Revisiting Ms. Lauryn Hill's Miseducation in the #MeToo Era

Ms. Lauryn Hill
Ms. Lauryn Hill Courtesy of the artist

click to enlarge Ms. Lauryn Hill - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
Ms. Lauryn Hill
Courtesy of the artist

Can you believe it's the 20th anniversary of the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Ms. Lauryn Hill's seminal Grammy-winning solo album? Two decades after Hill sang to a generation of young women about ruling their own destiny, the lessons and messages contained in her masterpiece land just as hard, inspiring thousands of fans to buy tickets to her anniversary tour, which is set to stop in Miami Monday, October 15. And if you've been paying attention to the news, it's not hard to see why.

There's no doubt that Miseducation was musically excellent from top to bottom, with a hybrid of sonic vibes: roughness and smoothness, melody and swagger. With chart-topping singles such as “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and “Everything Is Everything," the album sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and earned Hill a Grammy for album of the year. She was the first female hip-hop artist to win that honor.

But there was far more to Miseducation than the sonic experience. The good sense and intelligence in its lyrics spoke to a generation. In 1998, Hill was a pregnant 23-year-old determined to have her voice heard and fueled by a desire to make tangible change in the world. In a culture of male entitlement, she rioted for a cultural shift, for the right to feel her own feelings, to live her life the way she saw fit. Her take on themes of self-love, empowerment, breakup, and juggling parenthood and a career spoke to a wide audience predominantly composed of women. The album was set in a classroom, featuring interludes of conversations between a male teacher and students, but Hill herself wasn't present. Instead, she was learning what really mattered out in the real world, through her job as a musician and her relationships.

Before Miseducation, Hill was already successful and famous — the Fugees' record sales had made its members, including Hill, the second-biggest selling R&B act worldwide since Michael Jackson. But Miseducation was her solo statement, proving she wasn't just a side girl to her former lover Wyclef Jean. With her tracks "Lost Ones" and "Ex-Factor," she unleashed commentary on their bad relationship and breakup, eschewing any expectations of so-called ladylike silence.

In light of the sexual assault convictions of former film producer Harvey Weinstein and actor Bill Cosby, along with more recent allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh and the painful debates that have followed, it's evident that some of Hill's lyrics are as relevant as ever. Campaigns such as #YesAllWomen and #MeToo have converged into a crusade as women share stories of abuse and assault, risking being discredited, shamed, blamed, dismissed, and punished when they decide to publicly unpack their life experiences. Against that backdrop, Hill's own descriptions of mistreatment carry validation and support for victims. When in "Ex Factor" she says of a lover, "When I try to walk away/You hurt yourself to make me stay," she's describing abusive manipulation that many women today know too well.

For women who came up during Miseducation's zenith, attending Hill's 2018 performance could serve as a measure of how much the world around them has changed — and how many things remain the same. Her crash course on life is still very much relevant: "It could all be so simple," but it's not.

Miseducation remains Hill's only studio album. After its release, she avoided the celebrity persona and retreated from the public eye to raise six children. Many controversies followed. She was reported to have spent years on a spiritual quest while dealing with bipolar disorder. She was sued over songwriting credits. She served a three-month prison sentence in 2013 for tax evasion. She was deemed a diva for wanting to be called "Ms. Hill" and criticized for her erratic performances.

Yet she's still putting herself out there to encourage creativity, self-analysis, and independence. As women continue to fight for respect, understanding, and equal treatment, Hill's "Lost Ones"' lyrics reverberate like an anthem: "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!"

Maybe in another two decades, many of the issues in Miseducation will be a distant reality. Maybe women will be safer, and when they're hurt, they'll be able to speak freely.

Until that day, at least we can put Miseducation on repeat.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill 20th-Anniversary Tour. 6 p.m. Monday, October 15, at Bayfront Park Amphitheater, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; Tickets cost $37 to $202 via
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Juliana Accioly
Contact: Juliana Accioly