The Redemption of Lauryn Hill… Through Nina Simone

I’ve been trying to work up the nerve to write about Lauryn Hill for quite some time now, months if I’m gonna be honest. Perhaps if I make a couple of confessions this will be easier.

Confession 1: I’m not a huge fan of “Ex-factor.” I know this is the song everyone points to and is the favorite track off the album for many, but it didn’t really touch me in that place that makes everyone vicariously crave Black female pain, not even after I had my own heart stomped to bits by someone who didn’t deserve the chance. Nah, I rocked “When It Hurts So Bad” and “Nothing Even Matters” more than anything else off Miseducation.

Confession 2: I kinda don’t really like The Fugees cover of “Killing Me Softly.” Really I love Hill’s voice, but I don’t see how THAT was the song that catapulted The Score to multi-platinum status when “Fu-gee-la,” “Ready or Not” and “How Many Mics” exist. I mean I read how it happened, but it still makes no sense to me. And, oh, Wyclef’s “one time!” improvs get on my last nerve.

Bonus Confession: I disagree with many of the respectability politics on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, but I still love the album anyway.

I love that album for many reasons but perhaps mostly because Hill put so much of herself into it. More than 10 years ago during my grad school years, her work was an essential part of what was supposed to be my dissertation. When looking at how the press treated her when she courted them during her starlet phase, everyone loved her. But as soon as she decided to take her life back in her own hands, she was called everything from a diva in the derogatory sense to mentally unstable.

The Unplugged album seemed to confirm this. Stripped down of all the bells and whistles that made Miseducation, Hill once again laid herself bare for the public.

And the public could not handle it.

As Tom Barnes quoted in his brief ruminations on Hill’s career, the Unplugged album was “too raw, too personal, too emotional.” I guess the wider American public can only handle so much Black pain. It can only handle so much honesty as well. You see that album was not simply an indictment of the institutions that create inequalities but also an indictment of all of our complicity in a celebrity system that forces artists we love (like Hill) to put on a persona for our consumption.

We like these neat little packages that make it easy to box Black women entertainers. These were the boxes Hill sang about in “I Get Out,” one of the overlooked tracks from the Unplugged album in favor of standouts like “Mystery of Iniquity.” (I mean I understand but that album really doesn’t deserve the bad rep that it gets.) The audience may have liked the music, but it cringed at the raw, honest confessionals that accompanied the songs. In essence, the audience still wanted Hill to look pretty for them but not show them the process she took to create such perfection.

But enough about that. Hill has been on my mind a lot lately since she’s been giving us bits of music here and there. Last year, she gave us a great reflection on the events taking place in Ferguson and now continuing across the country now that we have the words Black Lives Matter as a name for the movement. That track was “Black Rage.” She recently performed in Nigeria and there have been hints at new music coming sooner rather than later. And this year I found the connection I was looking for as I tried to decide why I needed to speak about why Lauryn Hill matters.

Nina Simone.

When Hill’s rendition of “Feeling Good” emerged to promote the much-anticipated documentary What Happened Miss Simone?, I was somewhat elated. However, it would have never occurred to me that she could cover Nina Simone so well. I’d forgotten just how talented a singer Hill is and questioned whether she could successfully cover someone with a voice as distinctive as Nina’s. She did.

But “Feeling Good” was just a tease. When the album was released, I found, to my pleasant surprise, that Hill performed six of the 16 (18 on the bonus track album) songs from the album. In a way, it becomes Hill’s album even though artists like Jazmine Sullivan, Mary J. Blige, Nina’s daughter Lisa Simone, Usher, Alice Smith, Gregory Porter and newcomer Andra Day provided outstanding renditions of their own. Although I haven’t seen liner notes for the album (or any other album for quite some time now), it feels like Hill had as much creative control as she had on Miseducation.

Hill’s contributions come in two groups of three, letting us focus on her reworking of Nina longer than the others. We can imagine her with an entire album of Nina covers or simply take her six tracks and make an individual EP, which falls right in line with the current outpouring of EPs from new and established artists alike.

While Hill’s presence brought up old feelings of how I felt listening to Miseducation all those years ago, the fact that she gets the bulk of the Nina Revisited album made me consider other parallels between Hill and Simone. In the documentary, I learned for the first time that Simone had bipolar disorder. I believe that mental illness can occur through trauma and I feel a combination of at least two factors contributed to her condition: awareness of her genius and PTSD from the Civil Rights/Black Power movements.

See, Nina Simone had classical piano training and felt she was due a certain amount of respect for her art while she performed onstage. This is seen during an intense segment of the documentary when she returns to the stage for the first time after an extended absence. After taking a bow, she begins a long and rather awkward speech concerning her absence and subsequent return to the stage. However, the moments after she begins to perform are telling. Simone tells an unseen audience member to sit down, interrupting herself as she performs.

At this moment, I suddenly thought about her classical training and how it gives her the expectation of an audience’s full attention even at a jazz festival. I ask myself if she felt disrespected at that moment. If she were a white male on that stage, say someone with the clout of Mick Jagger, telling off a heckler, how would we have viewed this moment? In the film, it’s used as an example of her mental illness, her instability. However, I see in that moment a Black woman standing up for herself and demanding the proper etiquette to which she is accustomed when she is on stage.

I have no doubt that Simone had bipolar disorder. However, I have to ask myself why that moment was used as a segue way to discussing her mental illness. The way I see it, this moment is chosen because Nina isn’t behaving in a way that makes people (actually white people) comfortable. She doesn’t simply keep soldiering on during a performance when something off the stage bothers her. She calls it out and demands it stop so that she can get through her performance in the way she feels it needs to be carried out.

With this in mind, I think about Hill’s Unplugged performance. With Miseducation, Hill showed an ambition to be the absolute best and offer everything she had ever learned about music – in one album. But the success of that album led Hill to a different type of trauma, the trauma of celebrity.

In attempting to shed that celebrity image, Hill alienated those who preferred to see the strong Black woman preaching respectability while looking like the girl every guy wanted to be with. The woman who brought the Bible on stage with her during one of her acceptance speeches on her then history-making Grammy night. The woman who adorned magazine covers and seemed to have control over her career while raising a family with her partner Rohan.

But Hill’s personal life was in turmoil underneath all the glitz. There was much speculation about the relationship between her and Rohan Marley, particularly that she was still in a relationship with bandmate Wyclef Jean (who I think was married at the time) and waiting to see who the father of her first child was. In fact, “Ex-Factor” is supposedly about Clef. Furthermore, Hill worked hard to maintain the illusion of perfection in everything from her looks to her music. One can only imagine the immense pressure and strain of that balancing act.

So here is where I see the parallel to Simone. Both Hill and Simone were aware of their positions as Black women during their respective cultural climates. Both felt obligations to their communities, to their people, to be voices within that movement. Both dealt with abusive, manipulative men who only added gasoline to the fires in their lives. Both retreated.

But while Simone retreated out of the country, Hill mostly began to pull away from the public and the press. She eventually announced she would only accept paid interviews and requested to be addressed as Ms. Hill. And then there was Unplugged.

This album was stripped down in every sense of the words. Not only did Hill eschew the feminine glamour she exuded during her Miseducation promotion, but she also took away all the instruments except for an acoustic guitar and laid herself bare for everyone. A look at the visual performance shows a woman with nothing to hide, openly crying during a song and having conversations with the audience, explaining to them that yes she and Rohan used to beef.

Like Simone, Hill ironically eschewed respectability politics while maintaining a form of respectability. Black women are not supposed to allow others to see the ugliness inside. We are not supposed to show vulnerability since vulnerability is read as weakness – and Black women are not weak. At least we are not allowed or supposed to be weak. Yet she was fully displaying this vulnerability alongside her politics. Here she was being fully human.

I believe it was this humanity that made many uncomfortable. In order to have the “banging” Lauryn, you had to contend with the emotionally vulnerable Ms. Hill. But she threw away that girl every other girl wanted to be and every boy wanted to be with. Emotionally vulnerable Ms. Hill was too much to handle.

So obviously she must be mentally unstable.

Crazy. Let’s face it. Lauryn Hill was dismissed as crazy.

At the time in 2002/03, this dismissal frustrated me to no end. Not only were four male producers suing her for credit (because obviously she could not have done that album on her own!), but she also had to deal with the demands of a public demanding access to every part of her life.

But then she gave it. And the public realized they didn’t want it because it didn’t come with a pretty veneer. Just like the public didn’t want Nina Simone’s strong pro-Black voice on her terms.

I find it interesting that Simone’s mental illness was hidden, especially when she had handlers doling out her medication so that she was able to function enough to perform (but left lonely when the curtains closed and she was no longer needed to work). In this framework, using mental illness to stigmatize Lauryn Hill makes sense. How else do we explain how she could suddenly go from having it all to throwing it all away?

While doing my dissertation work, I came across Hill discussing sexism in the music industry. She explained that men would call a woman a diva but not a genius. She said, “Men like it when you sing to them.” Apparently, they don’t like when you call them out and make them think about the imperfections in themselves. Especially when that call out comes from a Black woman.

In some odd way, finding out about Simone’s mental illness makes me see Hill in a different way. I know the cool thing now is to criticize Hill and make the case that her album isn’t all that great in hindsight, but this feels too much like an attempt to minimize its impact. However, I see two women thrust into the spotlight due to their talent who felt an obligation as Black women to use that spotlight to make a difference. They did. But it came at a heavy personal price for the both of them.

For Simone, I believe much of her PTSD came from seeing so many of the people she loved and closest to her die as part of the movement. For Hill, the backlash started soon after the success of the album and her retreat from the spotlight culminated in many actions that eventually resulted in her spending time in prison for failing to pay taxes. However, Hill quietly re-emerged through Nina Simone and shows signs that she is ready to make more music. After all, rumors of a new album did begin to spread not too long ago.

I guess this is all my really long way of saying I hope Hill found some redemption for herself through Nina Simone. There will always be the detractors and betrayers, but hopefully she found some joy in working on Nina Revisited. Her voice was perfect for it. And now perhaps she can look to her foremother for more inspiration and guidance if she decides she is ready to offer more music to the public again.

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3 thoughts on “The Redemption of Lauryn Hill… Through Nina Simone

  1. One of the things that made Miseducation so great, was that it was a raw album about Black folks loving Black folks, and in the mainstream. The mainstream loves to hear Black folks singing about love, but in a way that allows them to appropriate it. However, the skits, with the teens talking about love, was a very specific cultural touchpoint – “THIS is who we’re talking about. THESE are the people who are falling in love, navigating love, having to know what love is.”

    Miseducation had poured enough pop friendly sounds that the mainstream white media accepted it, but they didn’t hear a thing about what was being said. Nonetheless that album impacted the pop scene there on out. Everyone was already drifting towards a hiphop sound (from New Jack filtered through to White Boy Bands), but suddenly people started looking back to Motown and horns, and it’s no surprise Justin Timberlake builds his career on Marvin Gaye’s grave.

    I’m still viscerally angry about the way the media treated her pregnancy. Literally 2-3 years later we’d have Brittany taking naked pregnancy photos with “you go girl!” white girl appropriation and approval. And once we hit the 2000s the white soul singers would rush in, after all, Black soul is best served with white faces…

  2. People have a problem acknowledging Black women’s genius. It seems like Western culture only respects the work of individuals made in isolation. But many of the best works of art were made in collaboration. For every Prince and Stevie Wonder there is a Lauryn or a Missy or an Erykah whose genius goes unacknowleged by the masses because they don’t play every instrument, compise every note or write every word. And that’s BS.

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