By Nikki Coco
Writing this piece locks me into a time machine and positions me dead in the center amid beat boxers, feisty Ritas, extension braids, the after-school crew and rebels…some with a cause – others for no good reason at all. You were me and I was you. I used to love it when my friends referred to me as Lauryn Hill; I still do.
In your typecast role as Rita in Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit, that was the first time I had ever seen a chick screw up her face as hard as I had as an equally rough around the edges, obstinate and head strong hormonal teenager. Admittedly, I do not believe for one second that your role in the film was a far stretch from the real Lauryn – just sayin’. We both grew up with a strict-as-hell mother, who worked hard to pay the bills. For years to come the film would remain highly favored in my Siskel and Ebert-esque ranks. I remember so well when you came and graced Toronto’s Much Music stage by performing hits off of your debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. You signed the back of a photo that I keep safely stashed away in an album in a Rubbermaid container in my room. It was summertime; Toronto was really feeling you, or so it seemed.
Years passed following your debut album and subsequent sophomore MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 release. By then, some had noticed that L. Boogie was on a different “tip” [as we Torontonians say] than you had been since your appearance onto the music scene both as part of the dynamic trio The Fugees, and later as a soloist. Many had noticed that L. Boogie was on a no-holds-bar path; yet and still, I held your lyrical content and overall skill and ability with high esteem. Indeed you had changed. Some blamed your ex-partner Rohan, others blamed Wyclef. I am not sure that we will ever know what prompted your sudden shift in demeanor; I do however suspect that it had much-a-do with the media bombardment that you had received as it regarded your relationship, your choosing to birth a son at such a crucial stage in your career, as you articulated ever so affectionately in the tune whose title was borrowed from his namesake – “Zion.”
For years you were largely removed from the public eye, yet thoughts of Ms. Hill – as you had since opted to be called – permeated through the reins of popular culture forums. Having birthed four additional children with Marley well into the late 2000s [and another without Marley], we saw you again retreat from showbiz. You made somewhat of a comeback by appearing annually as part of the celebrated hip-hop concert “Rock the Bells” line-up, as well as gracing other concert stages.
In January 2011, after a heckuva long hiatus you returned to perform in Toronto. Fans had waited for over a decade for you to return to our beloved city. Though they had been eager to see you, all the while throughout the industry’s pipeline they had heard the not so great murmurs about you: “She never shows up on time,” “She’s gone mad,” “She hasn’t come out with a new album in years, what’s she gonna perform?” All in all, that particular performance received mixed reviews from critics and fans alike, with the commentary leaning on the side of lacklustre and enraged emotions due to your tardiness. As much as I had wanted to go, I didn’t actually make it to that show. With all the raucous that had been made through the grapevine, I was kind of glad that I didn’t. I wanted to ride or die for Lauryn but with all the bad press, somehow I started to realize that I couldn’t.
Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago when news of your return to Toronto once more hit the air waves, Twitter feeds, and other media sites. This time, I–like many others–did not want to go. The negativity and bad reviews had gotten the best of me. Luckily, my sister insisted on buying tickets for the show; let’s just say I’m glad she did. After having seen you perform live for a second time, I can honestly remark that you are a lyrical and musical genius beyond describable words, connecting so well with the crowd, while also keeping it real with us, and is also stunningly beautiful live in the flesh. All this talk about you having old songs was completely thrown out the window because as far as I’m concerned, you did things to old songs that I didn’t know could even be done. Case closed.
This leads me to believe that what we needed to have been feeling for you all along was the compassion that seems to be the missing component in a lot of interrogations of celebrities. Shoot, you’re human too. You have been demonized in epic ways [especially by your former lovers and fans] as if you owe us something. You don’t owe us an album; you don’t owe us your time, and you sure as heck don’t owe us an apology. I reckon what makes celebrities have the tendency to breakdown and/or resort to a life of drugs and alcohol is the immense pressure that they tend to receive from the general public. I mean, thank goodness you haven’t taken that path but, even though you haven’t done anything of the sort, you’ve been branded as this lunatic of a human being for having cut your hair off, given birth to six children and for singing about politics, religion and Paul Bogle. What part of the game is that?
In a world that is so caught up on “keeping up appearances” and towing the line, you my dear have chosen to march to the beat of your own drum. How real. In a world where black mothers have been constantly deemed unfit, erratic and unnurturing, you have chosen to put your children first and it showed at the concert this past Saturday when you brought your son Joshua out on stage to recite his own rap, and when you gently kissed him on the forehead before he walked off stage. Yes, L – at that point it all became so clear to me – you are in fact a human being. Your departure from the frontlines has nothing to do with us and everything to do with you and your family, and rightly so. As a mother, I understand all too well the reason as to why you would want to protect your children from the harsh realities of this world.
P.S., – you were right, all along we had been miseducated about you.Nikki is a Toronto-based writer, whose musings cover a wide range of topics incuding but, not limited to: politics, love, education and cultural criticism. You can follow her on Twitter @artculturemusic.
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