Lauryn Hill, The Expatriate Who Never Left

Doreen St. Félix on Ms. Hill's absence and the longing for her return

Lauryn Hill is late to the extravagant duty she’s tasked herself with: that of uniting all the black countries on earth. We’ve come to expect this of her, both the tardiness and the heavy-handed gestures toward pseudo-religious adventure. First off, you can think of her 2001 extrication from the scene, in the wake of the massive success of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, as a divine flight. A 23-year-old Hill named the ballad “To Zion” after her son, who was, in turn, named after the idea of paradise. She was still Lauryn Hill back then. Now in her forties, she is Ms. Hill, an affective stage name modeled after Nina Simone. Now, her diplomacy turns outward, the family all grown. Ms. Hill collaborated with Tidal X to curate last month's Diaspora Calling! Festival, a one-off visual art exhibition and concert at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn. The concert featured artists from Ghana, Nigeria, Haiti, Trinidad, and Jamaica. Hill was the only American. “Diaspora! Calling is a collection of works intended to celebrate the rich tapestry of artists from the African Diaspora while also illuminating persistent and irrepressible themes,” Hill wrote on her website prior to the event.

The audience didn't seem to have a clue of Ms. Hill’s globalizing intentions, the point of this kind of concert, or really, of the woman she’s developed into since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill dropped a generation ago and became an institution. Most had simply come ready to erupt in the chorus of “(Doo Wop) That Thing.” They would have to wait.

Eight performers preceded Ms. Hill. Ghanaian multi-hyphenate Jojo Abot delivered a stylish opening set. "To Li," her standout track, did the work an opener ought to do, the muted psychedelia of her big synths successfully entreating the crowd to bounce. Abot collapsed the functions of femme hook singer and masc rapper in more than one of her songs and then praised Ms. Hill for setting that specific precedent for her and a generation of musicians. Every act, save for Stephen Marley, followed suit, offering up a procession of practiced thanks. Lauryn Hill’s presence divides across many opposing cardinal points: rapping and singing, mother and child, privacy and spectacle. That night, the festival curated ostensibly in her own honor indicated that she has moved beyond poles to the thick of the globe.

Abot was followed by Wondaboy, a Nigerian Afrobeat rapper who all but depleted the energy she established. Earnest stage banter and the masterful band backing him, The Composers, did not distract that he had lost the key. We waited another 20 minutes for a set by rapper Mr. Eazi, and then another half an hour for EL. The show started at 8 p.m. Around 10:30, Trinidadian soca artist Machel Montano took the stage. The baroque theater could barely contain the impromptu mas spectacle he whipped up. Then he left. Forty or so minutes passed, and the couple seated next to me drifted into head-nodding sleep. It was after 11 then. My phone was at 2 percent. Someone erected a flag of Haile Selassie at stage left, and the lights turned blue. Sharp breaths were drawn, but it wasn’t her. Stephen Marley entered and stalled by going through a slate of his father’s classics. He left, and we waited again. The calendar date changed. A group of five women stood up, collected their things, and left.

What happened in the year between 1997 and 1998 and how it prefigured Hill leaving is practically an American folktale. Lauryn Hill turned 23; she started locking her hair, from what I can tell in the videos; she fell in love with Rohan Marley and gave birth to their first child. It’s unclear in what order the love, the child, and the ambition for paradise came; under the Jamaican sun, she fell in love with the mawkishness of her own story; she negotiated her distrust of material success with her Jersey inclination to at once expose and exceed the bravado of men and whittled her 23 years down to 77 minutes and 39 seconds. The Miseducation was universally praised, was perhaps one of the most universally praised debuts by a female in the latter half of the 20th century. One through line, a young woman’s fevered piety, was dismissed by some as a sort of stubborn, black middle-class parochial tic. But zeal turned out to be her center.

Lauryn Hill is a figure of desertion. The Miseducation was recorded at Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica, a country Hill took up as a permanent spiritual and cultural surrogate from then on. (Eventually, her own body became a vessel for Jamaican legend, through bearing five of Bob Marley’s grandchildren and posthumous duets.) The Miseducation begins with a decided lack of her. “Lost Ones,” the opening track, says it over 20 times just in case you didn’t get the message: “You might win some / But you just lost one.” Before making her unofficial exit from the music scene during the early aughts, she left the Fugees. And before leaving the Fugees, she left her parents’ home, which was in South Orange, New Jersey, in the kind of portentously resolute way teenagers sneak out of their childhood homes and the values those structures represent. Making use of absence and the longing that it brings is a favored tactic of divas and heretics. And Hill is a little bit of both.

We’ve pressed the question over and over again: Why did Lauryn Hill leave? A 2003 article by Touré for Rolling Stone suggested she may have fallen in with “Brother Anthony, a shadowy spiritual adviser.” The New Yorker posited that “Amy Winehouse simply extended Hill’s aesthetic because Hill refused to.” Two years ago, Talib Kweli shut down all demands for her, linking what he called entitlement to the historically racist public demand that black artists, in particular women, produce for pleasure. “She is not an iPod nor is she a trained monkey,” Kweli wrote. Routinely, black artists invoke her as a totem for creative fatigue — Kanye West on “No More Parties in L.A.”: “I was uninspired since Lauryn Hill retired.” A sense of racialized maternal abandonment freights the critical disappointment put on her — how dare she estrange herself from those who needed her? — and, of course, motherhood was in part the reason Hill left, anyway.

I couldn’t eke out many new answers to the question after Diaspora Calling!, at least none that went past the sort of aphorisms we routinely ascribe to quixotic legends. The more interesting inquiry is to search for where she’s ended up. If you’ve managed to stick with her in recent years, you’ve probably noticed her grasping all the more toward global, if generic, Afrocentricity. There are the wax caftans, the swelling skirts. The music’s traveled, too. She’s swapped out genres for nearly every song in her usual repertoire of songs from the Fugees, The Miseducation, and Unplugged. “Killing Me Softly” sports a bossa nova groove; the last time I saw her perform “Lost Ones” was in 2014, and back then, it frenetically approximated jazz; “How Many Mics” is transposed to such a fast tempo, one irrationally wonders if the performance will spin out of control. She’s also sought different audiences. Hill has increasingly prioritized her African fan base in the past few years, shedding her notorious reclusiveness to play shows in Nigeria, South Africa, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. It’s a curious moment in many a black American artist’s career, the fraught “return” to Africa, muddled with personal vulnerability and bloated American exceptionalism.

You wonder if Lauryn Hill invokes the continent because Nina Simone did. Ms. Hill audaciously fashioned herself after Simone from the very beginnings of her career, before she was even a solo artist: “So while you’re imitating Al Capone, I’ll be Nina Simone / And defecating on your microphone.” Unplugged channeled Simone’s discordant political philosophy; following it, Hill was called crazy like Simone was called crazy. In the ‘70s, Simone joined Miriam Makeba in Liberia. There, she found herself revered, at peace, and free from money aches back in America. “Liberia was a release; after all those years of being a wife, mother, activist and star all at the same time, I was just a mother with her child happy in school and nobody looking over my shoulder telling me what to do,” she said.

Minutes before 1 a.m., the house lights went down. A column of drummers advanced down the audience aisle while dancers wearing headdresses wound through them. Video of black women mending shapeless fabric was projected onstage, overlaid with glitchy geometric designs. Once the procession reached the stage and the dancers took opposite posts, Lauryn Hill walked onstage. She did not say anything for a minute or two, which felt too long. Nina Simone would stand quietly like this before she performed, begging a ceremonial, self-possessed atmosphere. “Tonight, we bring Africa to Brooklyn,” she announced. There was the white robe that gave her wings, the beaded necklace the width of armor. The concert proceeded as if on a five-second delay, Hill corralling the sped-up rhythms with agility and the audience struggling to keep up. Hill’s intimacy with her band is a marvel at times and a distraction at others, but always a fascinating lens into the details of idealistic musicianship. “Ready or Not” bore the most similarities to the original, which inspired an explosion of recognition in the audience.

Well past 2 a.m., after she’d finished “To Zion,” Hill teased a special guest. Out came a strapping teenage boy, dressed in all black: Zion himself, now 17 years old. Hill told us her son had begged her for time onstage. This was the boy who became a metaphor for his mother’s brand of liberation, who was much bigger than a boy. Zion and his hype man lasted all of 20 seconds, rapping over LL Cool J’s “Doin’ It” instrumental, before his mother shooed him offstage. Hill roused the crowd again with a Nina Simone cover, “Feeling Good.” But I couldn’t stop thinking about this kid, Zion. He was amateur but showing the beginnings of suaveness, feigned adolescent disinterest tempering what was clearly pure excitement. For all that rode on him and what he symbolized, it was a relief to find that he was just a regular boy.