Colour Her Happy!

Sunday, October 07, 2018

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“In the true definition of an iconic piece of art, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill shifted culture by pushing 20th-century boundaries that forced the mainstream to reconsider both its limited notions of black womanhood and black music. It was also released at the end of the 20th century, a time preceding a phenomenal amount of change. It was a love album that was pre-digital revolution — no texting or Tinder — and came out at a time when the average American couldn't reasonably foresee a black president so we gave Bill Clinton the title. Eighteen years into the 21st century I was interested in examining the 'where and when it entered' of it all. I wanted to unpack why the album still resonates so deeply with its audience. As a Jamaican, it also gave me an opportunity to give the Caribbean its proper due when it comes to the undeniable role our culture plays in both Hill and hip hop's development.”


“I don't feel a sense of vindication... Hill didn't need me or this book to validate her legacy. Nineteen million in album sales don't lie! If anything, I hope the book puts both her art and her admitted complexity in some context.”


“I completely underestimated the impact this book would have. I thought I would write it in the four months my publisher gave me and then return to finishing and defending my dissertation. Instead its launch, at the Brooklyn Museum in August, resulted in a whirlwind book tour which ends mid-November at the Kennedy Center...


How has the book changed my life? Colour me happy and perpetually jet lagged...


How did the title come about?


Last-minute save. I wanted “Everything is Everything” but couldn't get it past the legal department. “She Begat This” is adapted from another Hill lyric where she says “I Begat This”. Ultimately, it's the better title, so thank you, legal!


SO shares an exclusive excerpt from She Begat This: 20 Years of the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

Selected expressly by the author ... “I wanted your readers to see the direct impact, influence, and ultimately contribution the island's cultures made to both Hill's legacy and hip hop's...”


By now, the framing of the Fugees' (comprised of Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras Michél) origin story as the greatest thing in hip hop that almost didn't happen is a well-known tale, but it is one worth recounting here since, at least according to Jayson Jackson's recollection, it was Hill's noteworthy talent on their otherwise meh debut ( Blunted on Reality, 1994) that helped save the group from getting dropped. Jackson, one of the producers responsible for the Oscar-nominated documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, was Hill's former manager and close friend. “At the time I was an intern at Columbia Records for a product manager. We had four groups,” says Jackson. “The Fugees was one of them. I remember listening to Blunted on Reality and feeling like it was all over the place, but one particular song, Some Seek Stardom, was a stand- out. It was just Lauryn.

Of the four groups assigned to Jackson's boss, only one, the '90s girl group Xscape, was performing well enough to stay on the label. As Jackson watched the other two groups get unceremoniously dropped, he urged his boss to do something. “There was this Mega Banton song Sound Boy Killing that was on the radio and [was] hot at the time. I was like, 'yo, get the mother- ***** who did that.' ” The “something” was a remix and the mother***** in question was a Caribbean-American producer named Salaam Remi, whose trademark was a sonic ability to seamlessly cross the cultural hyphen to traffic dancehall vibes between urban sounds. In a Hot 97 interview, radio deejay Charlamagne Tha God playfully referred to Remi's production as “the green card for Jamaican artists”. Remi, whose long roster includes Super Cat, Mega Banton, Patra, and later Amy Winehouse, Nas, and Fergie, sees it that way too. Referencing a moment in the '90s where dancehall and reggae enjoyed an unprecedented popularity in American music, Remi said, “It was all the stuff that was coming out of Jamaica that needed to get on the radio for hip hop and R&B. A lot of those songs were stuck at the airport, so to speak. I got them the visas that [helped] them get through.”

Auspiciously for the Fugees, Remi agreed to do the remix for the relatively modest price of five grand, but it was money that they didn't have. In a display of typical hip-hop ingenuity, Jackson hustled the PR budget and said they were throwing a party. Instead, they used the money to pay Remi, who dug deep into the old-school hip-hop crates, sampled Harlem Underground's Smokin Cheeba Cheeba and flipped a lukewarm Nappy Heads into a fiyah bun remix.

For reggae superstar Nadine Sutherland the Fugees embodied the paradigm of Caribbean people who live in America who embraced the duality of their culture. “The Fugees embodied the Caribbean experience in the diaspora,” explained Sutherland. “I know that Lauryn Hill is American, but she's part of that movement and people identify her with that dual paradigm, that syncretic merging of the two cultures. It was the Fugees who helped me realise that Caribbean people living in the US could be like “Yeah, I'm Caribbean. I love my country and I love my reggae, but I am also into hip hop and there was no major shift in their psyche to say it. They didn't feel as if they had to embrace one identity over the other. They were okay identifying with both.” What cannot be discounted here is Hill's impact on an island that, although predominantly black, has a legacy of colourism. It always used to make me laugh that friends who hadn't been to Jamaica expected to see an island full of dreds. In the early '90s I could find more dreds on the streets in Brooklyn than I could in Jamaica. A woman who chose to cut off her hair was considered equally heretical. A woman in Kingston once hailed me up from across the road just because we both had short hair. The binary wasn't just Rasta vs Babylon. It was that natural hair equalled being unkempt and straight hair was polished, which played into the leftover mentalities of colonisation. For most of Jamaica's history, its reigning beauty standard has been mixed race or “browning.” For confirmation, peep its longest-running Jamaica tourism ad featuring the honey-coloured and straight-haired Trinidadian beauty Sintra Arunte-Bronte, the absence of darker-skinned women in adverts, or the ongoing choices for Miss Jamaica and Miss Universe. All are light-skinned or racially nondescript, with straight or curly hair. Consider gorgeous and un- apologetic afro-rocker Davina Bennett, the second-place runner for 2017 Miss Universe, Lauryn Hill's love child.

“She gave those young women a different imaging of what could be because of how she presented herself. In Jamaica, a lot of young women discovered a voice because of Lauryn Hill, one that allowed them to be themselves, to be sexy with a natural hairstyle. We now have a movement. Young women now feel like they can wear a natural hairstyle and still be considered sexy without the ideological and religious baggage of the Rastafarian movement of the 1970s. Beautiful black women are wearing their hair natural and feeling confident and sexy. That's because they now have a choice: they can be rootsy with long skirts and blouses that cover their elbows, or they can wear their natural hair with haute couture, or they can wear it with a b**** rider in the dancehall. Our current Miss Universe wore an afro. We have Lauryn Hill and to some extent, India. Arie, to thank for that. She took our black aesthetic and made it beautiful and fashionable and sexy, and that? That helped us with the process of undoing a mindset that taught us to hate ourselves.”


From SHE BEGAT THIS: 20 YEARS OF THE MISEDUCATION OF LAURYN HILL. Copyright © 2018 by Joan Morgan. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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