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The Missed Message of Lauryn Hill.

In the weeks leading up to this year's Grammy awards, the media spotlight on Lauryn Hill was blinding. Her image crowded the newsstands--when was the last time a black woman graced the cover of Time, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times Fashion Magazine? Her sound was thick on the radio airwaves, and her videos cycled in heavy rotation on MTV and other outlets. But even with all that coverage, it was interesting to note how much more attention was paid to Hill's single-motherhood and relationship with one of Bob Marley's sons than to the message within her music.

During the two decades since rap was born in 1979, I've kept my eyes and ears on the handful of female artists--like Salt-n-Pepa, Queen Latifah, and MC Lyte--who managed to carve out a piece of turf in what has stubbornly remained an almost exclusively male medium. I kept listening as the likes of TLC, Da Brat, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, and Foxy Brown built on the success of those pioneers.

But when I first heard The Fugees on the radio and saw the video for their song "Ready or Not," I realized that I was witnessing the birth of a different female hip-hop artist. Lauryn Hill's blend of African-American and Caribbean sensibilities, her ability to move from ripping rap verse to effortlessly smooth vocals, her stunning natural beauty and performance skills, and her socially conscious lyrics signaled that she could be the woman who would take hip-hop to the next level.

Hill's debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is firmly grounded in the experience of women, and its social and political consciousness is more subtly articulated than in some of Hill's earlier work with The Fugees.

On The Fugees album The Score, Hill speaks stirringly about the criminal injustice system and its effect on blacks: "The subconscious psychology that you use against me,/If I lose control will send me to the penitentiary/Such as Alcatraz, or shot up like al Hajj Malik Shabazz/High class get bypassed while my ass gets harassed/And the fuzz treat bruh's like they manhood never was."

On Miseducation, Hill speaks less about specific issues like police brutality and more on the general brutality that is often a part of everyday human relations. 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 your bond/But until you do right, all you do will go wrong."

The songs on Miseducation argue that social change begins within each individual, that the personal is indeed political, and that artists play a vitally important role in the struggle. On "Superstar," she doesn't mince words in her criticism of rap artists who don't take that responsibility seriously: "Come on baby, light my fire/Everything you drop is so tired/Music is supposed to inspire/How come we ain't getting no higher?/Now tell me your philosophy/On exactly what an artist should be/Should they be someone with prosperity/And no concept of reality?"

Hill certainly isn't the first hip-hop artist with a social conscience. Political commentary has long been an important part of rap music, but the once powerfully voiced messages of Ice Cube, Public Enemy, KRS-ONE, and others have given way to the corporate-friendly, heavily sampled, feel-good sounds like those of Puff Daddy and his crew at Bad Boy Records.

By contrast, Hill uses very few samples on Miseducation, and much of the album's appeal is in its honest lyrics and original sounds tastily mixed with Hill's artistry as an arranger, rapper, singer, and producer.

And Hill isn't afraid to speak up about the difficulties she faces as a woman in the hip-hop industry, something I think many women avoid doing for fear of being ostracized. "Men like it when you sing to them," Hill says on Miseducation's official web site. "But step out and try and control things and there are doubts. This is a very sexist industry. They'll 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."

Perhaps the place where Hill's social commitment speaks most clearly is outside of the recording studio. She has founded the Refugee Project, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to encourage social activism among urban youth. "What distinguishes one child from another is not ability but access," she says. "Access to education, access to opportunity, access to love." She has also founded Camp Hill, in upstate New York, and Refugee Camp, in New Jersey, which are outreach and education programs for inner-city kids.

Hill has passed up enticing movie and television roles that could brighten her individual star but might detract from her music and message. "I'm just a vehicle through which this thing moves," she humbly said at a recent benefit for the Refugee Project. "It's not about me at all."

I couldn't wait to see the Grammy awards. The event had been dubbed the "Year of the Woman" because the nominations in many major categories were dominated by women artists.

Unfortunately, after watching nominees like vocally fried Madonna perform a shameless exploitation of Japanese culture and Shania Twain present a black-leather ode to a woman's prerogative to have fun, I began to wonder when Peggy Lee would step out and sing "Is That All There Is?"

Lauryn Hill, however, did not disappoint. She collected five Grammy awards--more than any woman in history--and she did so with an endearing blend of humility and sincerity. She sang of the joys of love between mother and child, she spoke of the responsibility she feels as an artist, and she cried out for One Love. It was an unforgettable sight to see the brown-skinned, dread-locked beauty stride past the largely white music establishment to accept the Grammy for Album of the Year. "This is crazy," she said, acknowledging the historic occasion. "This is hip-hop!"

Hill's success is bigger than she is. She is ushering in a new era of mainstream acceptance of hip-hop music that was unthinkable twenty years ago. And it's hip-hop with a heart, mind, and soul.

Andrea Lewis, an associate editor of the San Francisco-based Pacific News Service, has won two Grammy awards as a member of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.
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Title Annotation:artist ushers hip-hop into the mainstream
Author:Lewis, Andrea
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Apr 1, 1999
Words:1098
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