The world’s first introduction to Lauryn Hill was her pivotal role in Sister Act 2 (1993), in which she played a rebellious, outspoken Catholic student. In the film, she performed a stunning rendition of the gospel hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and brought an energy that was beyond her years. Although this role was only the beginning of Hill’s legendary career, it was indicative of her true essence. Here was a supremely-talented, young female artist who was uncompromising in her faith and beliefs. Armed with a powerful voice and iconic presence, Lauryn Hill’s awareness of her human weakness was her strongest weapon. Her words would change the world.
In a 2012 interview with The Jewish Chronicle, rapper Drake claimed to be “the first person to successfully rap and sing.” Hip-hop purists were rightfully outraged—many of them instantly naming someone who was a better emcee and vocalist in her era: Lauryn Hill. The East Orange, N.J. native began her music career as a member of innovative rap group The Fugees in high school with the nickname “L Boogie.” Their sound—tailored by Haitian producer, rapper, and singer Wyclef Jean—mixed traditional hip-hop with reggae and R&B. On their standout album The Score, the group achieved massive critical and commercial success. However, the conglomerate would not last. As the group’s most gifted vocalist and lyricist, Hill was pressured by record execs to embark on a solo career. She initially refused. With tensions rising over a failed romance between her and Wyclef, Hill began to reconsider. This decision led to the creation of what is universally accepted as one of the greatest albums of all time.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is widely considered the most important artifact of feminism in hip-hop. Hill’s solo debut sold over 10 million copies worldwide and set records with its critical acclaim. She won five Grammy awards for The Miseducation—including Album of the Year— which became the first hip-hop album to bring home the award show’s highest honor. Her ten nominations and five wins were the most ever by a female artist. Critics lauded the album’s themes of pain, empowerment, uplift, and motherhood from a black woman’s perspective. The album made such an impact that it was added to the permanent Library of Congress collection in 2015. Her eccentric style, multi-genre musicianship, and youthful brilliance gave her massive crossover appeal. Hill had the music industry in her palm, at just 23, seemingly for decades to come. As her songs revealed, however, Hill’s smile and cool persona masked a tumultuous internal struggle with fame.
On a body of work ripe with vulnerability, “To Zion” is the album’s rawest cut. Hill confronts her battles with maternity and receiving advice from friends and family that she should abort her first child for the sake of her career. As described in the song’s intimate lyrics, keeping her son was the most important decision she’d ever made. This dilemma forced Hill to further define her idea of Christianity and faith. Ultimately, she followed her intuition—a move that empowered women, especially women of color, worldwide to exercise agency over their own bodies. The Miseducation addresses marginalized communities with the theme of universal love. In digging deeper than romantic love, Hill reflects on her journey in learning to love God, the Earth, her community, her loved ones, her enemies, and, finally, herself.
Unwilling to compromise with label executives on her sound or appearance, Hill soon began to fade from the public eye, taking her career with her. In 2002, she performed an intimate, acoustic set for MTV Unplugged. Although many of the songs were improvised and perhaps only skeletons for more refined tracks, the MTV special received negative reviews. Critics slammed Hill for her “radical” lyrics and simplistic arrangements. This rejection caused Hill to take a hiatus from music and fade deeper into privacy.
Many fans, including Kanye West, often lament over the fact that Ms. Hill never had the opportunity to maximize her potential as a musician. Two or three more albums may have redefined the career of an artist with as much pure talent as the Michael Jacksons and Stevie Wonders of the world. Nearly two decades removed from her opus, many fans now identify Ms. Hill by her tendency to arrive late, cancel concerts, or make inflammatory statements. The beauty is that we cannot change or define her. She cannot be contained.
There are reasons, other than her dexterous flow and pointed lyricism, that this artist is widely respected in hip-hop. Lauryn Hill inspired generations of black women to love limitlessly, carry themselves with pride, follow their own intuition, and create community in each other. The last line of the album’s title track states the legacy Ms. Hill carved out for herself: “I made up my mind / to define my own destiny.”