BLACKLISTED: LAURYN HILL, THE MISUNDERSTOOD RECLUSE
By Awa Gueye
March 13, 2019
Definition: a list of persons under suspicion, disfavor, censure, etc.
Used in a sentence: Ms. Lauryn Hill was blacklisted for being an outspoken Black woman. Fuck that.
When I was a kid it seemed like Sister Act II was on TV every weekend just for me. Musician, actress extraordinaire, Ms Lauryn Hill, was one of the coolest people I’d ever seen. Of course, eventually, I learned Ms. Hill wasn’t my secret, but the well known joy of people all around the world. Love and admiration for the sensational Ms. Hill is as abundant today as it was then but this was not always the case.
By age 25, Ms. Hill had a career that most dream of for decades: she’d been a member of legendary band The Fugees, released the multi-Grammy winning album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and starred in the instant classic Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. In 1999 Ms. Hill was the first woman to be nominated in ten categories in a single year at the Grammys which was a giant feat considering the intention behind this work as told by Ahmir Thompson of the Roots, derived as a response to gender inequality. No, Wyclef Jean was not the sole genius of The Fugees and no, Lauryn Hill was not his sidepiece. Ms. Hill decided she would make an incredible album by herself and she delivered.
In 2000, still so young but extremely accomplished, Hill took a step away from the limelight. Her A-List status presented her with issues like being unable to run an errand sans glam without making the gossip columns. As with all women in the spotlight, the world felt entitled to commenting on her appearance anytime she was in public- a mental strain hard for us out of the spotlight to imagine. At the time that Hill decided to distance herself from the industry, she was being offered impressive roles in movies like the film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Charlie’s Angels, The Bourne Identity, The Mexican, and The Matrix to name a few.
As the pressures of life began to suffocate her, Ms. Hill found solace in spiritual advisor Brother Anthony, who is often credited with her disappearance. Truth is, there have been countless theories about what happened to Ms. Hill and who or what led her to leave the spotlight. The answer given to Essence directly from Ms. Hill is what I’ve chosen to share:
“People need to understand that the Lauryn Hill they were exposed to in the beginning was all that was allowed in that arena at that time … I had to step away when I realized that for the sake of the machine, I was being way too compromised. I felt uncomfortable about having to smile in someone’s face when I really didn’t like them or even know them well enough to like them.” She also spoke about her emotional crisis, saying, “For two or three years I was away from all social interaction. It was a very introspective time because I had to confront my fears and master every demonic thought about inferiority, about insecurity or the fear of being black, young and gifted in this western culture.” She went on to say that she had to fight to retain her identity, and was forced “to deal with folks who weren’t happy about that.”
Lauryn Hill said no and the world could not understand it. How could one walk away from being and becoming the greatest superstar in the world? How could one put their own wellbeing above fame and riches? I think this is the biggest non mystery in the world – the music industry failed Lauryn Hill and then they blacklisted her.
When Black women say “no” they are often demonized; the greatest tactic enforced by white media in effort to maintain the status quo. The narrative that follows Black women who refuse to conform is based on an assumption of ownership. It would be impossible to feel betrayed by a Black woman for doing what is best for her if you didn’t think you knew better. It’s no secret, “the most disrespected person in America is the Black woman,” as famously said by Malcolm X. If being Black in the world comes with a suitcase of oppression, and being a woman in this world a carry on or two, then how does one carry all the luggage that comes with being a Black woman? Impossible, but Black women are used to doing just that.
The lines get blurred when someone who is on paper the most disrespected becomes globally renowned. If the only respected opponent to oppression is fortune – what happens when a Black woman becomes a rich mega star? It is seemingly okay unless and until said Black woman see’s herself not as the exception, but as the beginning. As I get older, I don’t accept that Black artists who were once on the top of their game disappeared because it’s just the way the industry works. I am curious. When I wonder, “whatever happened to so and so?” I do my research. More often than not, I come to find that the woman falls off the radar after demanding too much (i.e. equality, human rights) or exposes mistreatment in the industry.
I often ponder how different life for young women like Lauryn Hill would have been had they the privilege of social media to tell their own narratives. Never too late and hopefully, this Blacklisted series can help give these women the respect they always deserved.