Photo: Layla Amatullah Barrayn

In spite of and perhaps because of her greatness, Lauryn Hill left many of her fans conflicted. Released on August 25, 1998, her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, gave depth and cathartic dimension to the subject of black women in love. She sang about pulling away from an ex and finding salvation in motherhood, rapped about self-improvement, and presented these stories as tense reflections of her own entangled life, without fully disclosing her truth. “The album at its core was always about love, both the deciphering of it and the search for it,” Joan Morgan writes in her new book.

Twenty years after the album’s release, Morgan (author of the critical feminist work When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost) looks back on Hill’s impact and flaws in She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The book, out August 7, also drops in commentary from black women writers, editors, and activists who followed Hill’s career, including dream hampton, Karen Good Marable, Michaela Angela Davis, and Tarana Burke. Last week, I spoke with Morgan over the phone about her book, the myth and beauty of Lauryn Hill, expectations, and the burden of legacy. Our lightly edited and condensed conversation below.


JEZEBEL: First off, it’s a huge pleasure to speak with you as a black woman and writer in hip-hop who’s followed your work. In the book, you refer to Lauryn Hill as a disruptor, a term that’s rarely granted to black women despite the fact that we often disrupt. Can you talk about what Lauryn was disrupting?

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JOAN MORGAN: I think often it takes us time, it takes a decade probably even two, before we can look back at things and have the hindsight to say that this was larger than we even could’ve imagined at the time. I knew at the time that Lauryn was something different and special, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to be able to see how much of a culture-shifter she was in a moment where black women were really on the brink of a substantive change. And I think we felt that change. I think we had anxieties about certain things, about relationships, about our roles in hip-hop, about representation. But 20 years ago, we were just starting to develop language about how we even want to discuss these things.

So for me, I think of Lauryn as much as a visual intervention as I do a musical one. I think her fame is comparable to Beyoncé’s now. Even then, it would’ve been much more likely for someone who looks like Bey to occupy that position than someone like Lauryn. And it’s not that Lauryn was singularly unique in her look. Because you could certainly walk through Fort Greene and find Lauryn. You could find Lauryn in the Bay Area. You could find Lauryn among black women in all those metropolitan, hip-hop loving areas. But those women were not positioned as objects of interest in popular culture. Certainly not objects of desire.

If you look at someone who was desired, like Foxy [Brown], who may have even been in the same complexion range, she was desired for very different things. And Lauryn also had a very diasporic approach to her blackness. She positioned herself as a kind of global citizen. We hadn’t really seen that from a female rapper in that way before. Even in the places where she might not have been first, she was loudest. And took down the door for a generation of young women who kind of take that stuff for granted now. I like to think of Lauryn as black girl magic before the hashtag.

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What was empowering about her album for you the first time you heard it?

I mean, I’m a hip-hop head so for me, the moment that captured me then and the moment that still endures for me is always gonna be “Lost Ones.” Women have certainly been battling, and diss records are part of hip-hop. It is still to this day perhaps one of the thoroughest... It’s a complete shutdown. It’s not even a battle record, ’cause there couldn’t even be an answer to it. As someone who’s kind of bellicose in nature, I turned to the guys for that, for that swagger, that kind of volatility, that percussiveness, that kind of warlike thing that hip-hop is so good at.

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Generally, you would go to male MCs for that. When women get their hearts broken, there’s a sonic narrative to that, that we’re all really familiar with. It’s the moaning, it’s the crying, it’s R&B songs, it’s soul music, and I’m not dissing that in any way. We need those things. Lauryn supplies them on The Miseducation. But “Lost Ones” was: I’m mad and I’m really not gonna be mad silently, and I’m gonna hurt some feelings along the way, and I just thought that was the shit. And I always loved her more as an MC. First and always for me, my point of entry to Lauryn was as an MC. I actually think that’s where she’s strongest and most memorable, so 20 years later, to be honest, I don’t even really sit and play The Miseducation from beginning to end. I’m never mad if I hear any track from it if I’m out or if I’m in someone’s car—it’s always a nice moment. But the thing that I reach for and I’ll still play is “Lost Ones” ’cause that’s a track for me that has stood the test of time. 

At the top of the book, you cite a conversation between you and your goddaughter who’s 32. She says she listened to Lauryn Hill when she was 13 but doesn’t now, because she realized: “The whole thing is just so Hotep. She’s so judge-y.” Did you get the sense that Lauryn as a quote-unquote “hotep” is a prevailing attitude among young people? The whole judgmental aspect?

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I think that [my goddaughter] wasn’t the only one [who thought that]. She just summed it up the most succinctly, and given where we were, it was a really good lead for the book. It’s not that people dislike her; they just sort of felt that they outgrew her. I remember, as I described in the book, feeling really protective and defensive in a reflexive kinda way that I wasn’t even sure why. ’Cause I’m not even super sensitive to people who critique Lauryn. [Laughs] She’s complicated. But I remember feeling like—and I feel this way often, honestly—I wrote Chickenheads and I did the work that I did because I really wanted my goddaughter’s generation to have language. I have homegirls who didn’t read Chickenheads till years after. But they were really concerned. They were like, “It’s your first book, you sure you wanna write it about feminism? Black women don’t really do feminist like that.”

By contrast, not only have all of their daughters read it, usually by the time they’re 16, 17, 18, but their daughters are feminists and they don’t have any kind of contradictor in that identity. And I think part of that is because there’s a generation that came before them that really was committed to giving them language that would allow them point of entry. And I think thats not just true of feminism. That’s true of the work that queer theory does. I think that if you weren’t around to see it, you kind of don’t understand the frustration of having these feelings but having your tongue tied because the theory and the language hadn’t been created yet.

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I sometimes feel that my beautiful goddaughter’s generation is a little hard on, dismissive of what she would describe as hotep, being judge-y, but also I just feel like they’re really hard on each other. I feel like they really make the mistake of feeling that that language was always around and that everybody was on a pretty quick learning curve. When you take a look back and say, wow we went from Lauryn being a phenomena because she was a dreadlocked woman on the cover of Essence magazine, no one bats an eye at that now. Seeing natural hair in high-fashion magazines in a place like Bazaar. Lauryn’s Bazaar cover was kinda one of those moments where in black girl land, the world stood still. Harper’s Bazaar—I loved Liz Tilberis, I love her work, but it was lily white. It wasn’t just white. It was lily, lily white. And [Lauryn] never did that subtle assimilation that artists often do when they become famous, whether it’s to smooth out a hood aesthetic or to take on a glam aesthetic that becomes increasingly more Eurocentric. I think many of us felt championed in a way.

Yes, I love the back and forth between you and Michaela Angela Davis, where you mention Lauryn being featured on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and how she didn’t have Eurocentric points of reference. What do you remember thinking when you saw that cover? When you just saw her, how did you feel? 

Well, one, the thing that I always thought when I saw Lauryn was that she’s just stunningly, arrestingly beautiful. I mean, I’ve had similar moments like that. One would be seeing Kersti Bowser on the cover of Elle who is a black model but very light-skinned and she has blue eyes. The other moment would be seeing Alek Wek on a cover of Elle and feeling very much the same way as when I saw Kersti because it wasn’t even a light-skinned, dark-skinned [thing]—black women just didn’t get those covers. And so I felt really shocked in the best kind of way and hopeful [with the Lauryn cover], like maybe we were starting to see even a tiny bit of a shift.

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I think the comment from your goddaughter also gets at the timelessness of the album and whether there is a timelessness, which is kind of debatable. It’s something you get into in the book with dream hampton, who didn’t like the album when it came out.

And still does not [laughs]. It has not changed.

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I loved it when it came out, but I don’t really play it. There are tracks that I will play endlessly, like “Ex-Factor,” and “Nothing Even Matters” is amazing and timeless to me. But like “Every Ghetto, Every City,” not so much. It seems like, though, you say the point is not so much whether it’s aged well, but that it’s still worth being talked about?

That is always really subjective for people: does an album still hold up 20 years later. I can still listen to Carole King’s Tapestry album from beginning to end and I still think it’s as solid as when I first listened to it probably as a 10-year-old. I understand that’s subjective. That’s me. I think part of the trickiness with The Miseducation is that it’s a debut album, so it has the weight of an album, and it has the weight of being weighed as an oeuvre of work. So I often think it’s burdened in that way because we don’t know, if she had put out albums in sort of the timeline that most artists do—even someone like Maxwell, who takes his time, or D’Angelo, who takes his time—even if it had been every five years, we’d have four albums to talk about right now. And I believe the second or third one would’ve probably been stronger than The Miseducation. Unplugged takes a lot of weight. You know, when people talk about Unplugged as “the other album,” it’s hard for me to do that because I don’t really look at that as a Lauryn Hill album.

I don’t really, either.

Unplugged is a particular project. But because there’s nothing else after that, it gets weighted a lot, as opposed to it just kind of being a snapshot of wherever she was in her creative process. I think also people don’t realize, generally the artist that get asked to do Unplugged have a much bigger body of work than she did at that time, so they have other shit to pull from. I’m not a fan of Unplugged by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t think I even realized that at the time. She does have a lot of work, but much of the stuff we love of her is with the Fugees and it was Lauryn Hill Unplugged. It wasn’t The Fugees Unplugged.

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I really love that album [Miseducation] for what it was, not what it continues to be for me, ’cause I don’t really listen to it. And it doesn’t hold up to me the way a [Tribe Called Quest’s] Low End Theory holds up. He’s probably gonna kill me for saying this, but I have videos of my son discovering Low End Theory and rhyming and falling in love with Phife on the stairs of our house. It reminds me of when I heard that album nine years before he was born, for the first time. That to me is what a timeless album is.

I definitely was not really messing with Unplugged.

[Laughs].

So the book doesn’t get too deeply into the fissure between Lauryn and Wyclef and the alleged affair and you talk a little bit about why in the book, but for the purpose of this interview, why did you make that choice to not go too much into that relationship?

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I didn’t really go too deeply into Wyclef and Lauryn’s relationship, one, ’cause I honestly really am not that interested in terms of the scope of the book. It’s a complicated relationship between a couple of 20-year-olds that was spicy at the moment. Whenever you have muses and romance and partnerships and love triangles, that’s all spicy and fun. But I felt like 20 years later, particularly after Wyclef... I felt like him addressing it in the book was kinda wack. I felt like people had heard from him. The other thing was, if I was gonna write that personally about her life and try to come up with all kinds of assessments about it, I felt like that deserved her voice or at least several attempts at her voice, and I actually didn’t really wanna talk to Lauryn for writing this book.

I was going to ask if you reached out.

Nope, not at all. It was actually one of the stipulations, that I wouldn’t. Because I really wanted to do a cultural history and not a book about Lauryn, and I felt like that would be much clearer to people if she just wasn’t in the book at all. You know, people do messy shit in their 20s. They do. It’s the decade for it.

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In a way, some of that has been lost, artists not being allowed to be as messy, or just it existing in a different atmosphere. The messiness kind of exists in a way that’s critiqued from more sides.

Well, I’m still of the generation where hip-hop kinda moved from popular culture coverage that is very niche to rap artists basically becoming celebrity journalism. There are many reasons for this: the internet, blogs, Instagram, the fact that celebrities now get on and are completely confessional on Twitter and IG all the time. We sort of feel entitled to people’s private lives and decisions much more than we did like 20 years ago, and I often feel inundated by people’s business. I just don’t really wanna know that much about you. [Laughs]. I don’t really wanna be all up in your stuff like that. It’s like watching a soap opera 24/7, and we feel like we should all be able to comment on it, specifically all the time. It’s just another one of the reasons I wanted to strip it back and really talk about the album as opposed to them, ’cause I don’t really know. I know what I’ve heard. I know what he says. I know what people have said about her, but I don’t know. And couple “I don’t know” with “I don’t really care,” it just didn’t really seem like a good strategy for me.

“Doo Wop” music video

I want to ask about “Doo Wop,” which I love, and I also think about the judgment behind it retrospectively. When I first listened to it as a teen, I was like, oh this is a cool song where she’s coming at black women and black men equally. In the book, you point out the self-awareness that she had of her own contradictions, based on the way she presented herself in the music video. So going into writing this, were you mindful of addressing her as a contradiction herself?

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Hmm, that’s a good question. For me, because I’ve interviewed Lauryn before, I have some sense of her prior to this. She’s a Gemini. I’m a Gemini. We’re contradictory people just by nature. We can’t really help that. It also felt like, what she is to me, more than contradictory, Lauryn embodies a lot of polarities. She’s pretty much everybody’s queen and goddess and at the same time had this really super messy love affair going on. The same people that would be like “death to side chicks” would be like, “Lauryn Hill come back and save hip-hop.” And I just think that’s fascinating.

More than a judgment on her, I feel like it exposes a lot more about us, about how we create these categories and rally behind them, and then we assign scripts to people. And I think she accepted the script, but I also think that it was probably detrimental to her artistically. The power of Miseducation is I feel like audiences can always sense when you’re writing from a place of truth. Now, was it the whole truth in the way that we look for things these days? Probably not. But the things that she wanted us to know and communicate are really poignant. And I think that she gave all of herself in those moments. The expectation that we then would have of her, of the kind of cultural product that that kind of woman would create, may have been very different than how she felt she was living or what she was experiencing.

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I think that most people were really comfortable with their image of her even if it meant that she produced less. And I feel sometimes like that image really straightjacketed her in many ways. Like, I wonder if we would’ve seen more if she was able to do what she did on “Doo Wop,” which is, yeah I’m talking shit over here, but I actually really do like my hair straight sometimes, which is such a Gemini thing to do. And it wasn’t just for that video. Lauryn has been in plenty of photo shoots with straight hair. But I do feel like she’s very interestingly shapeshifter-ish, as [writer] Lynnée Denise said, in a way that’s intriguing. ’Cause honestly, it never struck me as judge-y. I love the song, I dance to it, whatever. It took me awhile to remember, oh yeah she’s kinda dissing women for fake hair. And she is certainly rocking it and rocking it well in the video. Then I also think that people miscalculate the amount of intentionality an artist has when they’re creating a lyric. Sometimes it just sounds good. [Laughs]. Sometimes it just works in those particular bars but it isn’t necessarily a political stance in the way that it gets read.

You address, in terms of the binaries, the presentation of Lauryn as an antithesis to the hyper-sexuality of Kim and Foxy, which a lot has been written about that, and you’ve written about it in When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. I’m interested in how you think that binary has evolved, from Lauryn to like Cardi B now.

Well, one, I think there’s a democratization of the space, so you don’t have to turn to maybe five vehicles to read about what me and several other people might think about female artists. There’s a democratization of space that allows people who really are not necessarily looking to a Washington Post article or even an Essence to figure out how they should make sense of these particular folk. I think I would’ve always loved Cardi, and I probably relate more to her than I do to Lauryn. ’Cause she’s a Bronx girl, she’s from the hood—certainly our upbringings, our points of origin, are very similar. She’s Caribbean American. But I think what people really respond to with Cardi is she has an unwavering commitment to authenticity.

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People describe her as the underdog. I don’t even know if it’s necessarily that. She just really truly has a Bronx girl’s hustle and will for survival. She was like, I’m gonna do this and I’m gonna do it on my own terms. And Cardi says a lot of shit that is incredibly on point, and she says a lot of shit that is really off the wall. But she claims it in that moment, and in the same way that she’ll post herself on Instagram completely glammed, she will post herself completely busted on Instagram and talk about that, too, and I think it endears her to people in a particular way, where I feel like Lauryn always felt hyperaware of her image and the role she’d been assigned. I give Cardi wide birth and reign to sort of wild out or be amazing cause she claimed it for herself.

And not to introduce a comparison, but it’s interesting to look at Nicki Minaj operating in more of the traditional system as far as being aware of image, but maybe kind of doing what’s expected a little more versus Cardi creating more—I don’t know if I’m saying this right—having a more unique reign that hasn’t been seen in hip-hop.

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Well, I think that people do compare Nicki and Cardi a lot. I feel like it’s not a line for line, note for note comparison. You have to break them down in categories. Nicki to me is a stronger MC. Here’s the other thing, too. We watched Cardi’s growth as an MC. ’Cause if you followed her on Love and Hip-Hop, you saw her in the studio and you just saw that she kept going at it and going at it and going at it. Even from her first single, I actually love what the single did, but just as a hip-hop head, I didn’t love it and it wasn’t my cup of tea. I was solidly and happily surprised by the growth from that first song to how her album actually ended up. But I got a chance to witness that trajectory.

Nicki traffics in artifice. It’s kind of her thing. Playing dress up, changing images. She’s an avatar that moves around a lot, so we don’t really have access to who that person, the interiority, is. And it’s a strategy and it’s one that works well for her. Cardi’s absolutely the opposite. She’s not gonna get on Ellen and be different than we see on her Instagram. I don’t get the sense that there is an inner her that she is protecting. I feel like with Cardi it’s, all I can be is this inner person here and I’ma go hard and just give it to you, and people fall in love with it. I couldn’t tell you I feel like I know anything really about Nicki, even when she’s supposedly giving us Nicki.

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It’s interesting to look at how negatively Lauryn having a baby at the peak of her career was, and how Cardi B has talked about people saying the same thing. Do you think pregnancy as a hindrance is still an issue?

Yeah, I feel like people are always gonna feel like that because women being punished for being pregnant in the marketplace is still a real thing. It’s not like that’s a dated concern. There are plenty of articles and studies on women who feel like their glass ceiling in corporate America was hit when they were pregnant, whether their bosses actually told them that or not. I remember a story of a friend of mine who was being mentored by a very famous and powerful feminist scholar and her attitude toward her just completely changed when my friend got married young and had a first child relatively young; she’s in her early 20s, I wanna say. With the first child, [the mentor] literally called her in and said, “If it happens again I cannot be your advisor and I’m incredibly disappointed that you would do this.”

Wow.

So it’s real. I don’t fault anybody for being concerned about that. What I do take umbrage at with in this moment that we’re in is that you feel like you need to tell this girl [Cardi] what she needs to be doing with her body and her pregnancy. And I felt like her response was so brilliant. Like, “I can afford this kid.” [Laughs] “I make enough money that it is really not anybody’s problem.” So I think that’s always gonna be there as long as you have the disparity of what women make and are capable of controlling in the marketplace. It’s still really skewed towards cisgendered men, white men at the top of the ladder.

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Akiba Solomon makes a great point in the book in reference to Lauryn’s musical quality while she was with the Marley [laughs]. She said, “The idea that bad choices can affect what you produce as a woman has always really bothered me.”

[Chuckles].

“Even though it’s true, I don’t like to admit it. I don’t like the idea that if I’m fucking with somebody who’s really fucked up that I’m going to make terrible things.” And I think that’s really interesting, how much the personal side affected the music and quality with Lauryn, for better or worse. What did you make of that idea?

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Well, you heard me chuckle, which is what I think about it now. Because Akiba’s so funny. She really is one of the funniest people I know. I don’t know. I mean, your relationships with men can definitely fuck up your work. I think that’s true. Everybody has had the moment of just being in a bad relationship with whoever, male, female, whatever permutation of gender you wanna put there. At the same time, I’ve also seen broken hearts produce incredible music, which is what we got with The Miseducation. So, you know, I think Akiba is speaking to something there, something that to her feels like what was spiraling out of control. But I don’t necessarily know that it’s just [the fault of] a relationship. I think it has to be something—I mean it could be just the relationship. But I think that’s not a foregone conclusion that bad relationships produce bad work or bad products. There are also people who can take that and run with it and make art that moves the world. Some people like to fill the world with silly love songs.

In Chickenheads, you wrote about hoping for “a feminism that fucked with the grays.” There’s been more gray area allowed since then. This may be a broad question, but what do you think is the biggest issue or one big issue that’s complicating feminism right now or the way people talk about it?

Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, I’ll tell you the thing that irritates me the most is how impatient people are with each other. I’ll give the example of Beyoncé. Beyoncé announced that she was a feminist, and I thought it was just gonna be like internal feminist wars. Like, there were people who were just happy about it, and people who were like, “It’s the end of feminism as we know it, we have to protect it, she’s gonna ruin feminism!” And a lot of it was about statements that she made that people didn’t think were critically thought through enough or were lacking, and I was like, what the fuck is wrong with y’all? No one is born a feminist and honestly, you learn how to become this. You learn how to do this work and, generally speaking, we are supposed to be gracious about that.

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I felt like if you had asked me when I wrote Chickenheads, if a Beyoncé moment could ever happen in terms of feminism, I would’ve been like no. We barely had black women of any kind of anything, whether they were working at the supermarket let alone pop superstars, declare themselves feminists. The level of impatience that I saw, not just of Beyoncé, but often I see of people in general in this kind of “you better come correct” culture, this kind of performance of wokeness, this let me read you in 140 characters sort of thing, is something that I think is really unkind and damaging, because sometimes the most brilliant theory starts with an embryonic, not-yet-perfected thought. And if people are afraid to even put those out there, where do we grow? Where does that next brilliant invention come from? So the lack of patience and kindness that we have with each other is kind of disturbing to me.

But do you think some of that, the unkindness, is needed to get at an answer?

No, I really don’t. ’Cause I don’t think you have to be unkind. My colleague Treva B. Lindsey calls it critical generosity. There’s a way to listen, to say, “Okay, that’s interesting, have you thought about this point?” And how do we work through that? Other than a complete shutdown and a read, which is where I think this generation is really invested in terms of how they do critique. I don’t think you ever have to be unkind. I think you have to be unkind to people who are trying to attack you, but I don’t think you have to be unkind to people who are trying to think something out who just may not agree with you and who actually may in their disagreement of you help to refine your argument.

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The elections have brought the debate about white feminism to the surface a lot more and that’s something you write about extensively in She Begat This, in the section about politics. Why was it important for you to make that connection in the context of Lauryn Hill?

My periodization was the end of the 20th century to where we are now. But I’m always gonna call out white feminism ’cause it’s part of what black feminism has to do. From day one, it has just always been a relationship that’s antagonistic, and because there are white feminists who are really deeply committed to their own privilege and power and really are only gonna go but so far unless you’re constantly critiquing. And it has ramifications for all of us, which is what the elections demonstrate. So I’m always gonna find some opportunity to do that [laughs], to remind that there are constant moments where y’all can do better and you have to do better and it’s your job to do better—not our job.

Not to have things fall apart then go to black women like can you fix it or can you teach me. Like, 20 years after? Twenty years from when I wrote Chickenheads, there is so much literature. A quick Google search will tell you what you need to know. You can go to Amazon; you don’t even have to leave your house. So I think there’s a certain accountability that black women have always had to hold mainstream feminism to that I really think it falls in that vein, as opposed to there’s something singular about this moment where I feel like white feminists are acting disturbingly out of character. The problem is that it’s in character.

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And currently, the fact that it’s in character is being recognized more. People are like, oh wait they’ve always been this way, the white women as kind of the secret antagonists. You write that we mythologized Lauryn and made her a legend kind of before her time, and then added all these expectations onto her. I would love for you to talk about that part of the book and where you think that lack of empathy came from.

I don’t feel like that lack of empathy is deliberate. I feel like, as I tried to convey in the book, Lauryn entered into hip-hop at a moment when women were feeling particularly embattled, and those people who really, really loved the music and the culture, were also feeling like, are motherfuckers really trying to push us out? We helped make the dopest party of the late 20th century, and more and more we seem to be the least of everyone’s concern and certainly the punching bag. So I think that there’s a heightened concern and anxiety at the point that Lauryn entered. I don’t think that people are deliberately not thinking about her ’cause they don’t care about her. I think they care about her a great deal, but I think they were also looking for a savior at that point.

And I think dream [hampton] is really brilliant in kind of pulling our coattail in saying, some of that we didn’t really need saving from. We just needed to allow that we’re a little more complicated than perhaps a singular image of Lauryn would’ve connoted. I don’t see any reason to love her any less ’cause she was in a messy thing with Wyclef. That should make her imminently relatable to many of us. But it felt really either-or there. To the point where a lot of people I interviewed really blamed Wyclef for what they see as Lauryn’s unraveling or why we haven’t gotten more music, or they blamed Rohan [Marley]. But the accountability really doesn’t lie with Lauryn for many fans, which I find really interesting. ’Cause those guys aren’t four hours late for concerts. [Ed. Note: In July, Hill canceled and postponed a number of dates for her current 20th anniversary tour.]

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Right [laughs]. How did Lauryn represent black futurism to you, or did she?

I don’t really know what people mean when they say that. What does that mean actually? That’s a real question to you, so maybe I can try to answer the question. What was futuristic about her?

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I mean, I think that label has been given to Missy, who was definitely at that time, doing futuristic visual work. I don’t necessarily think Lauryn represents that.

Yeah, that’s why I asked. If someone told me, could Missy be interpreted through the lens of Afro-futurism, I would say absolutely. When we look at a lot of her aesthetic choices, what she did to the body, what she was willing to do to her face, some of those very tribal markings that she used when she’s speaking to a past and a present and future possibilities of black women—Missy to me is a really easy analysis. I think that Lauryn may have given us a glimpse, unintentionally, into what the future held for us in terms of black girl magic, and that one day relaxer companies would be going out of business and the natural hair care business is booming. But I don’t necessarily think that was an intent. I think she just showed up where she was, and she was the perfect package of things that could do that. ’Cause Lauryn could’ve had that hair and then not had those incredibly beautiful features and that immense amount of talent and those incredibly long legs. I swear to you every single woman I interviewed talked about Lauryn’s legs, even more so than the men did.

So I think that she was the right kind of package to allow for the watershed moment that we would experience later. I think that she is diasporic—and easily diasporic, like really moved in and out of Caribbean culture, American culture, in some ways Ethiopian and West African culture—in ways that are almost seamlessly integrated that we just hadn’t seen before. She never really does the kinda X-Clan thing with the back to Africa, Afrocentric pendant. As a non-Caribbean person, she kind of embodies what a seamless Caribbean Americanness would look like. There’s no Lauryn Hill if theres no ’90s dancehall explosion. There’s a seamlessness there where it makes sense for you to be at a party where there’s reggae and hip-hop playing. There’s something just sort of seamlessly sexy about the way that she does it ’cause she just sort of floats back and forth in a way that’s hard to do.