Schooled: A Personal Reflection on “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”

  1. The Girl in the Video

There was something in the air during the summer of 1998 – a buzz of the new century inching closer, brushing through ancient ideals, dispelling once truths into falsehoods, praising all radicals as the new convention.  Even within my nine-year-old bones, I could feel the tide shifting and turning, knew that we were veering into greater, stranger, cooler places we had never once encountered or even imagined.  Blocked I was from the ruthless scandals and politics surging above my crown, but through the medium of music video, my mind seemed educated enough, fed by a nourishment of images at once surreal, disturbing, breathtaking, and beautiful which steadily pushed the boundaries of my burgeoning thoughts and beliefs.  It was through MTV and its respective visual network cohorts that I first learned of alternate fashions, lifestyles, relationships, and worlds.  An avid scholar, I would tape as many countdown and late-night programs devoted to the art form, studying them with fascination and depth, learning every frame until it was burned into my skull.  To me, music videos were portals to artistic possibilities.  To me, music videos were introductions to challenging my senses.

And perhaps, within that spellbinding summer, no clip challenged said senses greater than that of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing).”  Devised as a split-screen of a New York block party taking place simultaneously in 1967 and 1998, the video is a masterful smorgasbord of black life, capturing with a slick, anthropological lens the wave of history and culture within a community, highlighting its plethora of changes and emphasizing its perennial consistencies.  With Lauryn painted both as the consummate Copa crooner and hip-hop goddess, singing from her tenement window and before a rambunctious crowd, an incredible thread was created, aligning the disparate decades between with ease and chill, bringing to fore a love and respect for lives often ignored and neglected.  As I watched with increasing wonder, she appeared, in many ways, an enlightened spirit designed to bridge gaps, tie loose ends, and her immaculate hymn, backed by panic-driven piano and devoted to self-respect and self-pride, only made this apparition appear most tangible.  Who was this queen radiating across the screen?  I asked my naïve self.  Who was this girl in the video?

But, of course, I’d already known her from other clips.  In the videos for Fugees’ “Ready Or Not” and “Killing Me Softly,” I had fallen under Lauryn Hill’s impeccably innate mixture of charm, beauty, and style, feeling as if I could have known her as I also felt as if she could not have been any more impossible to comprehend.  Yet, there was something about “Doo Wop” that completely altered my perception, glorifying her singular magnitude, positioning her upon a spectacular planet of her very own.  With each subsequent viewing, I became enthralled, fanatical, desperate for something new, something that revealed more of this sparkling greatness.  And within a month, I got what I’d wished for.

2. The Car Ride

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Like most children, my first introductions to what music “mattered” arose in the car.  When you are too young to dictate the turn of the radio dial, you are at the mercy at whatever your parent or guardian chooses to inflict, subjected to their own means of “taste” and, for quite a bit onward, relate this “taste” to your own.  Many end up growing with utter disdain for those particular sounds filtered to through their adult counterparts as it becomes too distant from their individual pleasures; however, it would be absurd for myself to join such cliques.  In truth, what was thrown my way during those early, formative years were some of the most intriguing and crystalline pop, R&B, and hip-hop emerging at that moment.  Though my parents had been cultivated on a steady diet of jazz and funk, their sophistications never barred popular music from our ears, and, particularly with my mother, such commercial sounds were deeply encouraged if their abilities to transform were just and foremost.  As a teacher, my mother recognized the scholastic powers that music could achieve in ways lectures could not, and raised me to view art as an agent of change, as an agent of knowledge.

And so, it came to no surprise when on our car rides, she blasted The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill with such ferocity and fervor.  From its vivid, poignant lyricism that advocated for a greater awareness and understanding within the black community to its neo-realist interludes evoking the restless, perplexing atmosphere of a classroom, it was an album born out of the desire to teach and educate, to fill one’s mind with thoughts never had, dreams never awakened, facts never stated, feelings never stirred.  It was an album created to assuage fears, conquer anxieties, deny division, and reject indignities.  It was an album designed to expound philosophies, celebrate romance, and, above all, radicalize complacency.  Offhand, such ambitious endeavors could spark intimidation or preponderance within the listening experience.  Yet, filtered through the courageous consciousness of hip hop, morose serenity of jazz, and mystical agony of soul, one did not feel bombarded, preached, or engulfed by its wisdom and truths.  Instead, one felt enlivened, understood, and reawakened.  Instead, one felt as if something majestic was occurring.

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Upon those car rides, I fell hard for its contents.  I fell hard for its grooves, its vibes, its passions.  I fell hard for its highs, its lows, its colossal nexuses.  I began to see her as my educator, as my guide, as my guru.  I began to see her as a soothsayer, a teller of futures and times unknown.  Though it would take years for its greatest emotional resonances to truly ring honest, there seemed even at that time a marvelous familiarity to my comprehension, giving me the tools to view the world with wider introspection.  “Doo Wop” fiercely championed the gilded purity of the body and the mind over wasted distractions.  The Aristotelian “Everything is Everything” began with “I wrote these words, for everyone, who struggles in their youth” before painting a vivid portrait of injustice and inhumanity in a deceptive society.  The dew-drop ebullience of “Nothing Even Matters” irresistibly rhapsodized the vitality of love over materialism, romance over appearance, intimacy over notoriety.  And “To Zion,” intensely and unabashedly confessional, restructured the concept of motherhood, revealing the artist not merely as the goddess I had first imagined her to be, but also as a living, breathing human being, capable of forsaking artistic selfishness for the sake of her family.

As it were, it was that very declaration of parental sacrifice that would haunt our growing appetite for her assurance and growth.  For as much as Lauryn became a symbol of racial pride, activism, feminism, and artistic genius, she winced and cowered at such influence and responsibility.  We may have seen a beautiful, intelligent, young black woman, confident and powerful, on the cusp of absolute global domination.  However, Lauryn only saw herself as someone who wanted to explore and live out her dreams.  And once she got them, it appeared that she no longer wanted them anymore.

3. The Misunderstanding of Lauryn Hill

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When Lauryn Hill first disappeared in 2000, the world had shifted.  No one could figure out why someone with such talent, charisma, and appeal would choose a life of seclusion and exile.  Why throw away that fame and financial security?  Why drift away from that privilege and prestige?  Why lose that authority and clout?  To the millions of outsiders looking in, it seemed an act of desperation, of ill-health, of insanity, and it was before too long that the image and persona of Lauryn Hill as an erratic, difficult, maniacal creature began to overshadow all of the goodwill and appreciation that once seemed second nature once uttering her name.  Even I felt quite bewildered by such movements, confused as to why the goddess I once dearly loved had turned her back, had stopped gifting us with her vast, endless expertise.  Yet, within time, I began to understand that what had happened to such a bright, incandescent star as Lauryn Hill was merely the symptom of being young, gifted, and black.

Born into a nation and society that often ridicules and prejudges one’s worth, black youth are often not raised to believe that our particular talents or gifts carry any validity.  Even when our skills are obvious and present, there often comes a moment in which the ability to fully achieve those skills to our highest levels is snuffed out and left for ruin.  It is no surprise then that when a person is actually able to reach their greatest potential, we raise and place that being on the tallest shelf, displaying them with immense pride and glee, aligning and associating each and every achievement with our own.  These black geniuses then become vessels for our hopes, our desires, and our progress; these black geniuses then become the best our race has to offer.  However, there is something deeply unsettling about being forced into such a role without any true aspiration.  It becomes even more unsettling once that same vision viewed by one’s race is soon accepted by the greater population.  In that instance, one no longer feels enraptured by their power, yet trapped and disturbed.  In that instance, everything changes.

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And that was precisely the finale of that masterful hip-hop soulstress.  She could no longer be a posterchild, a pawn, a mascot.  She could no longer play the game and act the part.  She wanted to be free as an artist, as a woman, as a black person, as a human being.  She wanted to be free as a mother, as a lover, as a friend, as herself.  And since that freedom was no longer potent in her artistic life, Lauryn left it behind for solace and clarity and a peace of mind.  For decades, she has made various comebacks and appearances, startling the public with her electrifying presence, yet none of these endeavors have stuck, perhaps due to a world that has become increasingly more fame-obsessed and celebrity-starved.  She, at this point, seems far beyond the gild and garishness that has become the norm.  Instead, she remains an indelible remnant of a transformative era, a groundbreaking virtuoso, a misunderstood myth.

And yet, it is that mythology which makes The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill such a remarkable wonder to spin 20 years later.  Though the impeccable, genre-bending album continues to be the most formal, complete work Lauryn Hill has ever released, it also continues to astound, excite, and tantalize – it also continues to reach within our coldest, darkest, angriest emotions and replenish them with a sense of fulfillment and reflection.  Never has its lost any of its vitality and freshness, never has it lost any of its spirit and knowledge.  As if an unbreakable talisman, the album continues to bring light and luck to all whom cross its path, annihilating prejudices and pains, simmering poise and excellence, extolling mirth and insight.  It is essential, it is imperative, it is necessary.  Staring at its brilliant cover of a drawing of Lauryn’s wise head harshly etched into a school desk, it is hard to imagine a life or a world in which its majesty does not exist.  And, in truth, that is a world in which I would never want to live.

About Marsalis

poet of pop.
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