Lauryn Hill had time this week. The legendary rapper, singer, and actress hasn’t done an interview in over a decade. But on Monday, she took to publishing platform Medium to write a long post addressing some “common misconceptions” about her. It’s a 12-minute read, but worth every second, as it is an unofficial manifesto on what it means to demand autonomy, creative control, and freedom from a hostile music industry and a fan culture that demands constant access or cancellation. Becoming an enigma was a choice for Hill, who has clearly chosen her own liberation over everything else.
For context: Hill’s writing comes on the heels of a radio interview with noted musician Robert Glasper, who claimed, among other things, that Hill stole credit for the songs on her iconic 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Glasper slammed Hill for cutting his pay in half before a show they played together, mistreating hired band members, demanding that she be called Ms. Hill, and for allegedly not allowing people to look her directly in the eye. Glasper’s takeaway was that Hill “hasn’t done enough” to warrant this kind of behaviour, especially when he, too, has reached elevated heights in his career.
His account is an addition to a growing list of public gaucheries that Hill has had to contend with over the years. In 2012, her former lover and Fugees bandmate Wyclef Jean went public with claims that Hill lied about the paternity of her first son Zion, whose father is Rohan Marley (son of Bob Marley). Hill and Jean carried on an affair while he was married, and he claims he was led to believe that Zion was his. In 2013, Hill served three months in prison for tax evasion. And in addition to the rumours about her strict demands for performances, the singer is notoriously late for her live shows. Her tardiness has become so widely acknowledged that it has prompted some fans to swear off attending her concerts for good. Through it all, she has remained mute, offering no explanations until now.
“Perhaps my seriousness and militancy in the face of tremendous resistance was misinterpreted as meanness, or that I was unloving or uncaring, when my true intent was to protect,” she writes about the time in her life when she was insistent upon working outside of industry demands. “I wouldn’t be the first Black person accused of this. I don’t think of Harriet Tubman’s skills as those of a hostess, but rather her relentless dedication to helping people who wanted out of an oppressive paradigm.”
There have been a lot of references to Harriet Tubman in pop culture this year. Iyanla Vanzant used the revolutionary to shame a Love & Hip-Hop star for trashy song lyrics, and Nicki Minaj compared herself to Tubman because she was brave enough to rant on Twitter about her album sales. Hill’s evocation of Tubman’s legacy is the most powerful because she isn’t critiquing a system that doesn’t sway in her favour. She is acknowledging the persecution of Black women who choose to exist completely outside of that system, and refuse to be nice about it.
The expectation that women always be pleasant — especially Black women if they want to avoid falling into stereotypes that they are too angry or aggressive — has earned Hill the reputation of being difficult and rude, when she was actually just trying to run a tight ship. In response to Glasper's claims that she changes her set, quickly discards musicians, and demands to be addressed with formal respect, Hill stood firm that it is her prerogative to do so. “No matter how incredible the musicians who play with me are, MY name is on the marquee. The expectation to make it all come together is on me. The risk and the financial losses are on me. Hence, MY VIBE, though not the only consideration, is the priority.”
Though most people know and love Hill for her creativity and artistry, it can be easy to forget that she is indeed, the boss. She is paying for a service when she hires a band, therefore she has the right to make whatever demands she wants of them, within reason. That she has the audacity to be picky about her sound is something that would be praised in a male leader. “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 writes. “It was important, especially then, for that to be revealed early.”
Running through the entire piece is a strong undercurrent of self-determination that has left the woman responsible for one of the greatest albums in a generation admirably unshakable in her resolve. Hill rejects the notion that she “hasn’t done enough” because she is more than the sum of the music she made and culture she shifted as a solo artist or with the Fugees. She is a mother of six, a lover, and artist who doesn’t owe us anything more than what she chooses to give. This is a hard pill to swallow from a Black woman when we often require them to constantly appease us in exchange for validation and support. But Hill wants no part of that narrative, from collaborators or fans. “I don’t owe anyone self-repression. Some fans will grow with me, some won’t, and that’s okay.”