Joan Morgan examines Hip-Hop Evolution through Lauryn Hill

November 9, 2018

This past Wednesday, award-winning critic Joan Morgan discussed the evolution of feminism and hip hop culture with her latest book, “She Begat This: 20 Years of the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” which reflects on hip-hops most iconic albums. Morgan is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at New York University, though she has previously taught at universities such as Stanford, Duke University, and Vanderbilt University. She has also worked as a staff writer and editor for numerous magazines like Vibe, Spin and Essence. She specializes in music journalism, having coined the phrase “hip hop feminist” in a previous novel.

The discussion began with Morgan explaining the struggles she faced in establishing her own identity. “I don’t have an identity that fits into an African American historical experience. I consider myself Jamaican… but Jamaicans remind me that I am not Jamaican in a way as someone who grew up on the island…. I always sit outside of a frame and that is where my lens is naturally positioned,” she explained. Morgan grew up in the South Bronx during a time when “people assumed nothing good was coming out,” thus her emotional attachment to hip hop grew out of pure zest to highlight the authenticity of her upbringing.

Originally, Morgan entered the artistic world with creative poetry after being inspired by the famous play, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.” However, she transitioned to journalism due to a lack of credible critique of hip-hop coming from the white men who made up most of the field. She explained how the shared culture expressed in the lyrics allowed her to grasp the material more effectively, and the sense of agency over her analysis empowered her, as no white man could analyze what she could.
This connection is vital when analyzing Lauryn Hill’s debut album, where the famous musician tackles complex themes of blackness and motherhood, expressing them in unprecedented and deeply profound ways. The album was mainly produced to touch upon Hill’s pregnancy and her difficulties with the Fugees, a group she was a member of, but the work is strongly influenced by sub-themes of navigation through daily life. In her song “Doo Wop (That Thing),” for example, Hill targets black women, writing “Baby Girl, respect is just a minimum,” and “don’t be a hard rock when you are really gem” to empower them against the abusive and neglectful institutions of men. In “Forgive them Father,” she writes “be careful of those who pretend to be brothers…. they say all the right things to gain their position, then use their kindness as their ammunition,” which alludes to the lack of trust between the white and black communities and the constant fear of susceptibility and deceit in times of struggle.

Reflecting on Hill’s music, Morgan explained that the presentation of these themes was highly unexpected, as “part of [Lauryn’s] cache and currency was that she was so respectable, ivy- league educated, incredibly articulate and the good girl example.” Moreover, Morgan emphasized how Lauryn’s expression of pain was “was so in your face I will hurt you,” a stark contrast to traditional R&B, which carries more lamenting sentiments through soulful melodies.

In fact, it was Lauryn’s reconciliation of such dramatic topics mixed with the periodization of the album’s release at the end of the 20th century that promoted the development of Morgan’s novel. The critic explained the vulnerability of Lauryn’s topics made her feel like she could express herself more truthfully and put the strong black women character aside. The topics must have resonated deeply; after a publishing company reviewed her first chapter, which took nearly four and half months to complete, Morgan was forced to finish the rest of her novel in a mere ten days. She had to write on airplanes and stay up until 4 a.m., surviving on three hours of sleep, to complete everything. She never even got a chance to review or edit the book after its submission. Yet, in retrospect, Morgan remarked she would only have changed a simple chapter separation.

Morgan also touched on the lack of follow-up music from Hill, commenting that she believes Hill did not produce a second album due to a lack of personal authority; audience’s impositions likely aroused overbearing pressure to comply by public expectations and deal only with certain themes. Morgan dismissed “MTV Unplugged No. 2,” a recording of a small concert Hill gave with MTV’s famous acoustic program, as a second album. Morgan instead labeled it an opportunity for MTV to capture artists’ creative processes, labeling Unplugged a “vehicle that gives career artists with [multiple] albums a platform to play and give back.” With only one album produced, Morgan believed Hill simply did not have enough topics to present at the program, even claiming “I hate that ‘album’ with every fiber of my being.”

While “She Begat This” is not a full endorsement of “Miseducation,” Morgan’s talk impressed the audience with the high esteem in which the album is held; it indeed prevails as one of the most artistically crafted albums of all time. This is similar to the metric Morgan argues creative work should be judged on, commenting, “I believe the responsibility of the artist is to make good art. I have seen people want to infuse artists with responsibilities of role models or of taking political leadership and articulating ideas that they are really not equipped to do. If you’re going to critique art, critique an artist for failing to make art to what you know the best of their ability is.”

Given the fact that Hill’s album was produced nearly 20 years ago, it is unlikely that we will see more works from her. But based on what she had produced, Morgan feels Hill’s album has made an indelible mark in the history of hip-hop. And who knows what revolutionary musician awaits us in the future?

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