The introduction to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill sets the scene of a class about to start. A teacher conducts roll call, with each scholar making their presence known with a “right here”. The name Lauryn Hill is called out, but there is no response. Lauryn Hill is either absent or late. What follows is a track announcing L-Boogie’s entry into the rap game – with Lost Ones, Hill secured her place as one of the greatest rappers alive.
The album’s title borrows from Carter G Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), which states that the American school system as it relates to African American people existed to indoctrinate rather than educate. Perhaps this is why the 1976 Soweto revolts are cited over and above the voices of learners engaged in a robust discussion about love with their teacher on the track Forgive Them Father.
Though she misses out on what sound like Paulo Freire’s words – “What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves” – Hill’s absence achieves two things. It either sets the tone for what she aims to teach us through this body of work, or it is the following words from Woodson’s work that form the basis for bunking school: “Philosophers have long conceded, however, that every man has two educators: that which is given to him, and the other that which he gives himself. Of the two kinds, the latter is by far the more desirable. Indeed, all that is most worthy in man he must work out and conquer for himself. It is that which constitutes our real and best nourishment. What we are merely taught seldom nourishes the mind like that which we teach ourselves.”
The class discussions that form interludes between some of the tracks in Miseducation and the songs themselves give us aural images of two class sessions taking place simultaneously. The only difference is one takes place in the confines of four walls of a conventional classroom while the other plays out in real life through social interactions, soul-searching quests and romantic relationships.
The years preceding the release of Miseducation saw some of the most sound-shifting music coming from African American women. Missy Elliott and Mariah Carey come to mind as producer-artists who merged RnB, soul and hip-hop in their respective albums and collaborations in a display of finesse and subtlety of execution. So it is not surprising that Miseducation takes this even further in converging sounds from across the diaspora to create this ageless classic.
To borrow from the movie Brown Sugar, Miseducation also features some of the most perfect verses over a tight beat. Hill’s first and only studio album to date set and broke monumental records, the first rap album to win an Album of the Year Grammy Award among them.
Twenty years on, Miseducation still attracts a (class)roomful of life and love scholars. Hip-hop feminist and veteran hip-hop journalist Joan Morgan’s argument in her latest book, a tribute to the album titled She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, that it was a healing project for African American people whose right to love and family had been denied seems compelling but slightly limited. By placing the production of the album during the Clinton administration – a time of increased incarceration rates and the war on drugs, which broke the African American family structure apart, along with welfare cuts that plunged African American women into poverty – it seems that African American men are let off the hook a bit too much.
Take I Used To Love Him or the the second verse of Doo Wop (That Thing) for example. These songs explore themes of toxic masculinity within romantic relationships. Collaborating with Queen of Hip-Hop Soul Mary J Blige, whose discography at the time portrayed betrayal, heartbreak and a quest to heal, speaks to Hill’s deliberateness in dealing with the messy parts of the hashtag black love movement. In real life, both women were dealing with toxicity in their relationships. Morgan not delving deeper into this does Miseducation a disservice.
L-Boogie challenges men to introspect and take responsibility for their actions as much as she calls on women to embrace their softness instead of performing hardness. “How you gonna win when you ain’t right within?”, she asks the punk, domestic violence, quick to shoot the semen men.
To indulge Morgan and L-Boogie, how compelling is the claim “she begat this”? For one, as a cultural phenomenon, Hill became an important symbol of representation at a time when not that many African American women, least of all dark-skinned African American women, graced the covers of high-end, glossy magazines.
Hill’s Harper’s Bazaar magazine cover, as Morgan writes, paved the way for Beyonce, Rihanna and especially Lupita Nyong’o, shattering the myth that black women could not sell magazines.
Miseducation would see Hill inevitably emerge as the antithesis to hyper-sexualised female rappers such as Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim, which is odd because of how Hill didn’t fit neatly into the respectability politics that pitted these artists against each other. Hill wasn’t quite the Black Queen persona that the industry tried to project on her either. After all, she claimed to father an entire culture and, in many ways, she did emerge as the “patriarch” of a musical zeitgeist, obliterating any idea that she might exist for anyone’s approval.