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The Resurrection of Lauryn Hill

We spoke to Ms. Hill while she was in prison. Now she's out, and she just might be stronger than ever.
August 7, 2014, 1:00pm

Last week before playing a concert at the Boston House of Blues, Lauryn Hill visited the Haley House, a non-profit institution in the Beantown neighborhood of Roxbury specializing in re-integrating former inmates into society through career services. Roxbury, noted for its large African-Muslim and Haitian population, is home to people who have been derogatorily been referred to as “Fugees” or “Refugees” longer than Lauryn Hill probably has been. In a sense, it was a welcome home party for the multiplatinum artist, with die-hard fans monitoring her twitter timeline to plot how far she was from arriving.

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A line wrapped around the block to enter the coffee shop-sized Haley’s, some of those waiting were marked with tattoos of her face. It was Ms. Hill’s first appearance in Boston since being incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institute of Danbury, Connecticut, a low-security prison for female inmates just a few hours drive out from Haley’s.

The mood was tense—the crew behind the counter at Haley's remarked that they had been informed of the meet and greet at the last minute. About 40 people were crammed in an area most likely accustomed to hosting a dozen, and all of them were waiting for their chance to kiss Ms. Hill’s proverbial ring. When she arrived, a wave of energy washed over the room. With dangling gold earrings that matched her gold choker, an-all denim Canadian Tuxedo and slanted fedora, Ms. Hill made the transitions her life has taken look impossibly easy.

The first time I ever spoke with Ms. Hill, she was still locked up in FCI Danbury. We had a production call about a failed documentary she wanted to do to expose what conditions were like for women on the inside. It was nearly a year ago, in October.

Ms. Hill described to me how parallel her story was to many of the white-collar “criminals” who were locked up with her.

“As a kid, I didn’t realize being able to write a hit song was a rare gift. It was so natural you just assume everyone has that ability. And these women I’ve met have abilities like being able to see patterns, like in the stock market, and some men saw that and they exploited them,” she said. “The stories I hear down here, I’m like, Jesus Christ, oh my god, there are girls in their 20s getting life sentences for drug convictions.” Continuing, she said, “A lot of these women here in Danbury came from bad circumstances, but strived for success in their own way. Their brilliant minds may be underdeveloped in other ways but that brilliant mind is not going to settle.”

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When someone is convicted in a white-collar crime, a general rule of thumb is the greater the financial loss, the more severe the sentence. According to Hill, oftentimes the women she met in FCI Danbury were the “fall guy” for schemes that involved opportunistic men, many of whom got away unpunished. “We’re talking about the impact, in real lives, of the criminalization of addiction, the criminalization of mental illness, even the criminalization of abuse victims,” she said. “I mean, really? You can’t see this person is clearly a victim?”

While she stopped short of saying the penal system was racist or sexist, she said it was “excessively detached,” in terms of how it unfairly criminalizes the disadvantaged, the abused, and the poor.

The FCI Danbury rejected my application to document the conditions of women who are incarcerated, who often come from more under-privileged backgrounds and are kept in worse conditions behind bars than their male peers (the female prison population is generally an afterthought, even in today’s privatized prison system). Unfettered, Ms. Hill herself wrote out another application in pen, that was scanned by her management and sent to me. It was an act of kindness and dedication to social justice rarely found in any celebrity, especially one with as prickly a reputation as Ms. Hill.

Rumors about Lauryn Hill personal behavior have sadly dominated the last decade of her career. Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn used words like "unhinged" in his review of her MTV Unplugged album. "She was always a perfectionist and a star," said audio engineer Gordon Williams (often credited as Commissioner Gordon). "She was a star before she even broke, a magnet for attention from the day she walked in the studio."

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You get the sense that her alleged "demanding" behavior would have been acceptable from many of the men whose style is admittedly influenced by hers—such as, say, Kanye West. Even from music fans, I’ve heard nasty things about Lauryn Hill in distinctly gendered terms; “she’s crazy,” “she’s bossy,” or “she’s irrational.” Despite her popularity and impact—lest we forget, Drake ceded stage time at his OVO Fest to Ms. Hill just this weekend—many have shown skepticism of Ms. Hill’s potential re-integration into the music industry. But if you ask her, she’s no crazy, she’s just real.

“I don’t schmooze, I don’t shoot the shit,” Ms. Hill said to me. “I’m highly intuitive, and can smell bullshit a mile away. It’s highly uncomfortable for me to be about. You don’t see me out. I can’t be around nonsense.”

After leaving the Fugees, Ms. Hill’s solo output has been less than steady. Besides her MTV Unplugged album and her multi-platinum, world-beating debut, she hasn’t released much. But does she really need to? At her show at the House of Blues last Thursday, she ran through an extended set which included pitch-perfect renditions of every song you could want ask for. For flair, her rhythm section riffed on an extended version of The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton,” which Ms. Hill freestyled over.

It was a set devoid of fluff, banter, or long speeches. Mid-set she produced an acoustic guitar and ran through some of the half-completed songs on the Unplugged album, such as “Adam Lives in Theory.” Coupled with the appearance at Hayley House, the show felt like a token of gratitude, even a peace offering, to her fans for sticking with her on the long journey home. Her ebullience reminded me of something she’d said to me months ago.

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“These women who are incarcerated could be out there paying their debt back to society, they could be earning instead of being in a cage,” she said. Her performance eschewed frills for flow. She continues to give back. It was Lauryn Hill at her intuitive best.

Basim Usmani is a writer living in Boston. He's on Twitter - @BasimBTW

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