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Lauryn Hill’s Music and Its Message

A look into the career of musician Lauryn Hill: her artistry, her humanity, and her message.

By Hubert Gorka

Women and Media


Professor Doris Cacoilo
Hunter College
Fall 2010
Lauryn Hill’s Music and Its Message

Historically, the music industry in the United States has been rather successful in utilizing

the powers of publicity, advertising, and marketing in creating images, as dictated by societal

constructs, for their artists that have the most sweeping appeal all in efforts to reach as wide of

an audience as possible. The end goal being maximizing profit through music, merchandise, as

well as tour sales. It can be argued that various record labels have acted as manufacturing

factories, employing hairstylists, wardrobe stylists and make-up artists, in the way they

“manufactured” a particular artist’s image from the way they dress, the way they speak, and the

way they act. A newly-signed or developing artist, usually, has no say in the image he or she

wants to portray as limited and agreed to via their signature on the dotted line of their contract. It

is only after a certain amount of success, in the form of a profit for the record label or their

achieved notoriety, that the artist can make strides in the music they want to create, the message

they want to send, and the image they want to create for themselves. With the Internet and, in

the past few years, the explosion of social networking services such as MySpace, Facebook, and

Twitter, the interaction between the artist and their fans has significantly increased. With

success or fame comes responsibility and some artists either choose to disregard or ignore this

responsibility or elect to use it as an avenue to help influence positive change in society.

Whether in philanthropic endeavors or raising awareness to social or political issues, artists or

celebrities, as they are known in modern times, should realize the potential of their actions and,

in turn, the message they are sending to their fans as well as the rest of the world. Lauryn Hill,

an American recording artist, musician, producer, and actress, has chosen her music, more

specifically her lyrics, as a means to spread her message. In a nutshell, a message that reinforces

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the crucial need to be who we were meant to be, just the way we are, and to seize efforts to try to

fit into any socially constructed standards.

Lauryn Noel Hill was born on May 25, 1975 in South Orange, New Jersey. Born to

Valerie and Mal Hill, a high school English teacher and a computer programmer respectively,

Hill was by no means a child of the privileged class but enjoyed a relatively happy childhood.

Undoubtedly, part of Hill’s success stems from her upbringing and family ties. “Raised in a

musical home (her father was also a nightclub singer), Lauryn constantly listened to and sang

along with the classic soul of Gladys Knight, Curtis Mayfield, Roberta Flack, and Donny

Hathaway” (Young). Besides her connection to soul music, Hill also developed an association to

the sometime harsh realities of urban life as witnessed by close proximity to where she grew up.

Hill “grew up, and still lives, on one of these suburban South Orange streets…It was a safe place,

the door open in summer for the neighborhood kids to come and go, the grass watered to a rich

green. But if you stood in the attic and looked out of the window, you could see one of the

public housing blocks, no more than a few hundred yards away. Urban reality was right on the

doorstep” (Nickson 13). It is this mixture of soul and the hard beats of urban streets that

provided a foundation for the talent that would soon make its mark on the world.

Lauryn Hill always knew she wanted to be a

performer. “When she was a high school freshman, her

brother’s friend, Pras, asked her to sing over rap tracks

he had produced, then brought in his older cousin Clef,

a rapper and guitarist” (Young). Thanks to this, the

trio, consisting of Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras

Michel, formed a group called The Fugees. The rest is

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now history. Even though their first release, Blunted on Reality, gained little mainstream

attention, their second release, The Score, became one of the biggest hits of its release year.

Since its worldwide release on February 13, 1996 on Sony Music’s Columbia Records, the

album has sold over 17 million copies, peaking at the number one spot on Billboard’s Top 200

albums chart. Music was not the only passion, however, so was acting. In between school and

rehearsals with The Fugees, Hill began auditioning for acting gigs. In 1991, Hill landed a

recurring role as a troubled runaway, Kira, on As the World Turns, a popular TV soap on the

CBS network. Two years later, in 1993, she premiered her vocal range on the silver screen as a

rebellious Catholic schoolgirl starring opposite Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act 2: Back in the

Habit. After the movie’s release, scripts arrived at her home regularly but Hill turned them down

due to her unplanned pregnancy, an issue she would later address in her solo debut project.

Following the success with The Fugees, Hill

embarked on working on her first solo project. What

resulted is her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn

Hill, which Hill arranged and executive-produced, quite a

feat in a male dominated industry. Released on August

25, 1998 on Sony Music’s Columbia Records, the album,

an eclectic combination of R&B, soul, reggae, hip hop,

and gospel, became an instant success both artistically and commercially. In its first week, the

album sold more than 422,000 copies, earning Hill the bestselling album in the nation that week.

As a result, Hill snagged a sales record – “a first-week record for a female artist since

SoundScan’s tracking of album sales was introduced in 1991” (Sandler). The album also earned

Hill 10 Grammy Award nominations, America’s highest honor for achievement in recorded

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music. At the 41st Annual Grammy Awards ceremony, Hill won a total of five awards, including

Best New Artist and the coveted Album of the Year, making history as it was the first time an

award in this category was given to a hip-hop album. A public image of Hill also started to take

shape and form as she was dubbed the media’s darling, gracing the covers of diverse magazines

such as Time, Rolling Stone, Essence, and Harper’s Bazaar, to name a few. Furthermore, the

album garnered an avalanche of critical-acclaim in domestic publications along with

international news publications joining in the praising of the woman behind what is generally

believed to be a “hip-hop masterpiece” for the reason that it gave hip-hop, as a counterculture, a

new voice and meaning, in turn, allowing it to crossover to the mainstream.

With the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn Hill became an idol for

many young women, especially young black women. With the album’s revealing content,

essentially acting like a surrogate for Hill’s diary, many young black women identified with

Hill’s music and image. Her growing appeal, which helped her snag millions of fans, was

arguably due to her rawness, her honesty, her vulnerability about love, her budding moral and

spiritual consciousness, which were all divulged on her debut release. The album is a candid

reportage, so to speak, of Hill’s struggles with love as sung in “Ex-Factor,” “When It Hurts So

Bad,” and “I Used To Love Him,” her unplanned pregnancy in “To Zion,” her childhood

experiences as described in “Every Ghetto, Every City,” as well as sneaking in messages targeted

toward youth in “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and “Everything is Everything.”

In “To Zion,” a song dedicated to her first-born, Zion, Hill addresses her unplanned

pregnancy singing with Carlos Santana’s guitar as the background music. The song describes

her uncertainty with the pregnancy and her alleged pressure to terminate it because of the

detrimental effects it may have on her career. Choosing to ignore this commentary and what the

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public might think, Hill followed what her heart was telling her to do as illustrated in the song’s

lyrics:

“Unsure of what the balance held


I touched my belly overwhelmed by what I had been chosen to perform
But then an angel came one day
Told me to kneel down and pray
For onto me a man child would be born.
Woe this crazy circumstance
I knew his life deserved a chance
But everybody told me to be smart
Look at your career they said
Lauryn baby use your head
But instead I chose to use my heart
Now the joy of my world is in Zion...”

“Doo Wop (That Thing),” Hill’s debut single, sheds light on the negative relations
between men and women in urban communities, highlighting the importance of respect for each
other. Hill raps:
“It's been three weeks since you were looking for your friend
The one you let hit it and never called you again
Remember when he told you he was about the benjamins?
You act like you ain't here him, but gave him a little trim
To begin, how you think you're really going to pretend
Like you wasn't down and you called him again?
Plus when, you give it up so easy you ain't even foolin' him
If you did it then, then you'd probably do it again
Talking out your neck, saying you're a Christian
A Muslim, sleeping with the Gin
Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in
Who're you going to tell when the repercussions spin?
Showing off your a-- because you’re thinking it's a trend
Girlfriend, let me break it down for you again!
You know I only say it because I’m truly genuine
Don't be a hard rock, when you really are a gem
Baby girl! Respect is just the minimum
Brothas creepin' and you still defending him
Now -- Lauryn is only human
Don't think I haven't been through the same predicament
Let it sit inside your head like a million women in Philly been
It's silly when girls sell their souls because it's in
Look at what you be in, hair weaves like Europeans
Fake nails up out Koreans…”

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“Everything is Everything,” with its anthem like feel, sends a positive message directed

toward youth who struggle in overcoming personal or societal obstacles, urging them not to give

up and to stay positive.

“I wrote these words for everyone


Who struggles in their youth
Who won’t accept deception
Instead of what is truth
It seems we lose the game
Before we even start to play
Who made these rules?
We’re so confused
Easily led astray
Let me tell ya that
Everything is everything

I philosophy
Possibly speak tongues
Beat drum, Abyssinian, street Baptist
Rap this in fine linen
From the beginning
My practice extending across the atlas
I begat this
Flippin’ in the ghetto on the dirty mattress
You can’t match this rapper/actress
More powerful than two Cleopatras
Bomb graffiti on the tomb of Nefertiti
MCs ain’t ready to take it to the Serengeti
My rhymes is heavy like the mind of Sister Betty
L. Boogie spars with stars and constellations
Then came down for a little conversation
Adjacent to the king, fear no human being
Roll with cherubims to Nassau Coliseum
Now hear this mixture
Where hip hop meets scripture
Develop a negative into a positive picture

Sometimes it seems
We’ll touch that dream
But things come slow or not at all
And the ones on top, won’t make it stop
So convinced that they might fall
Let’s love ourselves then we can’t fail
To make a better situation

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Tomorrow, our seeds will grow
All we need is dedication…”

The hype from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill eventually died down but the “need” for

Lauryn Hill certainly did not. But Hill was not ready, feeling overcome by the public persona

the music industry has created, and decided to take a much-needed break. Disappearing from the

public view, Hill stopped touring and stopped talking to the media completely. She went into

what she calls “emotional rehab.” The media, doing anything it can to create a sensationalized

story, branded Hill as “crazy” and “emotionally unstable.” In a 2002 interview with MTV, as

part of a promotional tour for her next release, Hill addresses the media’s view of her, “I don’t

know anybody that’s not emotionally unstable or schizophrenic. People wake up, they have one

mood, they have another mood. The only reason why it’s looked at as crazy is because we have

these images, these icons before us that are not reality. I’m saying, ‘who told you that’s the

standard?’”

After a four-year hiatus from almost all social

interaction, at least in the public spectrum, Hill released

new material in the form of a live recording, MTV

Unplugged No. 2, on May 7, 2002. Despite the fact that

this recording was billed as a highly anticipated return,

the album sold only a fraction of the sales garnered by her

debut. However, even though the release was not a

commercial success, its content and the messages behind it are surely not. Lauryn Hill has

changed and Unplugged is a testament to that. The live-recording, also available on DVD,

features passionately spiritual songs that are stripped-down, with no conventional “hooks,” and

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range from talk of love to talk of war, from songs of passion to songs of praise. With the

fundamental themes being reality and freedom, the album documents Hill’s journey to liberate

herself from her publicly created image and encourages her audience to do the same. “I created

this public persona, this public illusion, and it kept me hostage,” she says in between performing

songs in this intimate live recording with a small audience. Adding that “we have a right to be

who we are, and if we submit to someone’s will, a part of us dies.” Hill also confesses that she

used to be a performer and no longer is, her goal now being to share the life lessons she has

learned. Aside from the change in the music, her personal style also experienced a

transformation, the same as her stripped-down music. “I used to dress up for you guys, but I

don’t do that anymore. Sorry, it’s a new day. I don’t have the energy,” she says laughingly

before sharing her wisdom with the audience. Adding that she told MTV “to light me better or

people will keep saying who’s that boy on the stage, who’s that little boy.” This slimmed-down

image of Hill is only fitting as it enforces the need to be ourselves without subjecting ourselves

to public opinion, as illustrated in lyrics to the songs on Unplugged.

“Mr. Intentional,” with which Hill opens her “sharing,” seems to be a response to the

male-dominated society that we live in modern times. A society in which media produces

millions of images via its advertising and marketing strategies which lead us to believe that who

we are naturally is not good enough or is not socially acceptable and urge us to change by

purchasing the products they are trying to sell. The lyrics to the song, more or less, speak for

themselves:

“See the road to hell is paved with good intentions


Can’t you tell the way they have to mention?
How they’ve helped you out; you’re such a hopeless victim
Please don’t do me any favors, Mr. Intentional
All their talk is seasoned to perfection
The road they walk, commanding your affection

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They need to be needed, deceived by motivation
An opportunity, to further situation
Why they so important is without explanation
Please don’t patronize me, Mr. Intentional
We give rise to ego by being insecure
The advice that we go desperately searching for
The subconscious effort to support our paramour
To engage in denial, to admit we’re immature
Validating lies, Mr. Intentional
Open up your eyes, Mr. Intentional
Stuck in a system that seeks to suck your blood
Held emotionally hostage by what everybody does
Counting all the money that you give them just because
Exploiting ignorance in the name of love
Stop before you drop because that’s just the way it works
Please don’t justify me, Mr. Intentional
Oh one dimensional, Mr. Intentional
Oh don’t you do me any favors
Wake up you’ve been sleeping
Take up your bed and walk
Stop blaming other people
Oh it’s nobody else’s fault
Accept the truth about you
You know that life goes on without you
And your expensive mis-inventions
Disguising your intentions
Don’t worship my hurt feelings, Mr. Intentional
See I know you can’t help me, Mr. Intentional
The only help I need to live is unprofessional
The only wealth I have to give is not material
And if you need much more than that, I’m not available
Please don’t entertain me, Mr. Intentional
Oh I don’t need your sympathy, Mr. Intentional
Stay away from me, Mr. Intentional
So one dimensional, Mr. Promotional, Mr. Emotional, Mr. Intentional…”

Although it may seem as though the lyrics (and the messages behind them) on this album

are cryptic or complex, they are undeniably thought-provoking. “Adam Lives in Theory,”

another track on Unplugged plays with the idea that “fantasy is what people want, but reality is

what they need,” according to Hill. With “Adam” meaning “all of humanity with no

exceptions,” Hill is shedding light on the condition of our current society in a media saturated

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world or what she refers to as “the socially decaying system” – a system that does not allow us to

be free or to be who we. This “fantasy” that Hill is referring to is generally what our society is

based on today. With millions of images created by various media outlets, socially constructed

ideals are created, usually with detrimental effects to the women of our society. The products

that the advertising industry is attempting to sell us only perpetrate the socially constructed ideals

or fantasies that exist in our society. Throughout her second album, Hill urges her audience to

resist conforming to any socially constructed standards and highlights the importance of freedom

or being who we are, just the way we are.

In “I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel),” Hill argues the notion that freedom is taken out of all

of us, out of humanity as a while. A bold yet true statement given the state of society in modern

times; a society, filled with false images and illusions, which constantly tell us the way we

should look and act. Hill sings:

“I find it hard to say, that everything is alright


Don't look at me that way, like everything is alright
Cuz my own eyes can see, through all your false pretenses
But what you fail to see, is all the consequences
You think our lives are cheap, and easy to be wasted
As history repeats, so foul you can taste it
And while the people sleep, too comfortable to face it
His life so incomplete, and nothing can replace it
And while the people sleep, too comfortable to face it
Your lives so incomplete, and nothing can replace it
Fret not thyself I say, against these laws of man
Cuz like the Bible says, His blood is on their hands
And what I gotta say, and what I gotta say, is rebel
While today is still today, choose well
And what I gotta say, is rebel, it can't go down this way
Choose well, choose well, choose well...
...choose well, choose well, choose well
And while the people sleep, too comfortable to face it
Your lives are so incomplete, and nothing, and no one, can replace it
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no
And what I gotta say, and what I gotta say
And what I gotta say, and what I gotta say

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And what I gotta say, and what I gotta say
And what I gotta say, and what I gotta say
Is rebel... rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel
Rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel
Repent, the day is far too spent, rebel... rebel!
Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up...
Wake up and rebel
We must destroy in order to rebuild
Wake up, you might as well
Oh are you... oh are you satisfied
Oh are you satisfied
Rebel... ohhh rebel
Why don't you rebel, why don't you rebel?
Why don't you rebel?”

Post her last commercial release, Hill has not completely disappeared like she did after

her debut album. She sparingly continues to spread her message in various media outlets,

usually in non-video taped interviews. In a February 2006 interview with Essence magazine’s

Kwaku Alston, she expresses the need to be a “whole woman,” adding a feminist dimension to

her message by commenting on the black woman’s struggle to be accepted in a society that

seems to be incapable of making space for their intelligence, beauty, and strength. Hopefully

today’s black women, with the help of Lauryn Hill can find a way to fight the stereotype they are

faced with. Hill explains:

It’s really about the black woman falling in love with her own image of beauty. I know

that I’ve been in a fight to love myself and experience reciprocity in a relationship. I

thought that a perfectly reciprocal relationship was an impossibility. That’s that “black

woman is the mule of the world” thing. It says she can’t get what she deserves, no matter

how dope she is. And, you know, you have to go through the fear. You do have to do

something with the insecurity, ghosts and demons that have been programmed in us for

centuries. You have to master the voices, all the insecure and inadequate men who put

garbage in a woman’s mind, soul, spirit, and psyche just so they can use her. You’ve got

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to break free of that crap. I didn’t see many of the women who came before me fight the

war successfully. And when you don’t see it, you don’t know if it can be done. But

that’s what faith is for.

In today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, fame and the demands of celebrity can inevitably

be harsh. Whether it is the intense pressure for artists to continue to produce, the effect of money

and fame, or the Internet blogs, fan sites, and paparazzi on the streets documenting a celebrity’s

every move, it can become too much to handle. In the same interview with Kwaku Alston, Hill

addresses her experience with celebrity:

I don’t think I ever handled celebrity. For a period of time I had to step away entirely.

There were temptations, enticements, entrapments – whether it was the dependence on

image or just some false sense of security. I created from such a sincere, pure place, but

those enticements produced a very toxic situation for my creativity, my person. At age

23, you don’t know how to handle that in a diplomatic manner, especially when

everybody around you has been affected by the money, the fame, the attention. Celebrity

becomes an addiction. One of my hopes for artists today is that they don’t get trapped in

images that don’t really reflect who they are. Everybody is sort of bound to this super

cool, super mature, super perfect, super consistent image. It looks great on the shelf but it

can also hurt people, and stunt their growth, because their image is growing, but their

persons are not.

Fame has not spoiled Lauryn Hill, it only empowered her. Her fundamental message has

not changed through the span of her career. It only intensified. Whether she describes the nearly

lethal effects of fame and the public persona it creates, the black woman and the harsh realities

she must face in today’s society, or the male-dominated media world and its effect on humanity

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as a whole, the message is the same – we must fight off conforming ourselves to any socially

constructed standards. We are who we are and we must accept who we are. We do not need

thousands of dollars of products to solve our problems, make us feel better, or to live.

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Works Cited

Alston, Kwaku. “They Call Me Ms. Hill.” Essence Feb 2006: 154.

De Maio, Joe. Lauryn Hill: MTV Unplugged No. 2 DVD. Sony Music Entertainment, 2002

Hill, Lauryn. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill CD. Sony Music Entertainment, 1998.

“Lauryn Hill: A Redemption Song.”

http://www.mtv.com/bands/h/hill_lauryn/NewsFeature_080401/feature3.jhtml.

Nickson, Chris. Lauryn Hill, An Unauthorized Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Sandler, Adam. “Fugees’ Hill Tops Album Charts.” Daily Variety. 3 Sep. 1998, sec. News; pg. 3

Young, Monifa. “High on the Hill.” Essence Jun 1998: 75.

Images Credit: Vibe.com - “The Many Looks of Lauryn Hill”


http://www.vibe.com/photo-galleries/many-looks-lauryn-hill

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