Why Lauryn Hill’s “Miseducation” Album Matters Now More Than Ever
Where are the dark-skinned women artists?
I was twenty-five when the album of my life “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” dropped in late summer of 1998. A friend, who is no longer a friend because I wrote something about her recently — excitedly alerted me to Lauryn Hill’s long-awaited gem, and as young women with a healthy love for the only girl in the Fugees — we soaked it in together.
And then later that evening, I took advantage of the rare privacy that greeted me when I returned to the two-bedroom apartment in Astoria, and settled on the couch with a glass of iced-cold water — and the voice of a goddess sifting through the comfortably warm air.
It was one of those late summer evenings that winds down in ways that demands your presence outside because you know it won’t last forever. Thankfully my roommate had opted to stay out, which meant that staying in was my blessing.
I remember how “Zion” made my feel the third time I heard it and paid close attention to the words, which was hard to do because that dope ass beat wrapped around me — tight!
I recall how “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” urged me to take a solid ice cube from the glass and start from the chin down to my breast bone, in a motion that matched the sway of her voice — and the image that kept my eyes shut and the temperature “down there” delightfully hot.
“Final Hour” caused my eyes to open slightly as I noticed that the sky was crimson red, and the loudness of the traffic and commuters returning home signaled the early start of nighttime, that mercifully included another hour of bliss.
My temporary break up from the guy I didn’t love, but desperately wanted to because of his heart, made “I Used to Love Him” summon the tears that evaded me until that moment. The stinging at the corner of my eye was from the sweat of the heat that I refused to assuage with the fan, because I needed the rawness of silence against the beats, salt water and verses, that were bathing me.
“Ex-Factor” was where it began and ended for me.
Actually, “Everything is Everything” and “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” both come close, but they can’t eclipse what “Ex-Factor” did to my soul — the first, second, third, fourth, fifth time.
It stops at five because she came home just when I was about to go in for another, and her quick smile and dash to her room ended things.
It was back to my room and my attire, that comprised of my jet-black Discman and the imagination that Lauryn and I were sisters, and I just happened to be her backup singer who never wanted to outshine her.
As if I could.
My cousin wasn’t the only one who said I resembled my favorite artist, and while I saw the similarities in skin tone and the way we manipulated our tresses, I never quite accepted the compliment.
Now, almost twenty years later, when I look at my old face smiling back at me, I totally see it. It’s not that I looked like her perfectly, it’s really the urban texture of our youth, and how being in gritty cities that require the hustle and flow, and the determination to translate it all with artistic vigor — brings out the halo that shines up dark complexions and boosts the lips and cheeks without tampering the shape of nose or eyes.
Twenty years later, and I still believe that “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” is still relevant, and definitely matters now more than ever.
It provided the soundtrack to the headiness of those times, and how being a young Black woman with the delicious layers of complexity, that seem to only be permitted for the delicacy of the emotions that are celebrated in White women or women who look White — can be ceremoniously heralded with no apologies and the authority of acute Blackness.
The nineties were rough for those who looked like me, and had to contend with the industry’s defiance when it came to inclusivity as the climate fought hard against the responsibility of presenting a fairly balanced view of representation.
As a Black woman, I knew that if I ever dared to investigate my chances as an artist of expression with the targeted spotlight enhancing imperfections — the main item of concern would be my darker skin and African features.
The messaging then and now is catapulted by the reinforcement of how skin that’s too dark for comfort is automatically regulated to the back of the bus. As an ingenue, your beauty has to be measured by how globally viable it is, and whether or not you can be paired with leading men in narratives that comply with how a man loves a woman that any man would surely desire.
That’s why dark-skinned actors are gifted with leading ladies that are biracial, White or women of color who are absolutely not darker than the man who is being paid to be their onscreen paramour.
A Black film critic, a Black woman who knows her stuff, and whose tweets always brilliantly encapsulates the biases of the industry that she passionately serves — tasked her Twitter followers with the challenge of naming at least five well-known dark-skinned actresses — under the age of thirty.
Instinctively, I came up with a list of biracial actresses (Storm Reid, Amandla Stenberg, Zendaya, Yara Shahidi, and Logan Browning. It didn’t take very long for me to round that up. But I had to actually rack my brain to line up the roster of young Black actresses with my skin hue and darker, who are enjoying the benefits of stardom at an impressionably young age.
It gets even worse when you stray into the music industry, which is notoriously intolerant of female artists who don’t resemble the blueprint of Beyonce, Rihanna or splices of Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea.
Back in my day, when talent was the name of the game, there were exceptions to that rule, and that only happened because of the influx of great music, and how it couldn’t be denied based on the handicaps of creators.
The Neo-soul movement could handle the dark complexion of male crooners, clogging the space, but their female counterparts had be limited to just a hand full, and so Indie.Arie managed to get in there, even if she was over-powered and outnumbered.
In 2018, the issue with finding notable Black women with dark skin, being given adequate stream time that matches their lighter-skinned counterparts is still very much activated, as the summer was dominated by the angelic voices of uber talented artists who are solidly endorsed by features that helped to secure a world of exposure.
Perhaps, that’s why I was drawn to a tweet from weeks ago, that highlighted at least four young artists we should all know about, but unfortunately there’s a chance some won’t because of under-exposure. It’s the hampering based on the sexual wiles of male hitmakers, who are for spending money and time transforming a mediocre White female into a Black wannabe rapper, instead of giving a creative genius in the form of Azealia Banks — the backing she needs to rule supreme.
For me, Lauryn Hill was a dream come true, who shifted the landscape with her arrival. Her presence transcended the nonsensical packaging of an industry that is pathetically addicted to the colonial folly of invaders, who ripped us apart based on the falsehood of how Whiteness is the most valued currency.
Yet, enough of us bought the lie, and the ramifications of that purchase is evidenced in how dark-skinned women in particular are systematically shut out of this current trend of “diversity,” which doesn’t include the commanding vocal chords of Black women who look Black, in settings that validate their worth.
Yes, Lauryn Hill has weathered her share of controversy since she blazed the trail with her lyrical wonder that now sits in the Library of Congress after amassing tons of accolades and music’s highest honors.
Clashes with the IRS is an American tradition, and earlier romantic entanglements that took unexpected turns aren’t necessarily unheard of.
But, the endearing strain of inhabiting a new era that no longer honors those who gave so much when much was expected is taking it’s toll.
When I saw her perform at the opening of the new Gansevoort Hotel at Park Avenue South on New Year’s Eve 2010, I didn’t care that she sounded very different from herself and that her energy level wasn’t quite up to par.
It was just divine to witness the woman who was a couple of years younger than me, and yet had achieved more than I will ever amass in my lifetime.
Her well-read response to the accusations against her by fellow musician and previous collaborator Robert Glasper, hit all the right notes, as I could feel the frustration that comes with being a Black woman who looks Black, and despite that truth that threatens to levy limitations — there’s a victorious tendency towards excellence that speaks for itself.
Lauryn Hill may be the worst when it comes to showing up on time, or keeping other commitments accordingly, but what we can’t do is erase her legacy with petty accusations. We can’t downplay her immense contribution to a genre that still hasn’t gifted us with nearly enough personalized replicas, that gave me what I gratifyingly accepted with love back in the summer of 1998.
I was a young woman, and now I’m not so young, and I’m not old either. I’m just in the phase where one is easily invisible unless you can be identified from the over-crowded influencers who nominate Cardi B above all else.
Once upon a time, an album saved my life, and gave me hope for the future, while elevating my worth as a Black woman who looks Black, and doesn’t give a damn whether or not that’s a trend that will last.
It’s a good thing that I never cared because I was never a trend, and from the looks of things, that will continue past my lifetime. But, thankfully I can listen to homages to a heroine through Drake and others, who are young and respectful enough to give back.
And then I can sink back into the original and pretend that nothing ever changed since that young Black girl laid on the couch, and imagined what to expect from primed womanhood.
Well, she’s darker and wiser, and the Ex-factor is still a factor, and so are many other things that made being young, Black and female — an education.