Lauryn Hill Biography - Explored Music from an Early Age, Formulated New Sound with the Fugees, Solo Star Rose
Singer, songwriter, producer
The adoration and respect accorded Lauryn Hill seems unparalleled. "The most versatile vocalist of her generation," wrote Kevin Powell in Horizon magazine. "Beautiful, multitalented, whipsmart," wrote Harper's Bazaar. "Catalyst…shining star…a divine singing voice and an up-front rhyme flow that ranks her among hip hop's dopest MCs," assessed Vibe. Public Enemy's Chuck D compared her to reggae legend Bob Marley. After creating, as Essence declared, "a new image of womanhood in the world of hip-hop" with her group the Fugees in the mid-1990s, Hill went on to score with her own phenomenally successful solo debut, 1998's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Just when Hill's stardom seemed to reach its zenith, she stepped out of the limelight, taking a several-year hiatus from the public eye. When she resurfaced in the early 2000s, Hill revealed new depths of her musical talents.
Explored Music from an Early Age
Hill was born on May 22, 1975, and grew up in South Orange, New Jersey, not far from its public-housing projects. Her father Mal, who once sang professionally, was a computer analyst, while mother Valerie taught school in nearby Newark. Hill recalled many hours as an adolescent spent listening to her parents' old R&B records, which gave her an appreciation for the likes of Gladys Knight, Curtis Mayfield, and others. The Hills, however, stressed academic achievement for their children—she has an older brother, Malaney—and she won entry to Columbia High School, an academically challenging school, where she became acquainted with a friend of her brother's named Prakazrel "Pras" Michel. A Haitian immigrant, Michel formed a rap group and asked Hill to join.
Hill, who also ran track, was a popular and magnetic personality even in high school. She once asked her father if she could have a birthday party in their backyard, and he agreed as long as it was kept small. "By the end of the night, 250 people must have showed up," Mal Hill told Rolling Stone reporter Alec Foege. By this time, she had ventured out on a few auditions, and won a recurring role on the CBS soap opera As the World Turns. "You'll see that my house is right on the borderline of the suburbs and the ghetto," Hill pointed out to Foege, who was visiting Hill at her family's home in South Orange. "I always had this duality. I went to school with a lot of white kids—it was really like a suburban environment—but I lived with black kids."
Formulated New Sound with the Fugees
Hill, Michel, and another girl had formed a group called the Fugees-Tranzlator Crew. The "fugee" part was taken from the word "refugee," based on their conviction that all blacks outside of Africa are, in a sense, refugees. They cut demos in which they rapped in other languages. One day Michel's cousin, Wyclef Jean, came by the studio to hear them. Jean was also from Haiti, but grew up in a rough section of Brooklyn in a strict household headed by his minister father. "When I heard Lauryn sing, I was like 'Wow!'" Jean told Edwige Danticat in Essence. "It clicked. I knew it was meant to be."
By this time, Hill had already won a billed film role opposite Whoopi Goldberg in the 1993 film Sister Act II: Back in the Habit, as insubordinate student Rita Watson. Accepted to several colleges, including Yale and Spelman, Hill chose to stick close to home and concentrate on her recording career by enrolling at Columbia University. After the other member departed for college, the three of them—Hill, Jean, and Michel—began performing in local talent shows and in New Jersey clubs; they also dropped the "Tranzlator" part of their name. "We sang, we rapped, we danced," Hill recalled for Foege in the Rolling Stone interview. "As a matter of fact, we were a circus troupe," she added. They won a recording contract with the Philadelphia rap label Ruffhouse, who released Blunted on Reality in 1993.
Hill and the others were unhappy with the finished product, however. Like many other young, inexperienced artists, they were shut out of the production and creative process, and the album was an edgy, quick-paced work of rap. "Hailed in Europe as a glimpse of the future, Blunted was summarily trashed in the American hip-hop press for missing the mark altogether," noted Rolling Stone's Foege. It languished on the charts, but when a producer remixed two of the tracks, the songs became underground club favorites. Then word of mouth began spreading about the female rapper who could also sing, and Hill soon became the focus of attention for the group. She, Michel and Jean fought for and won producer rights for their next effort, The Score, and their perseverance paid off. Bolstered by singles that showcased Hill's talents, such as a cover of the 1973 Roberta Flack hit "Killing Me Softy with His Song," and "Ready or Not," and the 1996 release sold millions and was the number-three pop album in the country at one point while in first place on the Billboard R&B charts. With sales of 17 million, the Fugees became the biggest selling rap act in history.
Solo Star Rose
Hill's appearance on magazine covers without her bandmates may have fueled speculation early on that she would ditch them for a solo career. The issue became one of the most overreported non-events during the peak of Fugee success. She emphatically dismissed such talk—"It's not a compliment when people tell me to break off from them," Hill told Vibe magazine in early 1996. "That's like telling me to drop my brothers," she continued. The group toured heavily in 1996, but by the time they performed at the Grammy Awards ceremony in early 1997, Hill was three months pregnant. She had met Rohan Marley, son of the late reggae giant Bob Marley, when he showed up for a Fugee show and tried to talk to her. At first, she was uninterested in the beginning because of a past relationship that soured. "But back then I wasn't really checking for anybody," Hill told Essence writer Monifa Young. "I was very much into my music. You know, I'd spent so many years working at a relationship that didn't work that I was just like, I'm going to write these songs and pour my heart into them.'"
Yet Marley persisted, a romance developed, and soon the fact that Hill was carrying the grandchild of late Bob Marley only added to the aura of divinity that seemed to surround her. She had initially refused to disclose who the father was, and took heat for taking the "single mother" route at such a young age. "A lot of people told me, 'Don't do it. It's not the right time, you're a superstar,'" Hill recalled in an interview with Daisann McLane in Harper's Bazaar. "But I looked at my life, and I said, 'Well, God has blessed me with a whole lot in a little bit of time.' At the end of the day, the only reason for me not to have a child would have been that it was an inconvenience to my career, and that wasn't a good enough excuse for me not to have my son."
Carrying a child, Hill has said, gave her even more energy—she recorded a track with gospel star CeCe Winans the day before she gave birth—and she wrote over two dozen songs for her own project. Hill's solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was released in August of 1998. Writing in Essence, Young called it "one of the most anticipated albums of the year by fans and industry insiders." It debuted to platinum sales. On it was a tribute to her son, named Zion David, titled "Joy of my World Is in Zion." Time magazine put Hill on the cover, and inside wrote about her and other African American artists such as Maxwell and Erykah Badu who were producing a fresh wave of "emotionally relevant" music that seemed to embody what writer Christopher John Farley called the "neo-soul" movement. Farley termed Hill's solo debut "the kind of galvanizing work neo-soul needs: unabashedly personal, unrelentingly confrontational, uncommonly inventive."
Hill has also become one of the most lauded of behind-the-scenes talents as well. She executive-produced Miseducation, and went to Detroit to work with Aretha Franklin and wrote the song "A Rose Is Still a Rose" for the Queen of Soul, which became the title track for Franklin's album. Hill also directed its video. "She's positive, detailed, conscientious," Franklin said of Hill to McLane in Harper's Bazaar. "Frankly, I was surprised to see that in such a young woman," she continued. Still, Hill found that fighting for control over her talents was not easy in the music industry, and she ultimately realized that success of her vision brought with it its own demons. "This is a very sexist industry," Hill told Young in the Essence interview. "They'll never throw the 'genius' title to a sister. They'll just call her diva and think it's a compliment."
In addition to her musical career, Hill sought opportunities to give back to her community. In 1996 she founded the Refugee Camp Youth Project, an outreach organization aimed at improving the lives of children in places like Haiti, Zaire, Kenya, Uganda, and New Jersey. The organization's projects included a day camp for inner-city kids in New Jersey and well-building projects in Africa. Hill's charity put on the first ever concert by an American act in Haiti. Over 75,000 showed up, including the country's president, for the benefit concert for the country's orphanages and rehabilitation camps. The money was mismanaged, some say by the Haitian government, but a second concert in Miami also garnered money for the foundation. Hill also organized "Hoodshock" in Harlem, which featured the late Notorious B.I.G. and the Fugees among others. In July of 2001, she teamed with Marc Anthony and Luther Vandross in a benefit concert, called "Aftershock," to provide relief to earthquake victims in India and El Salvador. The Refugee Camp Youth Project closed its doors in late 2000.
Turned from the Limelight
At the height of her popularity, Hill did something unusual: she retreated from the public eye. Hill bought her parents' house in South Orange, New Jersey, and eventually had three more children with Marley, whom she eventually married. And though she did not grant interviews and limited her appearances, Hill continued to compose her music. Her 2002 release of a performance on MTV Unplugged highlighted a new side of Hill, a side full of pain and emotion. Her emotional acoustic performance shocked fans who had pigeonholed her music talents into the hip-hop renditions of her earlier work, but her commanding lyrics and vocal performance marked a new high in her artistic career.
Slowly, Hill sought out performance opportunities, appearing with the Fugees for the first time since the late 1990s at various concerts in 2004 and 2005. Hill reemerged with a keen focus on her artistic vision, not a desire to please critics. In Trace magazine, her first interview in five years, Hill declared that the music she creates from now on "will only be to provide information to my own children," adding "If other people benefit from it, then so be it." She spoke of work on a new solo album and the possibility of a new album with the Fugees.
(With the Fugees) Blunted on Reality, Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1993.
(With the Fugees) The Score, Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1996.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1998.
The Lauryn Hill Story, Chrome Dreams, 2000.
MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, Columbia, 2002.
Greatest Hits, 2003.
Sister Act II: Back in the Habit, 1993.
Essence, August 1996, p. 85; June 1998, p. 74.
Harper's Bazaar, April 1998, pp. 204-208.
Rolling Stone, September 5, 1996.
Time, July 6, 1998, pp. 85-86.
Trace, July 14, 2005.
Vibe, March 1996; June/July 1996; August 1998.
Lauryn Hill, www.laurynhill.com (August 4, 2005).
"Lauryn Hill Returns to the Limelight," CNN, www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Music/07/13/people.laurynhill.ap/?section=cnn_showbiz (August 4, 2005).
"Lauryn Hill: She Knows Why the Caged Bird Sings," Horizon Magazine, http://horizonmag.com/1/hill.htm (August 4, 2005).
—Carol Brennan and Sara Pendergast
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