In Defense of Lauryn Hill

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Aylin Zafar

In 1993 Lauryn Hill was the girl with the "big joyful musical voice." In 1996 she was the great rap hope. In 1998 she was the stunning force behind one of the year's most beloved albums. And in 2010 Lauryn Hill is more than an emcee. She's more than a singer, more than a woman, at this point. She's a myth and a legend, regarded by many as a symbol of hope for hip hop and music at large, spoken and sung about with a sigh of what could have been.

As she toured with hip hop festival Rock the Bells these last few weeks, the reviews were mixed about the famed artist's return. Complaints about sped-up arrangements, an overpowering 11-piece band and an all-too-short set rolled in, while others said she's strong as ever, seeming to enjoy being back onstage.

Yes, Sunday night, on the last stop of the Rock the Bells tour, she kept DC waiting for three hours—the first hour of which her loyal fans sat through patiently, waiting for their chance to catch a glimpse of this elusive figure in their personal hip hop histories. Yes, people started booing and the frustrated tweets started pouring into the #rockthebells Twitter feed. Yes, she performed a rushed set with unfamiliar arrangements to fans eager to hear their beloved classics as they were first created. But those calling her a "shell of her former self," saying that she's "punishing her legacy," would be wise to heed Jelani Cobb's words: "The artist who left your head spinning with her debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is long gone. But then, so is the you that first heard it." We're not the same person we were 13 years ago, and neither is Lauryn.

When it comes to L-Boogie, you have to just be thankful you even got to see her.

The former member of the Fugees collected her five Grammys in 1998 for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and then disappeared from the national spotlight. Her hiatus seemed normal enough at first, but soon rumors of bizarre behavior and reports from those close to Hill said that the pressure accompanying such quick, enormous success pushed her further into seclusion. She focused on her family, raising her five children from Rohan Marley—with whom she is "spiritually together," but does not reside—in New Jersey, living with her mother.

In the years since Miseducation, she's emerged only now and again with a recording or performance, most memorably during a reunion with the rest of the Fugees for Dave Chappelle's Block Party. There were hopes that the Fugees would get back together, but those plans were quickly thwarted after group members Pras Michel and Wyclef Jean (who dated Hill for most of their time as the Fugees) cited her increasingly erratic behavior and tardiness to shows as barriers in future work together. She had begun seeing a reportedly cult-ish spiritual advisor, whom many cite as having a hand in her detachment from the public eye, and she's released a slew of bizarre comments in the media, ranging from her rants during MTV Unplugged to her comments criticizing the Catholic Church during her performance at the Vatican in 2003.

Given this knowledge of Hill and her elusive nature, her history of abandoned or tardy performances, and untouchable, otherworldly presence in music and culture, I took the formal announcement of her inclusion in the Rock the Bells tour with a grain of salt. Words printed on a festival poster meant nothing—I'd have to see her with my own eyes.

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Aylin Zafar is a freelance writer based in New York.

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