How a Racist Smear Campaign Derailed Lauryn Hill’s Career
As Hill embarks on a 20th anniversary tour for her classic album ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,’ it’s time to look back on why one of the most talented hip-hop artists fell off.
“I think it’s an honest album. When I think of honest music, I think of soul. Music’s more technical now; it strives for perfection. Soul music strives for the heart.” — Lauryn Hill, 1998
In 1998, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the most essential, acclaimed and relevant album in popular music. Lauryn Hill had been central to the pop ascendance of The Fugees, the New Jersey trio of Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras who’d rode a catchy blend of soul, pop, hip-hop, and reggae to international superstardom. Hill, with her cover girl good looks, passionate vocals, and deft rhymes was the breakout star and had already established her showbiz bona fides with a lead role in 1993’s Sister Act 2. But with the group’s dissolution and Wyclef’s emergence as a hit-making songwriter/producer following his smash album The Carnival, Hill needed to make her own major artistic statement as a solo artist. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill not only did that, it established her as one of the defining artists of the times.
With its highly personal odes to heartache, spirituality, motherhood, and social awareness, Miseducation was an oasis of sincerity during the still-reigning Shiny Suit domination of Sean “Puffy” Combs and uber-slick stylings of urban radio. And as pop music was beginning to make a major comeback on the heels of Spice Girls’ omnipresence, Lauryn Hill’s sound and persona offered something more relatable to those unimpressed by their particular brand of bubblegum Girl Power.
Lauryn wasn’t exactly a singular figure—her rise coincided with a boom for women in music, with Alanis Morissette, Missy Elliott, Erykah Badu, and Fiona Apple all household names in 1996 and 1997, and established stars like Madonna and Janet Jackson still at the peak of their commercial powers and pushing to new creative heights with Ray of Light and The Velvet Rope, respectively. But Miseducation spoke to an audience that was raised on hip-hop but may have felt emotionally detached from it. The brashness and wit of an MC Lyte or Queen Latifah may have garnered respect, but with Lauryn there was a vulnerability that resonated with the masses. Her undeniable beauty, that image that seemed born of realness, and an album that seemed to speak to the pain and perspective of so many young women—it all connected to make Lauryn Hill a phenomenon in 1998.
But it all became a prison for her, personally. And when Hill announced this week that she was going on tour in recognition of her greatest artistic achievement’s 20th anniversary, there was as much snark as celebration. She’s an artist who is polarizing today in a way that wasn’t as true 20 years ago, but Lauryn has had to navigate so much of this from the moment she became a household name.
An apocryphal quote from 1996—in which it was asserted that Hill once said she’d rather her children starve than have white people buy her albums—has lingered in many corners. Hill addressed that controversy around the time of Miseducation:
“A couple of years ago some kid had heard that I’d said that I didn’t want white people to buy my records, and that really, really hurt me a great deal because I like to think my music is really universal,” she told MTV in 1998. “And I’ve been everywhere and I have fans everywhere, but because of some rumor that, you know—some radio personality chose to say on his radio show, he had a bunch of people believing something that they’d never seen or never heard themselves but just heard a rumor.”
It was the first in a parade of controversies that changed public perception about one of the most beloved stars of her generation. For the better part of the next two decades, Hill’s image has taken hits from virtually every angle. In 2002, Hill and her management settled with the music collective New Ark—Vada Nobles, Rasheem Pugh, Tejumold and Johari Newton—for an undisclosed sum after they sued for production and songwriting credits on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
“She is not a musician, she is not a producer,” New Ark’s attorney Peter C. Harvey had said in 1998. “[New Ark] will make another album and everyone will see that they were the ones responsible for this album. I dare say if you put Lauryn Hill in a studio alone, she couldn’t do it again. Album No. 2 for her is not going to sound like this.”
There wouldn’t exactly be an Album No. 2, but there would be 2002’s MTV Unplugged No. 2.0—a project and performance that revealed an artist struggling with fame. “I used to be a performer, and I really don’t consider myself a performer anymore,” she says on the album. “I had created this public persona, this public illusion, and it held me hostage. I couldn’t be a real person, because you’re too afraid of what your public will say. At that point, I had to do some dying.”
When Ms. Hill courageously called out pedophilia amongst priests in the Catholic Church during a 2003 Vatican City concert, she was roundly criticized. “I realize some of you may be offended by what I’m saying, but what do you say to the families who were betrayed by the people in whom they believed?” she’d said onstage. The Catholic League blasted the star as having “flipped her lid”; organizer Monsignor Rino Fisichella said: “It was in poor taste and very bad mannered.” The incident was chalked up to another “rant” by Lauryn Hill, who never wavered in her position.
“What I said was the truth. Is telling the truth bad manners? What I asked was the church to repent for what has happened,” she said.
Her longtime relationship with Rohan Marley deteriorated publicly, as details and speculation into their history made Hill’s “You still defending him?” finger-wagging on Miseducation seem naïve and/or hypocritical. She was associated with self-styled spiritual adviser Brother Anthony, a man some described as a “cult figure”; she became notorious for fans’ dissatisfaction with her live shows, as Hill became famous for tardiness, strange performances and outbursts. And in 2012, she was charged with three counts of tax fraud and served three months in prison the following year—all while spending long stretches out of the public eye altogether, raising her children and only occasionally releasing a lukewarm single.
As such, Lauryn Hill doesn’t quite hold the place of reverence for a generation that has a new wave of icons to fawn over and dissect. It’s not exclusive to her: The ’90s are getting further in the rearview and a younger generation is scrutinizing those artists in a way that those who grew up with that music may not have been equipped to. To some, Miseducation is a relic of respectability and the quasi-earnest 1990s; she admonishes “hair weave” and “fake nails,” and throughout the album often relishes in the kind of sanctimony that one can only seem to muster in their early twenties. But that’s a part of why Miseducation is still potent art—even as its themes may be passé.
Of course, the dismissals usually begin with the fact that Hill has only recorded one studio album. But a scant discography can’t be reason enough to dismiss her cultural importance; it doesn’t seem all that different from the long gaps in the catalog of a Patti Smith, for instance. Smith may never have made another album as epochal as Horses, Carole King may not have another watershed moment like Tapestry, and there may never be as definitive an album as Miseducation from Lauryn Hill, but that in no way diminishes the impact of any of those records. And in the case of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it’s forever a document of a young woman coming to grips with her personal turmoil while commenting on the tumultuous world around her. For those coming of age in the ’90s, it sounded like the life so many were living at the tail end of the 20th century. And for Hill, it’s an evocative document of who she was as a younger woman—as she indicated in the press release for the 20th anniversary tour:
“This album chronicled an intimate piece of my young existence. It was the summation of most, if not all, of my most hopeful and positive emotions experienced to that date. I Loved and believed deeply in my community’s ability to both Love and heal itself provided it received the right amount of support and encouragement. Our world today, both complex and changing, is in need of the balance between moral fortitude and cathartic expression. I hope the Love and energy that permeated this work can continue to inspire change with Love and optimism at the helm.”