The sun has set at Afropunk, Brooklyn’s annual festival celebrating black music, and the crowd is agitated. A giant banner to the right of the stage reads: “NO SEXISM. NO RACISM. NO ABLEISM. NO AGEISM. NO HOMOPHOBIA. NO FATPHOBIA. NO TRANSPHOBIA. NO HATEFULNESS.” Lauryn Hill, one of the festival’s marquee performers, was due onstage 45 minutes ago. When Hill performs these days, there is a looming fear that she’ll show up hours late, if at all. But this is a tightly scheduled event, and Grace Jones is set to follow. When Hill finally emerges, the fact that she’s only 45 minutes late—her set will be cut short, but she will play—feels like a blessing.
Clad in a floor-length white coat atop a fire-red dress, her hair cropped close to her head, Hill sits on a stool in front of her band and begins to strum an acoustic guitar. The sound system is far too quiet, and these songs—noodling renditions of songs from 2002’s MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, her collection of raw, religious acoustic sketches—are evaporating. Most of the crowd struggles to see or hear her, and fans begin to initiate chants of protest against the crappy conditions before giving up and milling around, bored. Rumors swirl that Hill will show up at a Boiler Room DJ set later tonight, but she doesn’t.
That evening in August found Hill and her fans in a familiar suspended state, trapped somewhere between anticipation, reverence, confusion, hope, and defeat. More than any icon in recent history—excluding Dave Chappelle, maybe—Hill has been shrouded in mystery and misinformation. She has produced only a handful of new tracks since her ground-shifting breakout, 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and has faced a mountain of back taxes that landed her in prison in 2013. She has developed an inconsistent live reputation, delivering a brilliant set one month and then bailing on a show the next. Bring up Lauryn Hill in a casual conversation and you’re likely to incite speculation that she is crazy, or hear references to her politics, which are often perceived as militant.
Hill has become an inscrutable kind of icon whose career begs the most dramatic questions we have about art and celebrity. What do artists owe their fans? What do those fans owe the artists? Is fame the equivalent of captivity? At what point does conviction come at the expense of creative output? Can an artist—a black female artist—participate in the entertainment industry purely on her own terms?
Hill’s reputation as a tormented recluse obscures what’s actually happened in recent years, which is more than meets the eye. Since 2010, she has been working quietly and diligently on a new album and a host of politically minded film projects. She began touring again five years ago as a way of exercising artistic muscle and financing her recording plans, says Phil Nicolo, one of her current producers and a founder of Ruffhouse, the Fugees’ original label. According to Nicolo, she is closer than ever to finishing the follow-up to Miseducation. And thanks to her involvement in a documentary about the late Nina Simone—perhaps her greatest forebear—Hill is on the brink of a genuine comeback. With world politics dovetailing with pop culture in an unprecedented way, there couldn’t be a better time.
Hill has become an inscrutable kind of icon whose career begs the most dramatic questions we have about art and celebrity. Can an artist—a black female artist—participate in the entertainment industry purely on her own terms?
Those who’ve been close to Hill tend to speak about her with delicate reverence, likening her to people like Bob Dylan, Mozart, or Van Gogh. Nas, a collaborator and friend, wouldn’t agree to speak because he hadn’t received her blessing. (Hill herself also declined an interview.) Phil Nicolo’s twin brother and fellow Ruffhouse associate, Joe Nicolo, repeatedly referred to the idea of Hill’s “splintered genius.”
Her seclusion has been wrapped up in a deep skepticism of all media, likely tied to one incident that has irreversibly distorted her reputation: a rumor that Hill once said, “I would rather have my children starve than have white people buy my albums.” Nobody has ever been able to produce a record of this quote—it seems to have originated in 1996 with a caller on The Howard Stern Show, and Nicolo insists it’s false—but its noxious, warping power persists, and Hill has granted just a single formal interview since it began to spread.
In 2010, NPR’s Zoe Chace approached Hill’s management about including her in a “50 Great Voices” feature, and only after five months of back-and-forth, a Hail-Mary flight to California, and the benevolence of one handler was Chace finally able to meet Hill. What resulted was an interview about her voice and the high that creativity produces, along with an anticlimactic response to the burning question of why she stopped releasing music: “The support system I needed was not necessarily in place,” Hill said. “As musicians and artists, it’s important we have an environment […] that really nurtures these gifts.”
In lieu of other interviews, Hill began sharing statements on Tumblr in 2012. When she was charged with tax evasion that same year, she responded in a long post that was difficult to follow but consistent with beliefs she once professed in her music. “I left a more mainstream and public life in order to wean both myself, and my family, away from a lifestyle that required distortion and compromise for a means of attaining it,” she wrote. “I did not deliberately abandon my fans, nor did I deliberately abandon any responsibilities, but I did however put my safety, health, and freedom, and the freedom, safety, and health of my family, first above all other material concerns!”
During her three-month sentence in a correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, Hill dug deeper into her political beliefs. She began emailing with a filmmaker named Basim Usmani, hatching a plan to create a documentary about the brutalities she’d witnessed against the women in prison. The two conducted informal calls in preparation, only to be barred from using the prison to film. Usmani walked away from the exchanges with a sense of Hill as someone with explicit activist goals: “She was very, very straight about what she wanted,” he says. “She had a hands-on approach, and she really wanted to tell this story. There isn’t a whole lot to justify this idea that she’s an eccentric.” When Hill got out of prison, she recorded the narration for a different film, Concerning Violence, a small but acclaimed documentary about African nationalist movements and decolonization.
For her, someone who has been outspoken about her disdain for the industry and the media, there is unlimited potential for turmoil. The clickbait economy does not treat unpredictable famous people kindly.
Hill’s activist work has mostly been ignored by fans and the press. It took a project of broader appeal to thrust her back into the spotlight. What Happened, Miss Simone?, a Netflix documentary directed by Liz Garbus, details the rise and fall of Nina Simone, an icon who refused to abandon her political convictions as she grew more famous. Hill is one of the reasons the project exists at all. Jayson Jackson, who produced the film and worked closely with Hill during the Fugees era and on Miseducation, became familiar with Simone through Hill. “I met Nina twice while working with Lauryn,” he says. “It’s not a stretch to say that I learned about Nina through the prism and perspective of Lauryn.” Years later, when Jackson teamed up with Simone’s daughter Lisa to create What Happened?, he worked up the courage to approach Hill about the soundtrack, expecting her to decline the offer. He would have been grateful for a single track, he says, but when the process was finished, Hill had turned in six. She also hand-selected the young R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan to contribute a song. “To see somebody you look up to and kind of model yourself after—to know that they appreciate your work is kind of surreal,” Sullivan told me.
Simone was prolific throughout her career, but like Hill, chose personal and political conviction over commercial appeal during the Civil Rights era. The film documents Simone’s vivid genius and the ways it tormented her—and does not spare the harsh realities of her late career, particularly during her self-imposed exile. It is impossible to watch the film without thinking of Hill. “Many times during the making of this film, when I would look at rough cuts, there were situations that very much reminded me of Lauryn, and at many times moved me to tears,” says Jackson. “My hope in people seeing this film is that they understand better what it means to be an artist, and what it means to be a popular artist.” Even though Hill performed at a New York screening, he’s not sure she has seen the film. When invited to preview the movie, Jackson says she told him, “I’m clear on who Nina is.”
Hill’s renderings of Simone’s work are beautiful and heartfelt, but not the original material fans have been longing for. Still, the project marks an important step in her resurrection—a victory against her own grinding gears. According to those close to her, Hill’s slow, bumpy return is about fear and perfectionism above all. “It’s not that she feels like, ‘You can wait for me!’” says Nicolo. “She wants to be right. She wants to be perfect.” He recalls times when Hill prepared herself for a show, only to go back into the dressing room at the last moment to change her entire wardrobe. “She wants to feel completely self-confident—like, ‘Look, I’m great,’” he explains. But the soundtrack had a strict deadline. “Sometimes if you don’t take the painting out of the artist’s hand, you’ll never see it,” says Nicolo. “The Nina Simone experience pushed her hand in a way.” Jackson says it’s always been difficult to get a read on Hill’s state of mind, but the fact that she’s putting out work at all is a good sign. “I can say this: I know creating makes her very happy,” he says. “I couldn’t see her doing as much as she did [on the Simone project] in any state other than happiness.”
Thanks to her involvement in a documentary about the late Nina Simone—perhaps her greatest forebear—Hill is on the brink of a genuine comeback. With world politics dovetailing with pop culture in an unprecedented way, there couldn’t be a better time.
There’s a chilling moment in Unplugged when Lauryn Hill, in her unrehearsed rasp, begins describing the pains celebrities take to uphold the idea that their lives and their talents come easily. “[Artists are] slaving to act like, you know, ‘I wake up like this,’” she says. Revisiting the song today, it feels worlds away from the pristinely packaged, mass-marketed feminist catchphrases of newer icons like Beyoncé. It forces you to consider how Hill might navigate today’s music industry. For her, someone who has been outspoken about her disdain for the industry and the media, there is unlimited potential for turmoil. The clickbait economy does not treat unpredictable famous people kindly.
But in fact, Hill may be far better-suited for today’s world than she was for the ’90s, a time when record executives held far more power and musicians needed magazines for their stories to be told. A full-throttle Lauryn Hill comeback would also arrive at a time when social media has transformed political awareness—in the age of Twitter, we place a high value on the sort of political outspokenness she has long stood for. D’Angelo’s return to the spotlight last year signaled that this generation welcomes a comeback narrative with a political underpinning, that we are capable of latching onto resistance, strength, and honesty—even imperfection. Which is to say nothing of the fact that, musically, the world is just now catching up to Hill: lest we forget, she was the first major artist to bridge singing and rapping in the mainstream.
Nicolo says new music is not so far off. Hill is in the studio with him regularly, working on new music, a process that’s been unpredictable but deeply gratifying. “She has to be given the space and ability to try things,” he says. “Sometimes your immediate impression is: ‘You want to do what?’ But I enjoy working with her more than every other artist.” He says she’s already built up enough material to release a new album, and that musically, it will harken back to Miseducation. Whereas the few tracks she’s released in recent years feature a stream-of-consciousness that is harsh at times, Nicolo describes this work as “much more musical.” It is political, but also deeply personal, he says. She is drawing “from all of her inputs.”
Nicolo describes Hill’s life these days as calm. Zion, the oldest of her six children, recently graduated high school. Fabolous, DJ Clue, and Jadakiss helped celebrate his 18th birthday. Nicolo says Hill devotes most of her life to being a mom: going to her son’s basketball games and carting her daughter to and from preschool. She likes to venture into the city from her home in South Orange, New Jersey—“she likes the vibe of the city,” says Nicolo—to take meetings.
While Nicolo has been skeptical about Hill’s return in the past, today he sounds confident. “When she was first getting back into it, there were times when she wasn’t as positive,” he remembers. “But I think she’s in the best place I’ve ever seen her. She seems happy and very centered. When I see her, her face lights up.” When Hill performed a Nina Simone cover on Fallon recently, she was beaming. As a result of her prominence on the documentary, Miseducation recently began climbing the charts again. The soundtrack received positive reviews—a crucial reminder that her work still resonates. It’s a sign that her thorny reputation hasn’t obscured her art—today, in fact, it might allow us to see her more clearly.