Before #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackGirlsRock exploded onto the 21st century, creating a whole new dialogue on how we talk about black womanhood, Lauryn Hill dropped her debut solo album, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," in 1998. Running 69 minutes, the album is an exploration of sexuality, love, motherhood, and religion. Now, 20 years since its release, pioneering hip-hop journalist Joan Morgan revisits and examines the complex womanhood of Lauryn Hill that intertwined race, politics, and feminism in an age before Beyonce or Cardi B.
In She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Morgan discusses the unique rise of Hill, a middle-class Ivy League-educated black woman who, Morgan writes, harnessed the ability to “spit a death blow with the percussiveness of machine-gun rounds” in each of her songs. It was this unique quality along with her self-expression which made her a staple of the '90s rap scene.
In an era where hip-hop was (and largely still is) dominated by black men and corporate control, Hill, with her natural hair, dark skin, and "soft" sexuality, served as a breath of fresh air. In music videos like "Doo Wop (That Thing)," Hill flips black female respectability politics on its head, showing us that she can be both the sexy, thigh-high-mini-skirt-wearing artist and, Morgan writes, the “girl-group perfection in a zebra print swing coat” at the same time.
Hill was becoming an icon and voice to the black female generation – a role that would soon serve as double-edged sword. Hill's announcement of her pregnancy garnered worry from both her label and self-professed feminists who feared that motherhood would, Morgan writes, “throw Hill way off her game.” And shortly after, Hill's battle over lawsuits over "Miseducation," romantic troubles with Fugees bandmate Wyclef Jean, a three-month jail stint over tax evasion, and a habit of being notoriously late to her performances all earned her a bad reputation among her fans.
But despite her downfall, Morgan still claims Hill as a distinct marker in the world of hip-hop, paving the way for outspoken black feminists like Amandla Stenberg, Yara Shahidi, Cardi B, and Zendaya.
In "She Begat This," Morgan writes about Hill not as a subject to be studied but as a person to be humanized. Each chapter serves to connect her relevance to the greater black female experience, from her cover on Honey magazine, which became a symbol for black female representation, to her infamous downfall as the '90s queen of rap. Morgan presents Hill as a black woman first and artist second. In doing so, she creates an authentic discussion on the racial politics of black womanhood.
Among other things, the book gives spaces to black mothers. Morgan draws connections between Hill’s song “To Zion,” which talks about the young artist’s joy in carrying her first child, and Clinton-era policies such as NAFTA, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, and the "three strikes" bill, all of which played parts in making access to resources and well-paying jobs harder for African American women. Morgan writes about the significance the song held for black women, calling it “a deeply needed affirmation – one we rarely get.”
But where the book gets most interesting is where it’s able to critique our current understanding of Hill. At this point, it isn’t lost on the reader that the hip-hop artist is not who she was back in 1998. Morgan serves to remind the reader that Hill isn’t a god – that’s what we made her to be. Following "Miseducation," fans quickly asked for more, even as Hill was juggling lawsuits, children, and jail time, and Morgan suggests that we the fans may have pushed her away.
Referencing the cries from white America for Oprah Winfrey to run for president after her Golden Globes #TimesUp speech, and the work black women put into preventing Republican Roy Moore from being elected in the 2017 Alabama special election, Morgan reminds us that black women cannot be saviors for the rest of world again and again and again. She remind us that “We turn mortals into gods – queens, if they’re only women – and then summarily pick them apart at the first hint of disappointment.”
Morgan's book isn't so much of a biography but rather a love letter to Hill, from one black girl to another. She draws personal experiences from multiple academics who are close to the works of Hill, making "She Begat This" a syllabus for the story of Black Girl Magic.