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Lauryn Hill: The Hip-Hop Raptivist
“I look at my environment and wonder where the fire
went/ what happened to everything we used to be/ I hear
so many cry for help, searching outside of themselves/
Now I know His strength is within me/ And deep in my
heart the answer it was in me/ And I made up my mind
to find my own destiny.”
–Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”
“This is so amazing. This is crazy because this is
hip-hop music” (Leah Furman, Heart of Soul).
Emerging from backstage after her performance,
Lauryn Hill tripped over her words in astonishment
as she accepted the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1998 for The Miseducation of
Lauryn Hill. This recognition was monumental for ghetto urban youth who founded the
hip-hop genre (David Cook). In 1998 Lauryn Hill became the first woman to win five
Grammy Awards in one year, out of a legendary ten nominations. In 1999 she graced the
cover of Time Magazine with the lead article titled: Hip Hop Nation: After 20 YearsHow it’s Changed America. In The Pop, Rock and Soul Reader: Histories and Debates
David Brackett describes that:
Hill’s crossover (and the largely favorable Time article) signaled that hiphop had become the mainstream. Hill seemed to be the perfect figure to
accomplish this: multitalented, a philosophy major at Columbia, attractive,
articulate, and adamantly religious, she was a far cry from the denizens of
Death Row…(the Times article and many glorifying others) reveal how
rapid the social position of hip-hop had changed. (425)
Born in 1975 in South Orange, New Jersey Lauryn Hill attended a white school and lived
in an urban black neighborhood. From 1992-97 Hill was a member of the Grammy
Award-winning rap trio, The Fugees, whose remake of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me
Softly With His Song” made Hill a star. Her 1998 solo album, The Miseducation of
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Lauryn Hill, is autobiographical, advocating her hip-hop philosophies and theologies on
race, religion, sex, and ghetto identity.
Miseducation was a treatise to urban youth for an alternative vision of developing
black identity. Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing had a similar agenda, which
Phillip Hanson argues, is “to engage the particular history of urban racial violence in
order to make a point about the dynamics of ghetto racial incidents and the ways racial
ghettoization creates identity for oppressed people. Riots [Hanson claims]…are a
particular manifestation of communal identity” (The Politics of Inner-City Identity… 49).
As Hanson comments on Lee, I mean to develop a similar argument for Hill’s work.
Lauryn Hill engages the history of black hip-hop culture to make a point about the
dynamics of hip-hop ghetto social identity, using spirituality as a particular manifestation
of communal identity. The first section of this argument contextualizes theories of black
social identity (double-consciousness, double-bind, etc.), black linguistic practices in
literary and oral tradition (signifyin(g), autobiography, etc.) and particular histories of
black ghetto youth and women. The second section integrates many of these theoretical
and historical foundations to Hill’s contemporary afro-centric lyricism. Hill intends to
promote certain positive social philosophies for hip-hoppers. Her central philosophies are
(1) to reinvigorate spiritual life among disenchanted youth who pray to hip-hop before
heaven, (2) to give learned advice warning against the futility of misled hip-hop idolatry,
i.e. materialism, egotism and misogyny, and (3) to empower young black females by reconceptualizing derogatory stereotypes that hold them back from self-expression and
acceptance. Lauryn Hill’s solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, contains afrocentric cultural themes and forms to reeducate black ghetto youth to her socially-charged
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philosophies as they come of age in a hip-hop world.
Oral and Literary Black Tradition and Foundations
Hip-hop is a black-English form of communication. Certain progressions in black
oral and literary history demonstrate the engenderment of linguistically imposed
traditions that signify black difference. The hip-hop voice grew from these traditions.
Literary critic William Dean Howell saw blacks as “so alien and distinct” that
“perhaps the negroes thought black, and felt black” (qtd. in Gates, Figures in Black, 23).
Black scholar and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois explores this sense of consciousness in The
Souls of Black Folk, theorizing:
(T)he Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and a gifted secondsight in his American world, -a world which yields no true selfconsciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the
other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness… One
ever feels his twoness, -an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts,
two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose
dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (215)
The double-consciousness theory dominates much of the sociological understandings of
social identity in the black community.
The “veil,” “second-sight” and “double-consciousness” are the “black cultural
matrix” from which Gates theorizes “signifyin(g)” in the black-English language:
The language of blackness encodes and names its sense of independence
through a rhetorical process that we might think of as Signifyin(g) black
difference (66), Signifyin(g) in other words, is the figurative difference
between the literal and the metaphorical, between surface and latent
meaning… Signifyin(g) then is the metaphor of textual revision. (88)
(The Signifying Monkey).
Signifyin(g) is a black English form where a word or phrase may mean more than it’s
direct denotation, creating neologisms within itself as it “presupposes an �encoded’
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intention to say one thing and mean quite another,” (Figures in Black, 82). Signifyin’(g)
may be based on implication or trope as indirect persuasion and argumentation.
Gates ascribes multiple variants of black-English as forms of signifyin(g) on
black difference, among these being: school-yard rhymes and double-dutch jump rope,
“talkin,’” “testifyin,’” “jailhouse rhymes,” colloquial forms of writing, street vernacular
(such as in the poem Shine on the Titanic) and “the Dozens.” “The dozens” in particular
developed into a spoken/written tradition in hip-hop. Rooted in New Orleans blues music
of the 1920s-30s, “the dozens” is a form of lyrical competition between two people or
groups where they may banter, “dis,” or snap “cracks” at each other. Stemming from this
oral practice the 1984 rap group U.T.F.O. released the song “Roxanne, Roxanne” which
berated Puerto-Rican rapper Roxanne Shante. She fired back with rap’s first response
record. Hip-hop extends “the dozens” into a particular lyrical form known as the “dis”
tradition, “wherein artists responded in kind to one another’s recorded boasts and taunts,
taking each other to task and attempting to establish their own credibility as �the best.’
Since this time it has become a popular format for popular rap songs.” Lauryn Hill’s
album evokes this practice as she challenges the ideologies of her fellow artists and fans
(Phillips 257).
While signifyin(g) on black-English forms, Hill’s music is a coalition of oratory
and literary traditions that develop an important black genre: the black autobiography.
Western academic culture before the Civil War saw the black race as inferior in part
because they lacked much written literature, overlooking the importance and depth of
their oral culture (Gates). Henry Louis Gates Jr. explains “blacks could not even achieve
any true presence by speaking, since their �African’-informed English seems to have only
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underscored their status as sui generis, as distinct in spoken language use as in their
peculiarly �black’ color” (Gates 6). Black autobiography becomes one of the first black
genres accepted by the mainstream, melding oral traditions into literature (Adell). This
genre functions as validation of black-consciousness through self-reflection, imbued with
tropological sociopolitical agendas. Slave songs are some of the earliest forms of
autobiography, which minstrel shows and black choirs later brought to wider audiences.
Antebellum literature like Frederick Douglass’ (1845) and Harriet Jacobs’ (1861) slave
narratives were abolitionist propaganda. Renaissance pieces like James Weldon
Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Zora Neale Hurston’s How
it Feels to be Colored Me (1928) and Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) examined the
black experience during and following the Great Migration into urban ghettos. The 60s80s published Alex Haley’s Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Maya
Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (the first of a six-volume series). These are
but a few of the volumes of popular black autobiographies that, while stories, were also
political scripts for social activism. The 1980s-90s made hip-hop the most popular and
powerful social platform to continue this black practice. Lauryn Hill’s solo album, The
Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is a musical autobiography signifyin(g) on black difference.
In sharing the “soundtrack of (her) life” (Furman) she develops afro-centric traditions by
catapulting them into the new medium of popular culture with themes of lyrical and
social progressivism.
Ghettoized Black Stereotypes and Social Issues
Derogatory black stereotyping over time, and specifically in the ghettos, shackled
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black culture and tradition from receiving mainstream appreciation. In 1965 US Senator
and Harvard sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan released a startling report called The
Negro Family: The Case for National Action which said that the black family “is the
principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or antisocial behavior that did not
establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation” (qtd. in
Mullings 117). Moynihan’s report also “implied… that something like dumbness had
resulted from slavery and subsequent suppression” (Hanson 60). Following the 1965
report, the focus turned to scrutinize the ghetto phenomenon of single-mother matrifocal
centers for opposing ingrained, sexist social norms. The Moynihan report was racially
biased and bigoted yet accepted as academic because it was an economic, scientific,
government-endorsed study. The Moynihan report classified black families, particularly
those headed by single mothers, as non-normative and destructive, and in doing so
promoted the sense of “otherness,” and black difference as negative.
The toll of such politically endorsed socioeconomic classifications makes social
mobility increasingly more difficult for black women in particular. In Ain’t I a Woman:
black women and feminism bell hooks explains the theory of the “double-bind.” The
double-bind is the by-product of the black female being the last in line for rights and
recognition. hooks explores the difficulty at the beginning of black feminist movements
because “to support women’s suffrage would imply that they were allying themselves
with white women activists who had publicly revealed their racism, but to support only
black male suffrage was to endorse a patriarchal social order that would grant them no
political voice” (3). Black females are thus set back as third class citizens. hooks
expresses that there is potential in rap music, however, to resolve these iniquities saying
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that rap “�began as a form of �testimony’ for the underclass’” and “�projects a critical
voice: explaining, demanding, urging” (qtd. in Berry and Looney, 275). Hill is one of few
to fiercely contest the social conditioning wherein most rap artists promulgate black
stereotypes and cultivate misogynistic ideologies in their fans (Phillips).
Stereotypes of black women existed before and after the Moynihan report, the
most popularized images being the “Jezebel” or the “Mammy.” The “Jezebel” is a
“libidinous, sexually aggressive” (Mullings 112) being. The “Mammy” is the obedient,
submissive woman in servitude. Following the Moynihan report the emasculated “Black
Matriarch” sets forth a new stereotype as a “dysfunctional,” bossy, uneducated working
mother. Hip-hop then aggravated and reinterpreted these images in the ghetto by
introducing the “tragic mulatta,” depicted as “alluring, sexually arousing, seductive, and
tainted” (Randall), the “chickenhead,” a loose, promiscuous woman, the “sapphire,” an
evil, stubborn, hateful bitch made popular by the Amos and Andy TV series, the “gold
digger suggamomma,” who uses her body for her sugardaddy’s wallet, and the everpresent “ho.” The perpetual use of these stereotypes create them as reality for black
female social identities, for “since culture does not reflect the world in images, but
actually, through those very images conditions a child to see in a certain way, the colonial
child was made to see the world and where he stands in it as defined by or reflected in the
culture of the language of imposition” (Thiong). Like the colonized child, imposed labels
and stereotypes mold the unaware young black female’s social identity, constraining her
self-acceptance, independence, expression and deserved social representation.
Black scholars collectively identify certain themes of black feminism, many of
which play integral roles in Hill’s songs of social advocacy. Hill’s album negotiates these
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stereotypes in a black feminist discourse (Phillips). Among these are: (1) sexual and
sexist relations between the black male and female, (2) battling stereotypes, (3) the black
female’s role as a “linchpin” between black men and white women, (4) ambivalence
regarding direct feminism due to the double-bind, (5) solidarity to the black man through
black nationalism, (6) economic independence, (7) negritude, physical pride and
“queendom,” (8) sisterhood and the “uplift tradition,” (9) the importance of motherhood,
(10) matrifocal family structures and “African-American women as representatives of an
alternative tradition of womanhood” (Phillips). Hill uses “a special kind of militancy”
(Clark) in hip-hop for black feminism to intertwine these themes and traditions.
Shift from the Church to Hip-Hop for the Urban Youth Community
Religion is at the base of Hill’s social philosophies. Since the center of urban
youth’s community shifted from church to hip-hop (Banfield), Hill diligently tries to
reintroduce what was lost in the change: standards of morality and civility.
The roots of black Christianity trace back to the religious conversion in slave
lands during “The Dawn of the New Day” among the Methodists and Baptists churches,
the Great Awakening and the Society of the Propagation of England to Christianize
Negroes in America (Frazier). These movements brought religious themes to slaves who
saw faith as escape, hope and a recapturing of their lost social cohesion. The lines of
racial inequality were momentarily washed away, finding a God who “rewarded black
men as well as white men” (Frazier 19). From the antebellum period to the Civil War,
religion was an outlet to unite family and community. It followed the black culture
through the Great Migration and urbanization. Black neighborhoods and districts in
Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York City and Newark (near Lauryn Hill’s
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home town) erected churches in urban centers (Frazier).
Hip-hop and rap became more accessible and exciting than church for urban
youth in the early 1980s. DJ Kool Herc created the hip-hop movement, sponsoring
entertaining, communal block parties in the South Bronx. “Hip-hop” has four factions:
scratching (DJing), break dancing, graffiti art and rapping (MCing), the former becoming
the most widely known and popular by the late 1980s (Dave D in Cook). Hip-hop was
more self-expressive and emancipating than the church, so with the wave of hip-hop popcultural iconography, so to came a withdrawal from the church (Banfield). Youth didn’t
need a certain education or belong to a certain class or have money and resources to be
able to rhyme. Rapping was thus a universally accessible skill that could be practiced and
perfected. If the crowd considered them “def” or good they receive the same positive
fame as their urban hero counterparts like the “tough guys,” thugs, comedians and
athletes for their talent. Before hip-hop, “playing ball” or joining gangs were some of the
most solid routes for youth to “escape” ghetto life. Rap then became a “re-construction of
black ghetto identity, one which stresses that its special nature (as separate from that of
the middle-class African Americans and others) is a result of oppression, rather than an
innate lack in the community members” (Hanson 50). Hip-hop functions as the most
accessible and popular form of public expression for the black ghetto youth. Hence youth
turn to hip-hop for reaffirmations of their black ghettoized identity.
Cultural critic and black scholar Cornel West asserts on the disengagement of
present-day black youth to the nuclear family and religion:
The impact of mass culture, especially through radio and television, has
diminished the influence of family and church. Among large numbers of
Black youth it is Black music that serves as the central influence regarding
values and sensibilities. Since little of this music is spiritually inspiring,
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people have fewer resources to serve them in periods of crisis. (qtd. in
Banfield 253)
Cornel West, and most contemporary black scholars feel that, “the severe constrictions in
public space brought about by societal changes (urban/ghettoization) suggest that the
boundaries of community may soon be defined by an individual and a television set”
(qtd. in Mulling 72). Hip-hop as an oral and literary form has the potential to
address/enforce the same moral codes of the church, but most mainstream hip-hop
doesn’t. As hip-hop became the prominent afro-centric musical form in the late 80s
through the 90s, the industry frontrunners often promoted black stereotypes and openly
praised gluttony, opulence, money, violence, crudeness and sexuality. The essential
problem with the shift from church to hip-hop is that the Church inherently promoted
ethics, virtues and morals. Popular female rappers taught audiences that the woman’s
power was her sexual control over men alone (i.e. Lil Kim’s “All About the Benjamins”
and “How Many Licks” and Kelis’ “Milkshake”). The explicit lyrics, with the continuous
ingraining of words like “ho,” “bitch” and “nigga,” and references to gangs, violence,
materialism, egotism, drugs and sex, made the genre threatening to outside audiences and
conflagrated the dissension within tiers of race, class and sex (Phillips).
Lauryn Hill used the musical platform to contradict the damage being done within
hip-hop culture, bringing back moral values while suggesting how aspiring and current
artists can and should make better use of their talents. Gwendolyn Pough in Check it
While I Wreck it: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture and the Public Sphere explains
the concept of “bringing the wreck” which is when black women are “calling others to
task and asserting themselves in a public sphere that remains largely male” (Powell
Books). Lauryn Hill accomplished this as “the alternative to the half-naked video girls in
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the realm of Hip-Hop. Lauryn was a female artist who was aware of the daily struggles
that plagued her fellow women and in her own way she sought to produce positive
messages to them in her rap and self-expression” (Women and the Media).
A Socially-Aware Appeal to Black Urban Youth
“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’ the ghetto on a 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/ they came down for a little conversation/
adjacent to the king/ fear no human being/ roll with
cherubim to Nassau Coliseum/ Now hear this mixture/
where hip-hop meets scripture/ develop a negative into a
positive picture.”
-Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything”
Hill is signifyin(g) on the hip-hop artists’ intrinsic relation to the African Queens of
Ancient Egypt to Nubia (with the original black pharohs) like Cleopatria, Nefertiti and
the African homeland of the Serengeti. She is like Sister Betty [Shebozz], the famous
Malcolm X follower and social activist. Cherubim, the winged angels that escort God,
bring her to the stage. In this verse Lauryn Hill defines much of her cultural philosophy
and artistic intent as a socially conscious rapper; a “street Baptist,” charged with bringing
spirituality back to ghetto youth. Melding hip-hop and scripture, she defines her street
raptivist philosophy to bring an afro-centric voice of progress to hip-hop social issues.
In a 1996 interview with Howard Stern, Hill clarifies her central audience: “I
make my music for young black youths because I am a young black youth myself and
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there’s a message in my songs.” When asked if she is “anti-white” she responds, “I am
anti destructive social situations that cause hostility and anger in the ghetto” (Stern). She
sings in “Everything is Everything”: “I wrote these words, for everyone who struggles in
their youth. Who won’t accept deception instead of what is truth.” She argues that hiphop “deceives” where as her philosophies are “truth.” She enters this discourse at an
important time, as children are now born second to third generation into a hip-hop
society. Hill comments in the Time article “�There are kids in the audiences now who
weren’t born when there wasn’t hip-hop. They grew up on it; it’s part of the culture. It’s a
huge thing. It’s not segregated anymore. It’s not just in the Bronx; it’s all over the world.
That’s why I think it’s more crucial now that we, as artists, take advantage of our
platform” (qtd. in Brackett 432). In regards to changing hip-hop’s direction Hill
proclaims: “If we were not supposed to turn around, why does a car have a steering
wheel?” (MTV 2.0)
Lauryn Hill is a character in her solo album. The overt religious themes and moral
arguments that infiltrate song after song presumably could give her rap character a
somewhat cynical tone and condescending air of entitlement. While Hill is not the only
artist to stand in the counter-sphere of the hip-hop market (others include Queen Latifah,
Salt �n Pepa, Kanye West, Mos Def, Missy Elliot, Nas, The Roots, and Wylcef Jean) she
is certainly one of the most outspoken and iconic. Furthermore there are certainly debates
over her “moral” religious initiatives. Clearly non-Christian audiences might dispute her
stances. However Miseducation is not so monolithic. As an autobiography it is
approachable while authoritative and condenses Biblical and political allusions to only
those related to humility, charity and activism. The focus is on her humane faith-based
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themes rather than scripturally “devout” demands of listeners for she notes her own sins
and betrayals as testaments of impiety. Overall the historical importance of the
autobiographical oral and literary genre to black culture and her openness about race,
class, sexuality, femininity, identity, philosophy and certainly theology deepen the
album’s significance to black ghetto youth.
The album title is a political statement. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is
signifyin(g) on Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 Miseducation of the Negro. Her album
cover also mirrors the 1990 reprinted copy of the book. Woodson, the founder of the
Association for the Study of African American Life and History, theorizes in this work
that the education system indoctrinates the Negro to accept himself as inferior and
dependent, which is why the Negro seeks to remain at the low stratum of society.
Woodson’s intent is to motivate his reader to seek independence and shed the
indoctrinated mode of identity. By signifyin(g) on Woodson’s work Hill “brings forth a
history and a legacy of critique. Invoking her own name personalizes the political
message. Miseducation… can be compared to our own in significant ways, and her life
lessons can teach us some things as well” (Pough 107). Hill builds on the “dozens” and
“dis” tradition by challenging fellow artists and fans on how they appreciate
“entertainment” and commercialism versus “real” artistry and diplomacy. “Hill
employed rhetorical features of repetition and reversal to signify upon and revise the
trope of the mis-educated Negro” (Mahiri 5). There is an African-American
autobiographical and ethnographic theme intrinsically presented in her title with which
Hill argues that hip-hop indoctrinates its audiences to believe in values that thwart their
social mobility and development.
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On Sonic Net Hill explains the personal relevance of her album’s title saying,
It’s really about the things that you’ve learned outside of school, outside
of what society deems appropriate and mandatory. I have a lot of respect
for academia… but there was a lot that I had to learn, life lessons, that
wasn’t part of any scholastic curriculum. It’s really about our passage into
adulthood, when we leave that place of idealism and naГЇvetГ©. (Furman
Her comments here explain her use of autobiography as a mode of social influence for
ideological reform.
An integral element of Miseducation as a representative for hip-hop youth is the
inclusion of skits at the end certain songs. The opening track is the sound of a schoolyard
bell and city playground sounds, signifyin(g) on urban schools and the elementary rap
foundations of jump-rope and double-dutch rhymes. A male teacher takes attendance in
homeroom. Each child answers and it ends as he asks “Lauryn Hill? Lauryn Hill?”
placing herself as a character who is absent from class. The album features six skits.
The skits consist of inner-city schoolchildren and a male teacher talking
about life and love, clearing up misconceptions as they go along… the
teacher poses questions like �How many of you have ever been in love?’
and �Do you think that TV and music are why people are confused about
love?’ Listening to the children respond to these questions paints a
startling picture of just how much young people do not know about life
and love and how some of that ignorance is passed down through the
music and the culture. (Pough 108)
Hill is absent from this lesson. Gates argues that paramount to authenticating black
literature “was the negation of the image of the black as absence” (Signifying Monkey
171). Hill’s absence is “an affirmation rather than negation of the image of black as
absence,” (Mahiri 5) so Hill may be claiming that the streets and hip-hop provide these
lessons on love or that the education system doesn’t teach black youth about how to make
love and relationships work. Lauryn Hill as both pupil and public pedagogic character
plays the role of telling her “schoolyard” stories of missteps in order to properly re-
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educate this generation through “popular” music.
The nostalgic street song “Every Ghetto, Every City” is an autobiographical
discourse to reconstruct critical interpretations of urban settings. “Every Ghetto” travels
to when Lauryn was “just a little girl, skinny legs, press and curl” listening to early hiphop. This song makes her a representative for “Every ghetto, every city and suburban
place (she’s) been” as she grows up in hip-hop, listening to rappers like “Doug Fresh and
Slick Rick” and “Biz Mark” who “used to amp up the party.” She recalls the hip-hop
dance forms, like when “everybody used to do the wop” and “jack ya body.” Her
abrasive realism, not avoiding the faults of urban neighborhoods, mingles with her
nostalgic adoration. She crowns these ghettos, birthplaces of hip-hop and epicenters of
black cultures, the “New Jerusalem,” glorifying them as if they are holy cities. This
positive connotation to neighborhood nostalgia is rare in hip-hop songs. This parallels Do
the Right Thing, where Spike Lee doesn’t construct the ghetto as solely violent, but as an
enriching homeland. A trend in hip-hop songs is to exploit the inner city as culturally
devoid or destructive, a place to escape or represent. Hill’s prideful characterization to
not “forget what you’ve got looking back” further empowers urban youth to appreciate
that the ghetto doesn’t need to strip them of themselves.
The overall construction of her album as hip-hop autobiography develops the
black literary and oral tradition by integrating it into the popularized medium of rap
music with contemporary-political messages rooted in historical constructs.
One of the central messages is against misled hip-hop idolatry in one of the
album’s first songs, “Final Hour.” She sings:
You can get the money. You can get the power/ But keep your eyes on the
Final Hour/ I’m about to change the focus, from the richest to the
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brokest/, I wrote this opus, to reverse the hypnosis/… Every law that ever
prevented, Our survival since our arrival/ Documented in the Bible, Like
Moses and Aaron/ Things gon change, it’s apparent.
Lauryn is separating her ideology from that of her mainstream audience (industry and
society) by declaring the “you” correlates money to power. This separation of ideologies
prods the question: who will have the correct mindset on judgment day?
Hill uses the Biblical invocation of Aaron and Moses as a metaphor for how she
serves the people as a street prophet. Moses received the Ten Commandments while
Aaron created a golden calf for the people to worship. Hill is commenting that her
audience may be misled about what they idolize, such as hip-hop concepts of “money” as
“power.” This allusion to Moses is also signifyin(g) on Harriet Tubman’s “Moses”
nickname to assert that the “harshness of slavery endured is enough to establish a
relationship between the experiences of Blacks and the Israelites” (Dangerfield 217) and
that Lauryn Hill, like Tubman, can lead to a new way of thinking and being. Hill
continues Biblical allusions to illustrate her intent, rapping: “Watch out what you cling
to, You can get the green too, observe how a queen do, And I remain calm readin’ the 73
Psalm, Cause wit all this I got the world in my palm. (Refrain) You can get the money…”
She is a “queen” not due to money or power, but wisdom. Psalm 73 tells the story of
envying “the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked… pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves in violence” (The Modern Reader’s Bible). As hip-hop glorifies
violence, greed and ego her lyrics use religious allusions to reform hip-hop idolatry.
Her song “Superstar” continues this hip-hop worship battle as she confronts the
capitalist and misogynistic environment of the music industry. She raps:
Hip-hop started out in the heart/ Now everybody trying to chart/ Come on
baby light my fire, everything you drop is so tired/ Music is supposed to
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inspire. How come we ain’t getting’ no higher?/ Tell me your philosophy
on exactly what an artist should be?/ Should they be someone with
prosperity and no concept of reality?
This song is a glimpse into her belief that the industry over-commercializes artists,
pushing them to produce hits to “chart” and not art. It happened with the Fugees first
album, Blunted on Reality, when producers force-fed the trio styles and songs without
really nurturing what they had to offer (Furman). “Just as Woodson called on Blacks to
realize that the ideas pushed on them were not healthy, Hill warns that preoccupation
with material things may contribute to continued racial stagnation” (Dangerfield 214).
When Lauryn was labeled the songstress of the Fugees, a label that denied her credit in
writing and producing much of the work, she set out to write, produce and sing on her
solo album to beat the sexist expectation and break from the “superstar” mold (Furman).
Explicit in this slice of her autobiography is her intent to rectify the way the rap industry
is run.
Her song “Lost Ones” measures the importance of idolizing hip-hop values of
greed and materialism in relation to their moral ramifications. “Lost Ones” is a
declaration to the hip-hop culture that they “might win some, but they just lost one.” The
“lost one” could mean (1) hip-hop culture may win battles for money, but in so doing
they lose themselves and (2) hip-hop lost a talented performer’s conformity because of
the futility of their morals. She compares egotism vs. humility as she sings “it’s funny
how money changes situations/ I was humble- you on every station.” She poses the moral
dilemma that “there come many paths and you must choose one/ and if you don’t
change/ the rain soon come” and “hypocrites (who) want to play innocent” will learn that
“consequence is no coincidence.” As a socially conscious rapper she explains that the
Lambert 18
hip-hop artist and/or fan “gained the whole world for the price of your soul/ wisdom’s
better than silver or gold/ I was hopeless now I’m on Hope Road.” Hill recognizes her
own human weakness, being tempted by greed, which made her hopeless. Hill went on a
spiritual pilgrimage to Bob Marley’s famous Tuff Gong recording studio on Hope Road
in Kingston, Jamaica. Lyrically “Hope Road” is (1) following a better philosophical path
and (2) is signifyin(g) on roots of socially-aware musicality and lyricism, like Marley’s
Rastafarian Reggae. The overall concept of “Lost Ones” is to call out the stance of greed
and materialism as idolized hip-hop concepts and then to rectify, justify and empower the
stance of opposing these belief systems.
Hill employs the “dis” tradition,” challenging her fans’ and fellow artists’
regressive mindsets. In “Lost Ones” she raps:
Now don't you understand man universal law/ What you throw out comes
back to you, star/ Never underestimate those who you scar/ 'Cause karma,
karma, karma comes back to you hard/ You can't hold God's people back
that long/ The chain of Shatan wasn't made that strong/ Trying to pretend
like your word is our bond/ But until you do right, all you do will go
In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple the protagonist, Celie, rebels against her male
oppressor in a climatic dinner scene, breaking her silence and declaring: “Until you do
right by me, everything you even think about gonna fail” (Walker). By signifyin(g) on
this famous black feminist scene Hill identifies her “oppressor” as the music industry and
consumer who “lost one.” Therefore her audience is her enemy as they disregard “man’s
universal law” like Shatan, the Islamic word for Satan. Even though they are her
oppressor she appeals to them to change their ways.
“Forgive Them Father” is essentially an adaptation of Biblical advice and
references composed in a hip-hop discourse directed at a belittled black audience. The
Lambert 19
track opens praying, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against
us although them again we will never, never trust… Forgive them father for they know
not what they do.” The message for black listeners here endorses forgiveness for those
who “deceive,” “lie” and “gun” for them, which may relate to white oppression or ghetto
conflict. Hill asks God to forgive society for operating under such a misogynistic and
racist social hierarchy as she boldly states: “Like Cain and Abel, Caeser and Brutus,
Jesus and Judas, Backstabbers do this. Forgive them Father for they know not what they
do.” She declares herself a prophet saying: “L’s known the mission since conception,
Let’s free the people from deception… my voice echoes through the ghetto.” She relates
the pain of her burdens as a social prophet to civil leaders like Menelik, the first Jewish
Emperor of Ethiopia, “and other African czars observing stars with war scars.” She is a
“raptivist” asking “why black people always be the ones to settle, March through the
streets like Soweto.” The allusion to the Soweto uprising in South Africa during the antiapartheid movement is an explicit reference to social movement for racial change. As a
street prophet she takes the opportunity to infuse faith-based practices of civility and nonviolent social reform. This is her encouragement for ideological changes in ghetto society
based on reinvigorating their Christian faith.
In “Doo Wop (That Thing)” Hill battles the materialistic egotisms perpetuated by
hip-hop culture that promote misogyny. Hill is not rapping that stereotypes of black men
aren’t true. She “brings the wreck” by calling the black male out for deserving these
stereotypes and the way he uses hip-hop concepts of materialism to justify his
disrespectful, arrogant actions. She raps:
The second verse is dedicated to the men
More concerned with his rims and his Tims than his women
Lambert 20
Him and his men come in the club like hooligans
Don't care who they offend popping yang like you got yen
Let's not pretend, they wanna pack pistol by they waist men
Cristal by the case men, still in they mother's basement
The pretty face men, claiming that they did a bid men
Need to take care of their three and four kids then
They facing a court case when the child's support late
Money taking, heart breaking now you wonder why women hate men
The sneaky silent men, the punk domestic violence men
The quick to shoot the semen stop acting like boys and be men
How you gon' win when you ain't right within?
This treatise on the ghetto black male affirms many of their stereotypes. She recognizes
concepts of “bling,” or unnecessary gaudiness and haughtiness, with their rims (the flashy
wheels on their cars) and Tims (popular and expensive Timberland shoes). “Yang”
represents male nature in Chinese philosophy and is used to create opposites in a phrase.
“Yen” is Japanese currency and the desire to act. “Yang” and “yen” are signifyin(g) on
how men have the desire to act or assert their manhood by acting like they have money.
These men act tough with “pistols” and cool with “cristal (an expensive champagne
popular in clubs)” but the truth is it is all a front as they live in “their mother’s
basement.” Hill then categorizes different types of ghetto black men, even substantiating
stereotypes of neglectful black fathers. There are pretty men who say they work hard,
men who leech for money, men who physically, mentally and financially hurt women,
and the devious, secretive, horny men. Hill argues that all these men ignore their
character faults and the pain they cause black women by hiding in the guise of hip-hop
materialism and sexism. Her final point is that this doesn’t make them men, but boys who
won’t “win,” signifyin(g) on the game of life to survive and thrive in the ghetto, when
misled by foolish hip-hop idolatry within.
Hill’s essential themes are not anti-ego, anti-the-black-male or anti-materialistic.
Lambert 21
She recognizes the social conditions that tempt and mislead hip-hop youth who were
raised to have pride in “silver and gold,” playing on “every station,” having “rims” and
“yen” and “cristal” and look like heroic thugs with “tims” and “pistols.” She affirms
her own weakness admitting “Now Lauryn is only human/ don’t think I haven’t been
through the same predicament.” But her moral initiative is to “bring the wreck” by
revealing the hypocrisy and futility of operating under this misled, misogynistic and
socially destructive ideology and advocate for a new appreciation within hip-hop culture.
Beyond reconstructing the social stereotypes and standards of black men “Doo
Wop” also leads a lyrical confrontation against women deserving the stereotypes of their
hyper-sexualized selves. Hill opens her first verse addressing her female audience:
It's been three weeks since you've been looking for your friend
The one you let hit it and never called you again
'Member when he told you he was 'bout the Benjamin's
You act like you ain't hear him then gave him a little trim
To begin, how you think you really gon' pretend
Like you wasn't down then 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 fuck again
Talking out your neck sayin' you're a Christian
A Muslim sleeping with the gin
Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in
Who you gon' tell when the reprocussions spin
Showing off your ass 'cause you're thinking it's a trend
Girlfriend, let me break it down for you again
You know I only say it 'cause I'm truly genuine
Don't be a hard rock when you really are a gem
Baby girl, respect is just a minimum.
Hill isn’t denying that the “Jezebel” or “chickenhead” stereotypes don’t exist. In fact she
is appealing to the exact women who sadly fulfill the lustful stereotypes by clinging to
men for security when they are lewd, uninterested and disrespectful. Women’s desperate
appeals for companionship belittle them to simple sexual commodities. Hill confronts
Lambert 22
counterintuitive lifestyles: women claiming piety and demanding respect yet lasciviously
flaunting their bodies and drinking for attention. “Doo Wop” is also for black female
artists, like Lil Kim, who choose body over mind. Hill explains:
I’m not dissing them—I’m dissing their mindset…My music talks about a
certain way of thinking, and if the cap fits…I knew girls like Kim growing
up—I might have even been one—�Oh, I have to show some ass �cause
that’s the only way I can feel beautiful.’ Sex is cool, but it’s only part of
the story. (qtd. in Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits)
Hill’s inclusive pronoun “girlfriend” and empowering message is meant to say the
stereotype is based on some fact. She reaffirms it, reveals its futility and advocates for a
new personal philosophy of self-respect, pride and independence to change it.
Hip-hop, a brazenly male-dominated genre, labels females. Hill’s Miseducation is
really an emancipation or guidebook to young women coming of age in the hip-hop era.
This is a very sexist industry,’ she told Essence. �They will never throw
the �genius’ title to a sister. They’ll just call her diva and think it’s a
compliment. It’s like our flair and vanity are put before our musical and
intellectual contributions. (Furman 145)
Rap and Hip-hop have operated as an “old boys’ club.” The numerical preponderance of
men in this music industry, along with the historic “sexist practices” and “masculinist
scripts,” put women again in the double-bind for climbing the social ladder in the genre
(Phillips). Hip-hop suffers the dichotomy that a single song can be both progressive and
regressive, i.e. when Beyonce, another contemporary black female recording artist, can
demand a man’s respect while gyrating her sexual attributes for attention. Nevertheless,
the masculine discursive domination within the capitalist and commercialized hip-hop
culture downplays the importance of the black female and in so doing has resurrected the
black female’s double-bind of social constriction.
Hill’s openness about her relationships become lessons on black female
Lambert 23
empowerment and attempt to arrest the ghetto cultural caging of black female identities.
What made her autobiography vividly personal are the intensely developed scriptures of
her love life. These songs are mostly Rhythm & Blues and Neo-Soul stylized hip-hop that
use knowledge of black history to comment on life, love and humanity. Songs like “I
Used to Love Him,” “Nothing Even Matters,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “ExFactor” ferociously expose the bleeding wounds of battered relationships. In “Ex-Factor”
she pleads “Cry for me, cry for me, You said you’d die for me. Give to me, give to me.
Why won’t you live for me?” In “When it Hurts So Bad” she cries, “But how could this
be love, and make me feel so bad? Gave up my power, I existed for you, But whoever
knew the voodoo you’d do?” “I Used to Love Him” she realizes “I sacrificed too much
and waited in vain, gave up my power ceased being a queen, addicted to love like the
drug of a fiend.” These “love songs” break from a conservative mode of hip-hop music
where female singers normally harp as if victims or take to aggressive vigilante
reciprocity. Hill however is painfully broken, yet rebuilding. Her songs are self-reflexive
and emancipating. “It is Hill’s willingness to reflect on and share the ways in which she
was complicit that draws the listener in, making these more than the typical my-man-didme-wrong songs. They offer instead a model of critical self-reflection that is crucial to
autobiography” (Dangerfield 109). Her act of sharing promotes black female strength,
self-acceptance and liberation.
Female hip-hoppers may use their platform to educate their fellow women to be
motivated and inspired while analyzing daily occurrences and issues in a “sociopolitical
domain” (Phillips). Rappers bear witness to their fellow women in sisterhood to continue
the “uplift tradition,” in which support and protest join to raise morale.
Lambert 24
Hill establishes an evident sisterhood with her fellow victimized black women.
She is not always a “hip-hop messiah,” but an active member in the discourse of these
social issues. She is “tesifyin” that she too followed the black female’s role of servitude
to the black man, revealing in “When it Hurts So Bad” she was mentally and physically
victimized yet couldn’t escape. In “Ex-Factor” she sings “Loving you is like a battle/ and
we both end up with scars/ tell me who I must be/ to get some reciprocity/ no one loves
you more than me/ and no one ever will/ … I just can’t be with no one else/ cause no one
hurts me more than you/ and no one ever will.” The song directly following this is where
Hill reveals her definitive action to break free while still loving the black man. “I Used to
Love Him” establishes that the black female’s ingrained loyalty, her gut-reaction, to stay
and endure “dulls” her “senses” and “blurs” her “sight.” She exposes that she chose
“passion and pain” by staying true to tradition, yet this robbed her of her “queendom.”
The idea of queendom is essential to black feminism in hip-hop (also made popular by
Queen Latifah’s “Ladie’s First,” India Arie’s “Video” and Erykah Badu’s “Honey”). To
lose that aspect of her black femininity makes her relationship more than a struggle, but
another form of social polarization and oppression.
“I Used to Love Him” reconstructs concepts of patriarchal society. Hill recalls she
didn’t listen to her mother’s advice to say “no,” but her Fathers. Hill is signifyin(g) on
the importance of the black male in family structure, but also (due to capitalization)
signifyin(g) on GOD the Father, therefore arguing that the black family doesn’t need to
be patriarchal, but rather spiritual to be strong. In the final verse Hill sings: “I see him
(the man she left) and the look in his eye/ Is one of a man whose lost treasures untold/
But my heart is gold I took back my soul/ and totally let my creator control/ the life which
Lambert 25
was his to begin with.” The key message here is that Hill had once given herself to a man
over God, the principal fault that led her to lose her self-respect and queendom and the
untold treasures of her character. In this exposing love song Hill affirms black female
traditions of loyalty to the man and the victimization of the double-bind as a method of
uplifting other women through shared experience and appeal.
The theme of black queendom and beauty is at the forefront of her work. When
Lauryn Hill became an international celebrity overnight both black and white audiences
hailed her physical beauty. Beyond her voice she was a starlet, a sex icon and a posterwoman for hip-hop beauty. Many black women would try to treat their “otherness” by
“whiting” themselves, believing lighter black skin was more beautiful. Hill however is a
very dark skinned African-American with large, full lips (stereotyped by minstrels) and
large, brown oval eyes, mentioning her “kinky” and “nappy” hair in songs. Her striking
beauty and the adoration of white audiences attributed drove her to hate fame. She
realized that she was a representative for black beauty and what that meant to her race, so
she would spend hours preparing to simply leave her house in case people took pictures.
But by 1998 her status as a beauty and sex icon was established; yet she crafted her
public imagery to continue her social philosophies of female empowerment. She dressed
conservatively, hardly ever being photographed or filmed or dressed as hyper-sexualized
(MTV 2.0: Unplugged). And she combated the black myth of white beauty. In “Doo Wop
(That Thing)” she raps, “Let it sit inside your head like a million women in Philly, Penn./
It's silly when girls sell their soul because it's in/ Look at where you be in hair weaves
like Europeans/ Fake nails done by Koreans/ Come again.” These women are selling
their souls by selling their black beauty to bleaching themselves whiter with Euro-
Lambert 26
American fashions. This public imagery and philosophy of black beauty as queendom is a
recognition of women’s self-respect.
Motherhood is an essential theme to black feminism that Hill explores in a
religious and social context. Having produced Miseducation while in a rumored abusive
relationship with Bob Marley’s son Rohan, Lauryn became pregnant. She was pressured
by record executives and even friends to deal with it. She told Spin magazine “I had a
conversation with Nina Simone, and she said �Lauryn, I don’t think that a woman can
have a family and be in the music business.’ It was a heavy thing” (Furman 125).
Devoutly she accepted her pregnancy as a gift, even as her album skyrocketed upon it’s
release and a rigorous tour would soon follow. When her first child was born in 1998 she
recalls to Vibe:
Names wouldn’t come when I was ready to have him. The only name that
came to me was Zion. I was like, �Is Zion too much of a weight to carry?’
But this little boy, man. I would say he personally delivered me from
emotional and spiritual drought. He just replenished my newness. When
he was born, I almost felt like I was born again. (Furman 133).
In writing and performing the track “To Zion” there’s an evident double –meaning of the
word “Zion” to be (1) a message for religion and (2) a message for non-normative black
family structures.
Signifyin(g) on the word “Zion” asserts that single black mothers who oppose
typical familial structures can still be religiously “pure” and “pious.” Lyrically the word
“Zion” functions as both the “Land of Israel” and Lauryn’s son. She sings: “How
beautiful is nothing more than to wait at Zion’s door/ I’ve never been in love like this
before.” She reinvigorates both faith in religion and faith in nontraditional motherhood.
The presence of the Gospel choir that chants “Marchin’ marchin’ marchin’ to Zion” uses
Lambert 27
vocal arrangements and refrains linked to black religious songs like South Africa’s
“Siyahamba” (“We are marching, marching in the light of God”) and songs of Mount
Zion in the Baptist and Methodist church. It also alludes to Isaiah 49: 14-16: “Zion said,
�The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.’ �Can a mother forget the baby
at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?” (The Modern Reader’s
Bible) The religious importance of “Zion” in this piece recreates the popularized
“Jezebel-Mammy-Black Matriarch-Sapphire” stereotypes of single black mothers versus
the accepted “married mother and father” structure to posit the sanctity in black faith and
the greatness of matrifocal families.
Reconstructing single black mothers not as “libidinous” sexual commodities, but
acceptable and successful members of society is a by-product of her joyful song, “To
Zion.” She sings: “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 unto me a man’s child would be born.” As a representative for single
black mothers she recognizes that young motherhood is daunting, recollecting,
“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.” Hill deviated from historical social norms of
womanhood as a “Black Matriarch,” leaving her ascribed sphere in the home in order to
work, raising a child in a matrifocal structure, acting in a way that could be seen as
“impious” and “unpure” by having a child out of wedlock and without being dependant
on the male, not concentrating on domesticity as her role and not being submissive. She
rather aggressively embraced her choice to have a child. She shares in a sisterly bond
with her concern about being a single mother and the burden of the maternal role, but she
Lambert 28
actually restructures the accepted mores of womanhood by beaming and joyously
praising her nontraditional role as a mother. Hill rejoices “I thank you (God) for choosing
me/ to come through unto life to be/ a beautiful reflection of His grace/ For I know that a
gift so great/ is only what God could create/ and I’m reminded every time I see your face/
that the joy of my world is in Zion.” This characterization is in direct opposition to the
1965 Moynihan report that alleged such dysfunction would anchor a black family’s
socioeconomic mobility and intelligence. Instead of reveling in the difficulty of her
burdens or deploring her adverse conditions or recognizing herself as less of a woman
because she conflicts with the social mores, Hill creates a new theology for how the black
family structure is not a failure because it is different, but “testifyin’” that it can be a
redeeming and invigorating environment.
Looking Back. Looking Forward
“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/ Lets love ourselves then we can’t fail/
To make a better situation/ Tomorrow, our seeds will grow/ All we need is dedication.”
-Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything”
In 1998 Lauryn Hill released a call-to-arms for the young black creator, producer and
listener to change the way they saw themselves through hip-hop. Hill recognized a
problem: hip-hop has afro-centric oral and literary roots with the potential to fight
stereotypes and ghetto conflicts because of its growing ideological power. Yet what
began as a ghetto expression of escape sold-out to the music market, promoting social
poisons of labeling, misogyny, materialism, egotism and hyper-sexuality to make bank. A
Christian, socially-conscious rapper Hill infused scriptural themes of morality within a
relatable, autobiographical hip-hop voice to change the trend and explain the redemptive,
liberating power of artistry for: “even when you’re gone you can still be reborn, from the
Lambert 29
night can arrive the sweet dawn” (“Lost Ones”). Hill didn’t enjoy the years of fame and
attention following her album. In 2004 she released her follow-up album MTV 2.0:
Unplugged where she expresses: “win it all and it all falls down.” Colombia Records,
who still has her on contract, says she’s “on hiatus,” still singing/preaching on occasion,
spending most of her time raising five children in the New Jersey suburbs (not far from
her hometown) with her life-partner Rohan Marley (BlackCelebrityChildren).
Many hip-hop scholars refer to Hill as the “mother of hip-hop,” but has the
mother walked out of her hip-hop home? A Hip-hop Nation: After now thirty years, how
has it changed America? Hill inspired movements in Old-School to New-School, NeoSoul, Progressive Rap and Socio-Political Spoken-Word Poetry and artists continue to
site her as a cultural icon. Beyonce Knowles, a popular parallel to Hill in terms of
success, won five Grammy Awards in 2004. When asked how she would deal with fame
as compared to Lauryn Hill Knowles responded:"[Hill’s] story is the most tragic. I mean,
her record was genius. But drama and demands and the pressure and all of the people
giving you so much access to so many things can be too much. So couple that with
everyone telling you you're so this and so that and so perfect and of course you can lose
yourself.” Hill responded in her most recent release: “Give love and the good that it
makes you!/ True love can never really forsake you/ But it took a little while just for me
to see!/[Chorus]:I had to lose myself so I could love you better” (“Lose Myself”). In
form, Miseducation was a catalyst for the ideological power of hip-hop. In content, her
hip-hop messages seem to have dissolved. Lauryn Hill’s raptivism in her 1998 solo
album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, didn’t solve black ghetto social issues. It may
be that now ten years later her hip-hop philosophies and theologies are drowned out in
Lambert 30
shuffle on the modern-day ipods of black ghetto youth, but who knows what the hip-hop
future holds? Miseducation at least offers a legacy of hope for progress as Hill
optimistically chants:
“Everything is everything/ What is meant to be, will be/ After winter, must come spring/
CHANGE, it comes eventually.”
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