It’s one of those songs that earmarks a period in your life and immediately takes you back every time you hear it. “Killing Me Softly” is both elegant and raw, simple and magnificent, with its standard boom-bap hip-hop beat juxtaposed with intimate lyrics. A redux of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” which became a hit decades before, the Fugees’ 1996 cover version has emerged as a classic in its own right in the last 20 years.
Over that stripped-down production, the singer Lauryn Hill’s golden voice soared and we, the black girls of that generation infatuated with her ability to switch styles and personas and still remain authentically herself, soared with her. “Killing Me Softly” was a pivotal moment in music for many young black women coming up in the mid-1990s. Never before had a female member of a hip-hop group been given center stage to shine like that on a platform like that—in a song like that—and when Hill did, she changed the way we contributed to and related to that sphere of musical culture.
Growing up on the fruit of golden-era hip-hop required learning how to negotiate being both a girl and a fan. This meant choosing when to self-censor the “bitches” and “hoes” that permeated your favorite songs or when to bark those words with bravado just like the rappers who wrote them, because they weren’t referring directly to you. It meant sometimes checking young men who were under the impression that what happened in a song was okay to recreate in real life. It meant sometimes opting to turn your brain off so you could let your body dance, in spite of whole lines and verses that minimized and devalued it, because there were so few songs in that genre that didn’t.