More than a decade ago, when Lauryn Hill’s first solo album came out, she was my heroine. The woman could write, fling lyrics and vibrate your heart strings with her voice, and her music blended the personal, emotional, feminist and political with a head-pumping mix of passion and power. A whole global generation of us in and out of relationships, in long term love affairs with beats and rhymes, and searching for inspiring female icons in mass media, re- and re-played that Mis-education album to articulate youthful heartache and healing, and to survive coming of age.
I have flat mates from UWI who I’m still apologizing to for running that album on continuous rotation while I dug myself out from weakness to strength and from despair to confidence. There are songs from that album I can’t listen to anymore because they can’t escape that time that I managed to. There are also songs that still say exactly what I would to people in my life today.
That time in music followed an era of unapologetically feminist bands, singers and musicians, who broke through sound-proofed ceilings and walls that kept women’s music off the radio.
The turn from politically-radical rap to gangsta hip hop, and Britney and Beyonce pop, mostly let in those female artists willing to shake some ass rather than those who knew that unless women shook down Babylon, only race and class would be rocked free while we remained everywhere garlanded in chains.
Mainstream music gives girls too few resources for remaking the terms of what it means to be smart, sexy, good, bad, angry, emotional, vulnerable and even ahead of the game. We have to search beyond the radio dial, actively remember and even invent the soundtracks for running tings our own way.
At that time, the Ten Sisters poetry movement, a group of us singers and spoken word performers, came together to, like Lauryn Hill, interrupt air waves with women’s words that were more complex and critical than what we hear. Ten Sisters included feminist and non-feminist women, straight, lesbian and bisexual women, mothers and grandmothers, atheists and Catholics, Indians, Africans, part-Chinese and full calalloo. From Lisa Allen’s ‘Isahvibes’ to Paula Obe and Annessa Baksh’s ‘Ten Sisters’ to Dara Njeri’s ‘Speak Easy’ to Gillian Moor’s ‘Songshine’ to Sister Ava’s tireless commitment to the Rapso movement, these women mothered Trinidad and Tobago’s vibrant spoken word culture for more than a decade. Yet, like Lauryn Hill and that earlier phase of US feminist music, it’s easy to forget their impact and to wonder what happened to them today.
Hill made six children, confronted continous adultery, fought for her artistic freedom against the music industry, and had to live in a world where racial stereotyping about Black women makes them easy prey. Separately, each of those could be too much for any sane person. Together? Are you going to judge? Being powerful can be hard. Being a mother can be overwhelming, Backstage beyond the microphone can be unforgiving. To see someone so path-breaking not be able to hold her family and her struggle together is terrifying. It’s any woman’s everyday nightmare to publicly appear to fail.
Hill remains my heroine because real life heroes are also only human. Maybe she went crazy like gossips say, maybe the world makes us all crazy sometimes, maybe women are more easily labeled crazy for not handling societal and patriarchal downpression the perfect way. For me, there’s no vicarious juice in her imprisonment. She’s a voice from a time when I came into my own power. As they learn the rewards, risks and re-education of conscious girlhood, that album still remains one of only too few for our daughters.