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Lauryn Hill: Lady Soul

She has been miseducated at the finest schools, has been nominated for 10 Grammys and has put the spirit of Bob Marley into Nineties hip-hop

Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill performing at Brixton Academy, London, on May 2nd, 1999.

Chris Lopez/Sony Music Archive/Getty

AMERICA IS AT WAR. THE RADIO OF A BLACK CHEVY SUBURBAN inching down Broadway in midtown Manhattan drones: Day Two and the airstrikes on Iraq continue tonight and for the days ahead. President Clinton – the blade of the impeachment guillotine hovering above his neck – says it’s what we have to do.

Lauryn Hill swivels in her seat, careful of her long, cream-white, queenly dress, her crisp blue-and-white man’s dress shirt, her eye-popping turquoise-and-white ankle-length mohair coat. She places a delicate, loving hand on the very broad shoulder of Rohan Marley, her ever-present boyfriend and the father of her two children (“I’m damn near married,” she says). Her face is bent with concern. “This war thing makes me uneasy,” she says with quiet denunciation. “It happened so sudden. There was no buildup.”

“Is a sign of revelay-tion,” says the Jamaican-born Ro, his voice husky and thick with patois.

“Well,” I say, “they say they didn’t want to attack during Ramadan.”

“Oh,” she says, “but attacking the day before is OK?” She shakes her head. “The media have made people so accepting of war. They’re so cynical, they’ll believe something stupid. I was in Rwanda and we went to the places where the genocide happened – yards full of bones and skulls, and it seemed like props. My friend said, ‘Lauryn, I thought I’d be more upset than I am.’ He was completely desensitized. He was more upset about not being upset.” She goes quiet, letting the thought hang in midair. “Ro’s theory,” she adds, “is that all of Hollywood is meant to desensitize us.”

A moment later, Lauryn says, “Bono said my album is one of the most important of the year.” She is incredulous, but calm and respectful. No one else in the car is surprised. “He wants me to do Lalibala, Ethiopia, on the eve of the new century.” Ethiopia is the Rastafarian holy land.

“Iz a spiritual ting,” Ro says. “Ya go out there for the people. Nah fah self.”

“If I’m not performing, I’ll be in church.”

“Lalibala iz the church.”

The conversation flows on, touching on war and the media and modern America, Lauryn consistently siding with the unempowered with an earnestness and a conviction rarely heard outside of vintage Black Panthers footage.

“The small-business man who made America individual is gone,” she says. “There used to be flea markets by my house where you could buy all sorts of little things. Now it’s all Home Depots.”

This is the Lauryn Hill who doesn’t just want to make music – she wants to change the world. “We’re in this war,” she says. “Well, there’s always a constant spiritual war, but there’s a battle for the souls of black folk, and just folks in general, and the music has a lot to do with it.”

Lauryn has fought this war for eleven years, first with the Fugees and now with her self-produced debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a talking book that tells the history of soul, R&B, reggae and hip-hop. Its instant success has put her in the vanguard of the modern hip-hop-soul movement. “Black music right now is like this whole Star Wars battle,” says Ahmir Thompson (a.k.a. ?uestlove), drummer for the Philadelphia hip-hop band the Roots. “There are very few people who are on the side of art and are goin’ up against the Death Star. D’Angelo is Luke Skywalker. Prince, Ste-vie, James, Marvin and George are our Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi. And, most definitely, Lauryn is Princess Leia.”

Lauryn believes she’s already having an impact.

“Music is about to change,” she says. “I think now people feel a little more comfortable playing with the parameters. Writing more intensely. I think we [D’Angelo and herself] have helped to make people less afraid. There are a lot of young people who will be given more leeway. People can’t really hear potential. There’s a lot of people who need to hear a ready-made, instant-meal, TV-dinner-type thing – where you just put it in the microphone – the microwave, as opposed to potential.”

We arrive at the Hill home, a three-story brick house in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of South Orange, New Jersey, five minutes down the road from the house where Lauryn grew up. Lauryn lives here with her parents; she bought the place for them “when I got a little money.” It’s roomy enough for Lauryn, her mom and dad, her children – year-and-a-half-old Zion and three-month-old Selah – and her man, Rohan, as well as a driveway long enough to fit Lauryn’s green Land Rover Defender, Rohan’s red Range Rover and Mom’s Range, too. It’s a house of such grand size and tasteful decoration that the Huxtables, Bill Cosby’s TV family, might have lived here. There are cream walls and a huge ornate mirror in the front room, and all sorts of comfy chairs and couches everywhere. In the bathroom, an exquisite Asian-style dragon’s mouth is a faucet, and dragon tails are knobs.

There are a few plaques celebrating the millions of “Killing Me Softly” singles sold in the U.K. and Australia, but where are the two Grammys Lauryn won with the Fugees in 1997 for The Score? Where are the plaques commemorating the 3 million people who have purchased The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (recently nominated for eight Grammys, with Lauryn getting another two nominations for her work on Aretha Franklin’s “A Rose Is a Rose”)? Or the 18 million who have paid for The Score?

“I have about thirty plaques that stay in one closet,” Lauryn says. “And if you saw where the Grammys were, you’d be like, ‘This is a travesty!’ But I can’t look at that stuff all the time, because I don’t ever wanna become complacent like that. This is not a museum, and I’m not in any rush to impress anybody. I don’t feel like my money or my success defines me. I’ve always been very happy just bein’ me.”

It’s two days before Christmas and the Hill home is in full festive swing, with white candles and red poinsettias and a Christmas tree with blinking lights, a porcelain black Mary and Joseph at its base and a little black angel on top. Around 10:30 P.M., Lauryn’s holiday party starts bubbling. Her band members and managers and assistants and dread technician stroll in, and the dining room is filled with turkey, spaghetti and meatballs, vegetable lasagna, barbecued wings, rice, stuffing, biscuits and gravy. Everyone gathers hands, forming a large circle as Lauryn slides into the room, the jangling of silver wrist bangles preceding her. There’s chipped silver polish on her toenails, and a red Abercrombie and Fitch long-sleeved top and green Army pants over her new-mama chest and long legs. She is the color of dark chocolate, about five feet four and thin, but a collection of perfectly placed African curves proves she’s not underfed.

She blesses the food, then praises her people: “I’ve surrounded myself with people who believe in what I do, because I can’t do what I do alone. I’m a regular person. I’m not a corporation. I need a baby sitter sometimes.” She turns to her man, standing a few feet away. “And I have to thank Ro, who has the patience of a clam – a clam takes 100 years to make a pearl. I love you very much. I know it’s rough, but we here.”

Lauryn met Rohan more than two years ago, after a Fugees concert. He has become the love of her life. He is yellow skinned, with a long, sharp nose, natty shoulder-length dreads and a long, wily goatee, the unmistakable scion of Bob Marley. Ro exudes peace and humility and is deeply spiritual – “I be in constant prayer,” he says. He also was a standout football player for the University of Miami and the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League, a linebacker known for making explosive hits. He seems perfect for Lauryn, who is described by friends as “spiritual, with an underlying soft-spoken militancy.”

“Ro came in my life,” Lauryn will say a few days later, “in the exact time that I wasn’t looking for anyone and also the exact time that I needed someone very badly. Everything that happened in my life up to the point of me meeting him kinda showed me why he was the right one. He’s kinda like the most sincere person that I have ever met, with the most sincere heart. He’s real funny, because on the exterior he’s like stone, but on the inside he’s so sweet. He wears his heart on his sleeve in this relationship, and that’s where I put my heart, so we’re cool. It’s really deep to be in a relationship when both people are working equally hard. That’s some really, really interesting stuff. I could really get used to that. He actually may be working a little harder than I am, ’cause my schedule is nuts. To be involved with an entertainer, you have to have the patience of Job. But he’s dope in a very non-obvious, unpretentious way. It’s his heart. His heart is sooo pure. Our meeting just confirmed to me that there is God.”

Once the food is blessed, Lauryn runs upstairs with her dread technician. The musicians sit down to dinner and later take over the living room. A plaintive guitar picks out the melody of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Assorted finger snaps and boot stomps mark time as everyone sings, “Emancipate yourself from mental slav’ry! None but ourselves can free our minds!” Papa Hill videotapes the scene as the crowd grows, and the singers move through Marley classics – “Natural Mystic,” then “I Shot the Sheriff,” then “Trenchtown Rock” – the voices thinning in the verses, rising for the choruses. Everyone sings except Ro, who sits beside the guitarist, eyes closed as if in prayer, head nodding in a happy trance until the zenith of “No Woman, No Cry,” when the entire room sings, “Everting gon’ be all right! Everting gon’ be all right!” Ro jumps up into the room’s center, eyes squeezed shut, dancing, no, moving with the rhythm as if to summon Rasta spirits. Lauryn comes back downstairs and stands quietly at the edge of the room. “This,” she says, “is a very Kingston-Hallmark holiday party.”

LAURYN GREW UP IN A  working-class section of South Orange, the second child and only daughter of Mal, a computer programmer, and Valerie, a high school English teacher. Before they met – she was coming from a school dance, he was running from a neighborhood lunatic – Valerie would spend every cent of her allowance on 45s. “I amassed a nice little pile – stacks and stacks of Motown, Philly International, Stax, Marvin, Stevie, Aretha, Donny Hathaway, Gladys Knight – that whole thing,” she says. After her daughter was born, Valerie boxed the collection and stuffed it in a corner of the basement. “One day little Lauryn found ’em,” she says. “They all came upstairs. And thus began a journey. She started to play that music and loved it. One o’clock in the morning, you’d go in her room and you’d see her fast asleep with the earphones on. The Sixties soul that I’d collected just seeped into her veins.”

By age eight, Lauryn was an expert on the history of soul music. “I’d be the kid at family barbecues in the middle of Newark listenin’ to the oldies station with the old folks,” she remembers. “They’d go, ‘Oh, that’s Blue Magic!’ And I’d go, ‘No, it’s the Chi-Lites.’ “

The Hill home was already music-drenched: Mr. Hill sang at weddings, Mrs. Hill studied piano, and Lauryn’s brother, Melaney, played guitar, sax and drums. But Lauryn was born with musical aptitude – “Her violin teacher kept telling us, ‘I don’t believe how musical she is,'” Valerie says – and with rare presence. “She just had this effect on people who listened to her.”

By her teens, Lauryn was determined to sing for her supper. “At thirteen, she sang Smokey Robinson’s ‘Who’s Lovin’ You’ on Showtime at the Apollo,” says Valerie. “When the day came, we marshaled the forces, rented a big van, took a bunch of kids from her school for moral support and went off to the Apollo. But when she started to sing, she was terrified, so she stood far away from the mike and the fans started booing. My brother-in-law screamed out, ‘Get close to the mike!’ and she grabbed the mike and sang that song with a vengeance, like, ‘How dare you boo me.’ She sang her heart out. At the end of the song, they were clapping and screaming for her.

“When we got home, she felt she had let herself down, and she started crying. I said, ‘Lauryn, they’re gonna clap for you one day and maybe not the next, but you gotta take it all. This is part of the business that you say you want to be in. Now, if every time they don’t scream and holler you’re gonna cry, then perhaps this isn’t for you.’ And she looked at me like I had taken leave of my senses. To her, the mere suggestion that this wasn’t for her was crazy.”

Around the time of her Apollo performance, Lauryn began hanging with a friend from junior high named Prakazrel “Pras” Michel and his cousin Wyclef Jean. In the following five years, Lauryn did various local plays and a stint on As the World Turns, and had a large part in the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Sister Act 2, all the while spending hours in Wyclef’s basement studio, jumping from writing lyrics to doing Spanish homework and history papers until early in the morning. In time, the three became known as the Fugees. She was eighteen when the group’s 1993 debut album, Blunted on Reality, flopped. But three years later, with The Score, she established herself as an introspective, spiritual-minded Lennon to Wyclef’s fun-loving, pop-melody-spewing McCartney. The two were widely said to be a couple.

But success was corrosive. Lauryn and many who know her well say that the past two years of her life have been sad ones, that her current happiness arrived only recently. “There was a point where I had decided that I wasn’t gonna pray anymore,” Lauryn says. “And the reason why I stopped praying was because there were some things in my life that I knew weren’t good for me. But I had decided that I needed those things.” She seems to be referring to her much-speculated-about relationship with Wyclef. “I knew that if I prayed, God would take them from me. So I was afraid. I was devastatingly terrified of prayer. And the moment I did pray, lo and behold, he removed all the negativity. Quicker than a snap. In the same speed, he loosened my tongue and a creative voice just came and wrote. It was really, really heavy.”

She sat down to “write songs that lyrically move me and have the integrity of reggae and the knock of hip-hop and the instrumentation of classic soul.” Then she worked with her engineer on getting “a sound that’s raw. I like the rawness of you being able to hear the scratch in the vocals. I don’t ever want that taken away. I don’t like to use compressors and take away my textures, because I was raised on music that was recorded before technology advanced to the place where it could be smooth. I wanna hear that thickness of sound. You can’t get that from a computer, because a computer’s too perfect. But that human element, that’s what makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I love that.”

The songs that became The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill revealed her to have Joni Mitchell’s intense singer-songwriter integrity, Bob Marley’s revolutionary spirit and young Chaka Khan’s all-natural, Everywoman sensuality. They also purged her soul. “What’s in that record, to me, is a movement from a darker space and a return to a brighter space,” she says, “because that’s exactly what happened to me. I was speakin’ to a girl I grew up with the other day and she said somethin’ real funny. There was a period of time when I wasn’t as happy as I am now, and we were talkin’ about that period in my life, and she talked about when I was a kid. I was real crazy and always like [sings], ‘Let’s put on a show!’ I was that kid. Always singing and dancing – everything did was dramatic. I was wild.

“My friend said to me, ‘Lauryn, when I see you right now, you remind me so much of the you when you were a little girl.’ I took that to mean that when I was a kid, I was this sort of bright and shining kid who had a real pure heart and pure spirit – and, hopefully, I’ve returned to that place.”

IT’S ABOUT 3:15 AM, AND IN THE dimly lighted sound booth of Chung King Studios, in lower Manhattan, Lauryn is seated sideways on a wooden stool, in dark jeans and a gray zip-up sweat shirt, a beige knit cap containing her dreads. Behind her, a herd of empty mike stands rests like a flock of black and silver flamingos. At her feet sit a half-finished Nantucket Nectars lemonade and two lyrics-coated legal pads. Lauryn is working on a rhyme for a new Curtis Mayfield song from the upcoming Mod Squad movie soundtrack, produced by Atlanta’s Organized Noize, who have worked with Goodie Mob and OutKast. She comes up with “There ain’t no excuses/’Cause in every situation man chooses/His own plate/His own fate/His own date at redemption/And only fools and babies get exemption/In the hereafter school/See, we all stay for detention/ And, uh, did I mention/It’s either ascension or descension/No third dimension/So pay attention.”

She listens to the beat, searching for the right spot to enter (“As the keyboard comes in?”), then prepares to rhyme. “It’s a very strange poem,” she tells her engineer. “Hopefully, you’ll get it. L-Boogie does poetry.” She rhymes over the exquisite track, powered by a soft conga line and a world-weary acoustic guitar, in a style that’s slightly more Last Poets talk-rapping than MC flowing. The engineer assures her the take is perfect, but she’s unhappy. She tries again and again. It’s not working. She calls me over and stops to talk music for a few moments. She assures the engineer she’ll just be a moment. She won’t. As soon as the tape recorder is rolling, before a question is even asked, she begins. She speaks in paragraphs, flowing from topic to topic, practically interviewing herself, talking quickly and with the sharp articulation of an English teacher, in a deep, throaty voice without pauses, never mincing words or biting her tongue, always coming with a deep self-confidence powered by moral certainty.

3:52 A.M. “I feel beautiful not because of my features, really,” Lauryn says. “It has nothing to do with my face. I feel beautiful because of my heart. I think I have a very loving, kind spirit. I think it’s the God in me that makes me beautiful. It doesn’t really have anything to do with my physical features. That’s not the emphasis here. Right now I feel beautiful because God is in me, and when people are happy with themselves, they’re happy, period. Sometimes they use other things to mask what’s goin’ on inside, but I feel beautiful inside. That’s what I really try to maintain. If there was an ‘inside pomade,’ I’d buy some. Grease my insides, slick ’em down . . .”

4:21 A.M. She’s still talking: “It’s just so deep to me to have children, plural, because I remember being on punishment. I remember vividly, very recently, bein’ on punishment. But my children are beautiful. We call them hip-hop-reggae, because they’re half Ro and half me, split down the middle. Right now, Zion is practicing for the terrible twos. He’s like, ‘I’m a get this right.’ He does this thing where he falls back and you just gotta let him lay on the ground. He’ll literally throw himself on the ground. He is so dramatic. I know I’m getting paid back for all the drama that I ever gave.

“From the moment my daughter was born, I could tell she was a girl. She just had a feminine quality about her. It was so cute. She squealed and she cried like a lady. I was like, ‘Wow.’ The second child is much easier. With Selah I’m like [pantomimes tossing her in the air]. With Zion I was like [pretends to hold him delicately]. Meanwhile, in the nursery they throw these children around like footballs.

“I don’t want them to feel like they miss Mommy. So I challenge myself to make sure I’m with them as much as possible, but when you’re a perfectionist at music and you spend all those hours on your craft, it makes it hard. Raising children is a twenty-four-hour job, and makin’ music is a twenty-four-hour job, so I have to really be careful how I do things. But I’m up for the challenge. I think God gave me these children so young because I have the energy to deal with it. And I need a lot of energy. I am a walking vending machine. That’s what I am in my house. I know my place. My children look at me like, ‘Lunch.’ “

She stops a moment. “Did you see my G-Shock?” It’s a black watch given to her by Sony Japan. “It’s a special-edition L-Boogie G-Shock.” Push a button and it lights up, as any G-Shock would, but you see her face as seen on the cover of Miseducation.

4:57 A.M. She’s beginning to get personal: “When I was a kid, I had two gifts. I knew all the old records. I could do the Rock [a dance inspired by Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You”]. And then I have this other gift: If you ask me any two colors, I could tell you what NFL team they belong to.”

“Gold and black?”

Without hesitation, she says, “The Saints . . . Pittsburgh Steelers, as well. . . . Damn, you went for a hard one right away.”

“Blue and green?”

“Seahawks. I don’t watch football, though. Keep testin’ me. This is for real.”

“Red, white and blue?”

Immediately: “Bills, Giants, Patriots. Should I explain to you how I got this gift? This is how I know that trauma is very deep and kids who are traumatized remember all types of shit. I used to be terrified of the dark and every scary thing that could possibly get you in the dark, and when it was dark, I went into my brother’s room and slept in the bed with him. He had football curtains and sheets. And I’d be so scared that I’d stare at those curtains and sheets and stay awake, making sure nothin’ attacked us until my eyes got so heavy I had to pass out. But from this I have remembered the colors of every single team in the NFL. It’s crazy.

“Oh, and I could do the Smurf, too.”

Is “Lost Ones” about Wyclef? Is “I Used to Love Him”? Is “Ex-Factor”? Is Wyclef’s “To All the Girls” about Lauryn? At 5:03 A.M. she gets into her brother band mates. “The album,” Lauryn says, “is not about me bein’ upset about a love lost. It’s not even really about bein’ upset about bein’ stabbed in the back.” But the fact is this: Lauryn and Clef were once very close and, right now, are not.

“To be honest with you, I haven’t spoken with Clef in a long time,” she says in a low, quiet voice, measuring each word. “A couple months now. I think, in our own sweet time, we’re gonna get into a room and talk to each other about all of our issues and make some music. But that can’t happen too prematurely or I think it would damage things. We all sincerely loved each other. And we still do. But in any relationship there’s ups and downs. People grow up, they grow apart. And just like a relationship, if things are based on the right things, they’ll come back together, and if they’re not, then they won’t. I have a huge amount of love for them, but I needed to learn some things about myself. I’ve found my voice. I’ve found my sound – the sound which is distinctly me. I needed to become the woman that I’m becoming, and it was necessary for me to make this record. But I think, at the same time, this record may have revealed some insecurities in other people. And I think it made it a little difficult. I don’t think that everybody was necessarily that happy that I decided to do a solo project. I think that they thought the worst as opposed to the best.

“But I know that (a) time reveals truth. And (b) time heals wounds. So I’m not in any rush to rip any Band-Aids off. Actually, maybe I am. Maybe I do wanna rip the Band-Aid. I think this album definitely ripped the Band-Aid off, because it helped the wound to breathe as opposed to fester. But I’d rather let the healing process take its own natural time than rush into a situation.”

Do you miss them?

“Yeah, I do. I definitely do. We were a crazy bunch. We used to do some wild things. Not bad wild things – we had a lot of fun. But the funny thing about liberation is that once you get it, anything other feels awkward.”

She pauses. “I just can’t do anything if I’m not inspired,” she says. “I always sorta wait for the inspiration to come, and if the spirit doesn’t drive me to do it, then I won’t do it. ‘Cause I definitely know that what I’m doin’ is sorta bigger than me. It’s somethin’ that I’ve been assigned.” 

In This Article: Coverwall, Lauryn Hill

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