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill to discuss their upcoming reunion album seems almost impossible. Even though all three are in the studio, tonight I will see only Lauryn.
As I wait, I am desperate for my iPod’s continuous loop of Hill’s 1998 tour de force The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and the Fugees’ classic The Score. I need beats. Beats temper things, remind me that I am about to meet a woman whose creative brilliance not only gave birth to two of the most important albums in hip-hop history but whose very being—her rawness, her honesty, her vulnerability about love, her budding moral and spiritual consciousness—also shocked the world into realizing that hip-hop could still offer access to a higher plane. L-Boogie, as we once affectionately called her, was the hope of hip-hop, pure and simple. Chocolate. Visceral. Sexy. Smart as hell. Successful. Paid. And she bore not one but four of reggae legend Bob Marley’s grandchildren, for God’s sake. Lauryn’s iconic rise and international acclaim might just mean that the world was readying itself for Black Girl Rule.
But controversy surrounded the idolization of Lauryn Hill almost from the start. In 1998 a quartet of music industry pros, Johari Newton, Rasheem Pugh, Vada Nobles and Tejumold Newton, sued Hill for songwriting and production credit on Miseducation, challenging the popular notion that the album was a one-woman show. The lawsuit was later settled out of court. Her romantic union with Bob Marley’s son Rohan, the father of her four children, became tinged with scandal when it was reported that Rohan was still married to a woman he exchanged vows with in the early 1990’s. When Hill took the stage on MTV’s Unplugged four years ago, many fans and close associates believed they were witnessing a genius come undone. The fly-girl persona had been replaced by a defiant woman that audiences responded to by withholding their purchasing power. Despite the fact that Unplugged was billed as a highly anticipated return, the CD sold only a fraction of the sales garnered by Miseducation.
The former media darling, who once graced the covers of magazines as diverse as Essence and Harper’s Bazaar, languished in the court of public opinion. Hill decided to clean house, cutting ties with former colleagues and friends. Invited to the Vatican in 2003, she stunned fans by delivering a scathing indictment of priests who commit child abuse. And last summer in London she kept more than two thousand ticket holders waiting for almost three hours with no more explanation than, “I have a problem with procrastination. I have a great deal of difficulty deciding what to wear. It’s a woman thing.” Professionally speaking, her behavior amounted to self-sabotage. The New York Daily News ran a blind item last November accusing Hill of attaining “new diva heights by imposing an imperious rule on everyone who’s working on her Fugees comeback album,” noting that she makes everyone call her Ms. Hill.
The reasons for her new enigmatic persona differ drastically, depending on the source. Hill, now 30, claims that she’s become hardened because some in her inner circle took advantage of her and used her for personal gain. But according to one friend who declined to be named but who’s worked closely with the singer for nearly a decade, these allegations are just unfounded. “Lauryn has a history of blaming her problems on those she trusts,” he says. “She wants the people in her employ to fear her, because she confuses it with respect.”
Rapper Talib Kweli, a fan and former acquaintance whose ode to Ms. Hill’s newly declared identity aired on New York radio station Hot 97 just days before this interview, has a different take. “When an artist gives a piece of her soul to the public, she doesn’t necessarily get that back,” he reflects. “And when you’re constantly giving huge chunks of yourself as Lauryn was, sometimes you have to do things that seem eccentric or crazy to maintain your own sanity. You may retreat, you may seek spiritual counsel, whatever it takes to get back that piece of your soul you’ve been giving away.”
Supermodel agent Bethann Hardison, who has known Hill since the singer was 19 years old, wonders if Hill’s first experiences with love sent her on this path. “Sometimes things hurt you so deeply that you never heal from it,” Hardison says. “You become once bitten, twice shy, more self-protective. I just think she never got a chance to heal from whatever could have broken her spirit or her heart.”
When Ms. Hill finally emerges for the interview she is beautiful, petite, with an air that is palpably vulnerable, fragile even. Over the course of our hour-long conversation, one thing becomes exceedingly clear: 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. But we should listen carefully to this notably prickly and less cuddly incarnation, because she still possesses an uncompromising brilliance, a stubborn honesty, a self-awareness most of us would find oppressive, and an unremitting beauty that is shocking even in light of her many contradictions.
Essence: Why a Fugee reunion?
Lauryn Hill: By coming back and resolving the issues that separated the band, we’re trying to capitalize on a vibe and synergy that once was. I got my first stage experiences and a lot of my confidence from what I learned in the studio with these guys, Wyclef especially. We had the complications of becoming public people at a very young age, and all of it happened under a microscope. There was good and there was bad. Things probably didn’t end properly. So this project has much to do with closure. Once you are able to resolve the negative, you can reclaim the good.
Essence: In the past you’ve described aspects of your relationship with the Fugees as emotionally toxic. What’s changed?
Hill: I’m a lot older, wiser and clearer. I’m more knowledgeable about people. At the same time, there has been an enormous amount of negative energy blocking me and trying to prevent my independent endeavors. So it kind of forced my hand to come back and resolve things. And I’m speaking nicely and politely about that.
Essence: You are in a business where there is a large amount of pressure for artists to continue to produce, even when they may not have anything to say. How have you avoided that?
Hill: I live a rare and unique life in that I create all the time. Even my downtime is probably what other people would consider work. I do a lot of writing. Sometimes it’s screenplays. I was intensely into clothing and fashion design. Sometimes I’m inspired by music. Sometimes it’s just love. But that pressure can be huge. It also can be very dangerous, almost like compression.
Essence: You experienced a great deal of success at a young age. How did you handle the demands of celebrity?
Hill: I don’t think I ever handled celebrity. For a period of time I had to step away entirely. There were many temptations, enticements, entrapments—whether it was the dependence on image or just some false sense of security. I created from such a sincere, pure place, but those enticements produced a very toxic situation for my creativity, my person. At 23, you don’t know how to handle that in a diplomatic manner, especially when everybody around you has been affected by the money, the fame, the attention. Celebrity itself becomes an addiction. One of my hopes for artists today is that they don’t get trapped in images that don’t really reflect who they are. Everybody is sort of bound to this supercool, supermature, superperfect, superconsistent image. It looks great on the shelf but it can also hurt people, and stunt their growth, because their image is growing, but their persons are not.
Essence: After The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released, you became an icon for many young Black women who identified with your music and your image. Is that status ever oppressive?
Hill: I think what’s oppressive is anything outside the truth. If that icon status is the result of people’s appreciating the value of my honesty, then it’s well deserved and organic. It only becomes repressive when it’s founded on a false concept or image. And that’s what I’m constantly trying to remove myself from. People need to understand that the Lauryn Hill they were exposed to in the beginning was all that was allowed in that arena at that time. There was much more strength, spirit and passion, desire, curiosity, ambition and opinion that was not allowed in a small space designed for consumer mass appeal and dictated by very limited standards. I had to step away when I realized that for the sake of the machine, I was being way too compromised. I felt uncomfortable about having to smile in someone’s face when I really didn’t like them or even know them well enough to like them. I thought it was okay for me to write a song about something complicated if I was going through something complicated. But I discovered people could only acknowledge red and blue and I was somewhere between. I was purple. I had to fight for an identity that doesn’t fit in one of their boxes. I’m a whole woman. And when I can’t be whole, I have a problem. By the end I was like, “I’ve got to get out of here.”
Essence: So you made a conscious decision to remove yourself from public life for a considerable time. What did you discover?
Hill: For two or three years I was away from all social interaction. here was no music. There was no television. It was a very introspective and complicated time because I had to really confront my fears and master every demonic thought about inferiority, about insecurity or the fear of being Black, young and gifted in this Western culture. It took a considerable amount of courage, faith and risk to gain the confidence to be myself. I had to deal with folks who weren’t happy about that. I was a young woman with an evolved mind who was not afraid of her beauty or her sexuality. For some people that’s uncomfortable. They didn’t understand how female and strong work together. Or young and wise. Or Black and divine.
Essence: What boundaries did you establish during that time?
Hill: When I finally said, “Enough is enough,” I think the audience had to be introduced to that. I was at a store one day when this woman started touching me and I said, “Listen, ma’am, I don’t like to be touched.” And she was offended. “You don’t like to be touched?!” Five years ago I would have said, “Okay, touch me.” Now I’m like, “I don’t like to be touched, get off me!” I didn’t always have the strength to do that. It’s especially hard when you have the desire to be liked and make everyone happy.
Essence: You were an artist who seemed ripe for celebrity branding—the perfume, the doll, the music, the clothing line, and yet you avoided it. Why?
Hill: I was afraid of that. I think there were certain things that I should have exploited, because it was my birthright. It’s what I did. Fashion is something I breathe, for example. It’s something I did very naturally, but I’ve seen my style, my look, everywhere. I wasn’t really trying to share my style, I was just trying to be me and exist. Instead I’ve seen my concepts, my ideas, my creative birthright be exploited, appropriated, copied and reproduced. And that was painful.
Essence: I’m interested in what you expressed as the need to be a whole woman. I find that for many Black women, it’s a struggle to be accepted in a society that seems to be incapable of making space for our intelligence, beauty and strength. It’s almost expressed as a liability. Like you’ll never find happiness because you’re too dope.
Hill: It’s really about the Black woman falling in love with her own image of beauty. I know that I’ve been in a fight to love myself and experience reciprocity in a relationship. I thought that a perfectly reciprocal relationship was an impossibility. That’s that “Black woman is the mule of the world” thing. It says she can’t get what she deserves, no matter how dope she is. And, you know, you have to go through the fear. You do have to do something with the insecurity, ghosts and demons that have been programmed in us for centuries. You have to master the voices, all the insecure and inadequate men who put garbage in a woman’s mind, soul, spirit and psyche just so they can use her. You’ve got to break free of that crap. I didn’t see many of the women who came before me fight that war successfully. And when you don’t see it, you don’t know if it can be done. But that’s what faith is for.
Essence: And love?
Hill: I’m realizing now that you have to get love, period. Love is my food. Truth is my oxygen. I need those things. I’m sure there have been times I tried to deny myself love by staying in something safe or convenient. By the time I realized that that was not going to work, I was literally starving for oxygen. Now I realize that satisfaction, and the ability to affirm it, is my birthright. Happiness, joy, love, peace are all things I’m entitled to so long as I don’t compromise or settle for something less.
Essence: Is this a clarity that came with becoming Ms. Hill?
Hill: I’ve always been wise beyond my years. I’ve always been a teacher. When I was a child, I was teaching adults, because I was always learning. I’m Ms. Hill because I know I’m a wise woman. That is the respect I deserve.
Joan Morgan lives in New York. Additional reporting by Nicole Saunders.