The lessons Lauryn Hill taught me

“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” dropped 25 years ago. 

I have always been a fan of Lauryn Hill – from the first time I heard her rap alongside the Fugees, to when she starred in “Sister Act 2.” What was so special about Lauryn Hill, was that even though hip-hop has had a history of being dominated by men, she was better than both of the dudes in her group and most of the active artists at that time. And as if the acting and rapping weren’t enough, God also blessed her with a beautiful singing voice. Hill covered the classic Roberta Flack song “Killing Me Softly With His Song” on the hit 1996 Fugee’s album “The Score,” and it was so well received that many people forgot there was an earlier version. (No disrespect to the Queen Roberta Flack.)

Lauryn Hill’s film and early work with The Fugees successfully primed us for her debut album. I didn’t feel like the group was holding her back, but was not surprised when hearing the solo project for the first time and realizing that it was far superior than anything that she has ever done up until that point. 

I was in high school when the album dropped and must acknowledge that 1998 was a tremendous year for music. DMX released two platinum albums, “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot” and “Flesh of my Flesh, Blood of my Blood.” Big Pun graduated from bodyguard to respected emcee when he came out with “Capital Punishment” and Jay-Z shook up the industry with “Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life.” I’m very thankful that I had a CD changer in the trunk of my car, with the ability to hold six discs because I bumped everything all of the time. 

Her sweet spot was deflecting from violence, but understanding the role it plays when it comes to protection.

The male-dominated music appealed more to my young aggressive side. I was a boy turning into a man in a world where the narratives of men constantly promoted themes like conquer, provide, don’t cry, be the toughest guy in the room and date as many women as possible. I would later learn that all of these desires are fake. The music in combination with our coaches, fathers, if they were around, uncles and every other male figure doubled down on these themes in one way or another. And to make matters worse, the loudest most aggressive men were rewarded for their brash actions. Loud mouths and rabble rousers where always the most respected and received the most attention from the whole community. 

I didn’t play “The Miseducation” around my guy friends; we loved her, but didn’t listen to her as a collective. Maybe we were scared to share the lessons she taught or wanted to keep the feeling she gave us to ourselves. I normally bumped Lauryn Hill when I was alone or with my home girls. My favorite song was initially “Lost Ones.” Mainly because it displayed the vicious throat-cutting lyrics and track-bullying style that I was used to:

Some wan’ play young Lauryn like she dumb
But remember not a game new under the sun
Everything you did has already been done
I know all the tricks from Bricks to Kingston
My ting done made your kingdom wan’ run
Now understand, L-Boogie, non-violent
But if a thing test me, run for mi gun
Can’t take a threat to mi newborn son

Her sweet spot was deflecting from violence, but understanding the role it plays when it comes to protection. That idea spoke directly to me because I wasn’t a violent person even though my environment forced me into violent situations all of the time. 

“Why you play ‘Lost Ones’ so much?” my friend Toy asked me on one of the many days I dropped her off from school. We were both in the same grade, and she loved the album as well, “That’s not even the best song.” 

Hill left space for us to strengthen the relationships between boys and girls.

Toy loved the track “Nothing Even Matters” that featured back-and-forth between Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo. I loved that song too; we’d even go back and forth singing the words in an exaggerated way. But I couldn’t really listen to it with Toy, because we didn’t date. She was almost like one of the guys, and it would have been super awkward. Hill left space for us to strengthen the relationships between boys and girls, from the way she vibed with the Fugees and Nas on “If I Ruled The World.” Toy and I directed all of this music, with all of our conversations leading to me exploring different parts of the album, which ultimately forced me to grow as a person. As time went on, my favorite track became “Ex-Factor.”

It could all be so simple (ba-ba-ba-baby, baby, baby)
But you’d rather make it hard (huh, uh)
Loving you is like a battle (it’s like a battle)
And we both end up with scars
Tell me, who I have to be (who I have to be)
To get some reciprocity
See no one loves you more than me (more than me)
And no one ever will (no one ever will, yeah)

I love this song for the sound, but more importantly it gave me a glimpse into the way some of the women who I dated at the time may have felt. As a young man, especially a popular one with a CD changer in his trunk, I didn’t always think about the way my actions made people feel. Now don’t get me wrong I wasn’t running around breaking hearts, but understanding of Lauryn Hill’s music taught me that I was capable of doing so. 

I still listen to the album monthly, 25 years later, and just like my favorite pieces of literature, her work is still teaching me to be a better person, to be more aware and intentional about the joy I can potentially gain from authentic friendships.

Lauryn Hill gifted me that, and I am forever grateful. 

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