In 1987, a wide-eyed 13-year-old graced the stage for Apollo’s Amateur Night, eager to share her rendition of Jackson 5’s “Who’s Loving You.” She struggled to fill out the song as Michael had, and the brutally honest crowd booed her within seconds. No one knew that girl would grow up to be one-third of the Fugees and heralded as R&B royalty for her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which turned 20 years old last weekend. Still, the Apollo performance foreshadowed what Hill’s career and Miseducation’s legacy would become synonymous with: aching love songs, a complicated relationship with stage performance, and, most importantly, an ability to push past that discomfort. Almost 30 years later, Lauryn Hill is still struggling to find her way within the court of public opinion.
Earlier this month, Robert Glasper—a jazz pianist and former member of Hill’s band in 2008—alleged that the singer didn’t write her own music for Miseducation in an interview with Houston’s 97.9 The Box. “You can’t come into a situation when you’ve already stolen all of my friends’ music,” he said. “ Miseducation was made by great musicians and producers that I know, personally. So you got a big head off of music that you didn’t even write.” The jazz musician also accused Hill, who is in the midst of the album’s 20th anniversary tour, of underpaying her band and mistreating her workers. “You haven’t done enough to be the way you are,” he said.
On Monday night, Hill responded to the claims in a Medium post. To Glasper’s claim that Miseducation included “stolen” material, she countered that she had collaborated with musicians, but that no one had written for her. “You may be able to make suggestions, but you can’t write for me,” she wrote. “No decisions are made without me.” In response to his allegations that she had cut band members pay in half a day before a performance, Hill stated she has no recollection of that. “I would never just cut a musician’s pay arbitrarily unless I had a legitimate reason,” she wrote.
Glasper also had a problem with the singer only answering to the name “Ms. Hill” when they worked together, which Hill admits was accurate. “And yes, Ms. Hill was absolutely a requirement,” she wrote. “I was young, Black, and female. Not everyone can work for and give the appropriate respect to a person in that package and in charge,” she stated. She also took the time to respond to some of the criticisms that have been floating around her in recent years, including her reputation for being late to concerts. “Me being late to shows isn’t because I don’t respect my fans or their time, but the contrary,” she wrote. According to the singer, her late starts are due to sound checks that run over as she readies new material—and fresh arrangements of older songs—for the stage.
By 1998, Lauryn Hill was already household name. We knew her as Rita Louise Watson, the quick-witted school girl in 1993’s Sister Act 2, and as the charismatic artist who often outrapped Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel in the Fugees. When the trio disbanded in 1997, Hill was mourning her losses, including a failed relationship with former-bandmate Wyclef. She was also grappling with the expectations placed on her as a black woman in hip-hop. The tail-end of the 90s had spawned a roster of women in rap, like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, who were overtly explicit, bragging about their sexual prowess like their male counterparts; and while Missy Elliott and Da Brat may represented their tomboyish antithesis, Hill did something still more unusual for the time. She paired her athletic rhythms with a conscious message, which was a refreshing detour from Lil’ Kim’s ode to cunnilingus on “Not Tonight.” She also didn’t look like anyone else, her natural hair a proud departure from the era’s narrow definition of glamor. On “Doo Wop,” a single from Miseducation, she poked fun at her contemporaries and their manicured looks. “Look at where you be in, hair weaves like Europeans / Fake nails done by Koreans, come again.”
In 1933, historian and journalist Carter G. Woodson used his book, The Miseducation of the Negro, to debunk the myth that black history begins with slavery and rebuff the brainwashing of black Americans by white American ideals. “The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies,” Woodson wrote. Similarly, with Miseducation, Hill explored the gap between who the entertainment industry wanted her to be and who she saw herself becoming.
Miseducation was a soundtrack of resistance, and Hill used love as her ammunition, whether she was talking about family, her environment, god—or the good sense to know when to leave something toxic. “To Zion” explores a mother’s relationship to her unborn child. “Every City, Every Ghetto” is an ode to the landmarks of Newark, one that makes the city feel so relatable that you could substitute them with the markers of your hometown instead. There are euphoric love songs, like “Nothing Even Matters,” and stinging break-up songs, like “Lost Ones” and “I Used to Love Him.” Hill’s love wasn’t one-note, and she hit her strongest ones when she tapped into the depths of herself. “And deep in my heart, the answer it was in me,” she sings on the title-track. “I made up my mind to define my own destiny.”
Unusually, some of the album’s most moving moments occur during the transitions. On one of them, we hear Newark politician Ras Baraka asking a group of eighth graders from South Orange about their definition of love. “It’s a difference between loving somebody and being in love with somebody,” one teen says. “When you’re in love with somebody, you’re taking that person for what he or she is, no matter what [they] look like, or what [they] do.” Going against the belief that black and brown children are hardened and difficult to love, she made them delicate.
"The album inspired many people, from all walks of life, because of its radical (intense) will to live and to express Love," Hill said of the album in the Medium post. And perhaps most importantly, Miseducation was a dedication to self-love, something apparent in the ways she’s still standing up for herself. “I reject being pigeonholed or pinned-down by someone else’s uninformed concept of me,” she wrote. “I’m my own person, free to explore my potential like everyone else.”
Though her only solo studio album is 20 years removed from cultural discourse, Hill is still finding herself reprogramming how the world perceives her. At the end of the day, Glasper’s comments about Lauryn Hill and Miseducation were just another flaccid attempt to diminish the contributions of black women and their art—despite all the evidence to the contrary. Lauryn Hill swept the Grammys in 1999, and was the first hip-hop artist to win Album of the Year. She toured with the Fugees until she was seven months pregnant, providing the world with a template for what a working mother could look like well before Cardi B and Beyonce sported baby bumps on stage.
To be a black woman who makes art means to constantly contend with people who will whittle your accomplishments to “not doing enough,” rather than remembering the actual legacy you’ve left behind. By refusing to sacrificing the art, and herself, for the sake of public perception, Hill seems to have found the peace of mind she was searching for. As American writer and feminist Audre Lorde famously put it, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.