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“They Call Me Ms. Hill” and Why You Should, Too: on She Begat This: 20 Years of ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ by Joan Morgan

By Sasha Panaram | @SashaPanaram | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Monday, September 3, 2018.

To read Joan Morgan expound upon the significance of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is really to listen to her (and others) unpack two decades worth of artistic influence and creativity that all find their beginnings in the songs, lyricism, style, and intellect of Ms. Lauryn Hill. To read She Begat This is to hear Morgan first-hand delicately and deliberately attend to Ms. Hill’s stunning complexities, her revealing realness.  

Like many of the songs on Ms. Hill’s debut album – I’m thinking here of “Lost Ones” and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in particular – that contain elements of chatter and discussion throughout, She Begat This begins in and through conversation. In this way it signals an ongoing conversation that Morgan has been having with her peers for 20 years. More specifically, the book begins with a description of a dinner conversation between Morgan and her goddaughter wherein her dinner companion comments on how “judge-y” she thinks Miseducation and by association, Lauryn Hill, is. Such remarks prompt Morgan to reckon with the cultural and social differences that coincide with Ms. Hill’s entry and reception into the music industry during the late nineties versus the hyper-connected, digital “woke” age of her goddaughter’s era.  

We might say that it is this conversation that inspires Morgan to continue to publically reflect on Ms. Hill’s ongoing impact and her role in creating the spaces that black women and girls inhabit today. I say continue because Morgan was writing about Ms. Hill in as early as 2006 and certainly thinking about her influence well before then.

Morgan, who is currently finishing a doctorate in American Studies at New York University, was among a pioneering group of hip-hop journalists, who didn’t label themselves as such at the time, who wrote on the intersections of race, class, and gender as it emerged in hip-hop music and related to issues concerning black life. As she says in a conversation with Shawn Setaro on The Cipher, “The point wasn’t necessarily to write about hip-hop. The point was to write about hip-hop and use it as this entry to write about all these other things about black culture that no one was going to give you space for in a magazine.”

In her first book, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist she coins the term “hip-hop feminism” and calls for a more capacious form of feminism. She writes, “We need a voice like our music – one that samples and layers many voices, injects its sensibilities into the old and flips it into something new, provocative, and powerful” (62). It’s no surprise then that her latest book draws on the voices of many fans and critics of Ms. Hill alike including everyone from the writer, Michaela Angela Davis to professor and #ProfessionalBlackGirl, Yaba Blay to filmmaker, dream hampton, and more.

Morgan’s thesis in She Begat This is crystal clear: “L-Boogie circa 1996–2002 was one of the best emcees of all time. Pause and note: I did not say one of the best female emcees. And I did not stutter” (5, emphasis mine). This note on the “stutter” (or lack thereof) in She Begat This is crucial. Morgan writes with a fluidity and assertiveness that is utterly unparalleled and certainly unmatched in any piece I have read about Ms. Hill to date. Inasmuch as She Begat This functions like a praisesong for Ms. Hill the book does not shy away from the demons that haunted (and still haunt) her as she grappled with fame at an early age. Measured and concise She Begat This begins a rich retrospective look at Ms. Hill offering us something that we didn’t even know we were waiting for.

A daughter of the diaspora, Morgan who was born in Jamaica but raised in the South Bronx in the seventies, grew up without very many representations of black womanhood and more specifically, black Caribbean womanhood in the mainstream media. As she told Danielle A. Jackson, “I’m a Caribbean first-generation immigrant who grew up in the South Bronx in the height of the rubble. I didn’t see me anywhere.”

Part of her fascination with Ms. Hill emerged as she watched the artist negotiate racial identity and cultural belonging in the public eye. In her own words, “she [Lauryn Hill] deliberately wrote herself into the discourse of diaspora, drew on the global nature of black music, and fashioned herself a citizen of the world. She took from that legacy what she wanted and asked no one’s permission, in part because she treated hip hop itself for what it is—a Caribbean-American art form. Understanding its roots, L-Boogie explored its routes. As a result, her blackness, and its reach, was ubiquitous” (14). Ms. Hill, who Morgan calls a “visual precursor for #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackGirlsRock,” paved the way for all black women to visibly and vocally live out their multiple, intersecting, complicated and beautiful identities.

She made them possible as she made herself before them.

In 1998, Miseducation garnered critical acclaim unlike any other album when it became No. 1 on the Billboard chart, was nominated for ten Grammys, and took home five including “Best Album of the Year.” Ms. Hill’s talents had already been unleashed in the Fugees second album, The Score, and Miseducation only further unearthed her range and skill. By the time Miseducation hit the scene, Ms. Hill had a part in Sister Act 2 and role on As the World Turns demonstrating her talent outside of music, too. Miseducation revealed what we already knew: Lauryn Hill was a star.

She Begat This is not a track-by-track study of Miseducation as Morgan admits. Rather it is a deft exploration of how Ms. Hill came to be and what that means for how black women fashion themselves today. In five chapters, Morgan describes the cultural moment into which Ms. Hill entered, the skillful lyricism of her songs, her public reception, the pitfalls of fame, and how we invoke her today. The story of Hill’s life and ours too, She Begat This treats Miseducation as that which prefigures.

Chapter One, “Everything is Everything,” provides an overview of Ms. Hill’s career as a member of the Fugees, a songwriter, an actress, an intellectual, and an emcee. As she wrestles with her goddaughter’s provocation, Morgan unpacks the prophetic vision of Ms. Hill as it relates to the identity she imagined for herself. But Morgan also questions why the album, which Doreen St. Félix calls “A work of love, God, and maternal ego, the album is a modern masterpiece of Christian poetics that has prompted worship as a thesis on hip-hop and soul” fell out of conversation.  

“That Thing,” the book’s second chapter, moves from how Ms. Hill sounded to how she looked and where that look could be seen (read excerpt here). In this chapter, Morgan delves into Hill’s fashion sensibilities and the importance of her gracing the covers of Time, Harper’s Bazaar, and more. In Morgan’s own words, “Representation matters because it allows you to grant yourself permission to become the thing you know in your heart you are but have never seen” (44). This chapter isn’t just a close-reading of the types of magazines that featured Hill but a discussion that weaves together voices like Yaba Blay and Michaela Angela Davis, among others, that troubles and emphasizes Hill’s complexity. “That Thing” models for us what She Begat This is supposed to do: initiate and sustain conversations.  

In Chapter Three, “’90s Kind of Love,” Morgan not only looks at the romantic split between Ms. Hill and Wyclef Jean, but also the maternal love she had for her soon-to-be-born child. Mindful of how the public embraced her early in her career and then viciously turned on her when she became pregnant in her early 20s, Morgan points to how Hill defended her pregnancy, protected her child, and vocalized a different kind of love in “To Zion.”

The chapter reads the ambivalent and oftentimes contradictory perceptions of black womanhood in the nineties in relation to Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. At stake in this chapter is the cost of choosing motherhood when the world would want otherwise. As Tarana Burke, whose voice ends the chapter explains, “I felt like the most revolutionary work I could do was raise this little girl. We say that we’re doing this movement work to create better communities for our people. How are we going to do that if we don’t create examples of what the lives in those communities can look like? (90).

Morgan continues to demonstrate what happens when you valorize and then proceed to tear apart the people you valorized in Chapter Four, “We Told Her She was Nina Simone.” In what strikes as a chapter that is both protective and cautionary, Morgan delves into the labor we repeatedly place on the bodies of black women and its capacity to destroy. She writes, “As black women, we really should have known better, but instead we did to Lauryn what the world does to us. Asks us to save it and when we do? It asks us to save it again” (113). It’s no wonder that when fans complain about her consistent lateness during concerts, Ms. Hill has said only this: “I gave you all of my twenties.”

The final chapter, “She Begat This: A Musical Guide to Remembering,” ends with a playlist assembled by Beverly Bond, deejay and founder of Black Girls Rock. The discussion that ensues between Bond and Morgan not only further contextualizes the music that gave rise to Miseducation but also demonstrates how to engage with the album as a sonic document, a visual archive, and a literary text. In short, show us how to treat it as a classic.

All of the work done in She Begat This, much like Morgan’s earlier pieces on the musician, make it possible for us to name the artist as Ms. Hill as she would want it and give her legacy the respect it deserves.

You might say there’s an element of re-educating us that occurs in She Begat This and how fitting as some of us prepare for the start of a new school year. Then again, as Ms. Hill taught us long ago sometimes the best form of learning is done on the streets.  


Sasha Panaram (@SashaPanaram) is a Ph.D. student (ABD) in English at Duke University. A Georgetown University alumna, her scholarly interests are in Black diasporic literature, black feminisms, and visual cultures.

20 Years of ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ by Joan Morgan

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