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

The stage was set with her band's equipment and Hill was expected to take the stage at the Merriweather Post Pavillion at 4:20 p.m. Forty minutes quickly passed and there was still no sign of the singer. Rapper Supernatural came out to freestyle and ease the testy crowd, and after two hours concert organizer Chang Weisberg came out to inform the crowd that Lauryn was "sick" and suffering from "dehydration in her throat." "Don't kill the messenger!" he pleaded as the crowd erupted in boos and groans. Strangers turned to each other in disbelief and anger, "How could she do this to us?" Rapper Phonte referenced a Hill lyric, tweeting: "To all my tweepies out at DC #RockTheBells, I guess you just lost one. #toosoon #?"

A Tribe Called Quest came onstage and performed a raucous and impeccable set—as they always do—to an audience just thankful that someone was performing at all. But, even as Busta Rhymes came onstage in a surprise performance toward the end of the set, it wasn't quite enough to erase the feeling of betrayal we had all experienced from our girl Lauryn. As my friends and I went to refill our water bottles during the intermission, it was clear that no one was over the realization that the main event, the reason so many visitors spent over $100 to attend the show, had proven to be only a tease.

Then, we heard a voice—even in its raspiness, it's unmistakable—Lauryn was onstage. Crowds waiting for water, bathrooms, and food all began to scramble for their seats. My friend and I sprinted for the photo pit—coming to a halt at the gate before descending down to take photos. There she was—vibrant and strong, moving, dancing, shaking, and commanding the crowd at a frenzied pace. She opened her set with a manic rendition of "Lost Ones," dancing and rhyming at spitfire speed. "Ex-Factor" was not the same nuanced song of pain as it is on the album, but it had its own furious energy about it—how she might have sounded in the heat of the moment of a messy breakup, rather than after having reflected for a minute.

She ripped through all three Fugees members' verses no problem on "Ready or Not," to the crowd's crazed delight, proving that her flow and lyrical dexterity had not escaped her. (Though her dehydration story seemed to be true—her voice gave out during one section of the song. Her fans were right there to pick her back up, screaming the words out for her as she looked back and smiled, appearing grateful and surprised.) Hill brought out Nas for "If I Ruled the World," an unexpected guest, though he could barely be heard due to microphone trouble and the volume of the band. Lauryn walked back and forth across the stage, dabbing her face with a towel. The expressions of pain and sorrow from the album were palpable in her performance, as she sung out and beads of sweat rolled down her face. And it was for us. She was letting us in, letting her guard down and allowing us to share in her world for a moment.

And just as quickly and unexpectedly as she came, she left. Heart racing, we all looked around. Like a shot of a drug, our 20 minutes with Lauryn was intense, strange and ecstatic...and left us wondering what just happened after it was all over. While her set didn't make those yearning to hear her original classics particularly happy, the energy and fun that the crowd was enjoying during her performance (at least in the pit) is undeniable.

Yes, she's an artist and should be held to the same standards we've always held other artists to—a subpar performance should yield a subpar review. Her tardiness was unprofessional, though not entirely surprising. But Lauryn has never been just another artist. She captivated the world in the late '90s, unprepared for the sudden and intense projection onto her of all that hip hop was supposed to be—the torch was shoved into her hand and she was expected to lead in a race she wasn't sure she signed up to even be in. Despite her absence, her music has lived on; she's not just a rapper's rapper or a Top 40 R&B darling—she's considered one of the greatest emcees ever, with Talib Kweli recording a song begging her to come back and Chris Rock literally falling to his knees in her presence. With that kind of pressure, I'm just happy to see her slowly taking steps to come back to us.

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Aylin Zafar is a freelance writer based in New York.

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