“Now hear this mixture, where hip-hop meets scripture” Bringing Lauryn Hill to Dunbar, Douglass, and Jacobs

“The songs are a way to get to singing” –Bernice Johnson Reagon

On Monday, Paul Laurence Dunbar allowed us to engage with an homage to his poem, “We Wear the Mask:” the Fugees song, “The Mask.” This interpretive possibility was particularly exciting to my hip-hop loving self. It affirmed my admiration for the unique way hip-hop remixes and revitalizes culture by weaving intertexts and sampling sonic artifacts all while being really enjoyable to listen to. Now, while I love the Fugees’s sound, it is really Lauryn Hill that made the group so dynamic for me. Needless to say, the symposium hosted by the Black Student Union on Tuesday night regarding Lauryn Hill and Joan Morgan’s “hip-hop feminism” was an event I couldn’t miss.

While it was possible that Joan Morgan could have talked for two hours without setting off connections in my head about our class, it seemed all but inevitable that she would. And she did. Beth’s points about the both/and manifested in Morgan’s language as a resistance to reconciling her feminism with her love of hip-hop. To Morgan, the grey space, as she calls it, is a generative one.  She defended her love of hip-hop (a sometimes misogynistic genre) by claiming a very basic human right to be conflicted in our tastes and complex in our creeds. She made the important point that it’s one thing to enjoy art whose politics you don’t subscribe to (as in my own love of Yeats despite his, at times, fascist tendencies) and another thing to allow for the artists themselves to perpetrate dangerous, misogynistic behavior (as in the case of R. Kelly). Being able to hold two contradictory ideas in mind at once and acknowledge their irreconcilability is fundamental to what we do as English majors, so I was pleased with how Morgan articulated this through hip-hop.

Another such connection to class came from Ms. Lauryn Hill herself. The title of Morgan’s new book is She Begat This: 20 Years of the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which takes its lead from the lyric in the album’s 13th song “Everything is Everything.” The beginning of the line is “I begat this,” which I can no longer hear without thinking of the fugitive slave narrative tradition to begin with “I was born.” The first person singular pronoun is all over “Everything is Everything,” so much so that you begin to feel that Hill is speaking herself as an artist into existence. Morgan thinks of this as exactly the point. For female rap artists of the late 1990s, it became necessary to “forge one’s own path,” and indeed Morgan felt that as a journalist covering this exciting moment in hip-hop history. I don’t want to make it seem as if Hill’s work is allegorical of slavery or analogous to the experiences of Douglass or Jacobs, but I also cannot help but taking interest in the way the “I” functions in different forms of African-American literature. It brings me back to the relationship of the improvisational soloist and the jazz band, where one must stake their individuality in the context of a communal art project. Hill, notorious for sampling and being sampled, I’m sure would recognize this relationship to be vital to her artistic process.

Sampling was actually on my mind all night and has been on my mind for some time now. Morgan refers to The Miseducation as an “analog love story album,” which is both precisely why I love it so much and why I see it having another moment in 2019. Its message is still pertinent and thus it has found itself recurving into the music of my own generation. 20 years after The Miseducation dropped, Drake released his hit single, “Nice For What,” which both samples Hill’s “Ex-Factor” and updates the album’s themes of love, patience, and disappointment for the modern listener.  Similarly, the Fugees revitalize Dunbar on “The Mask” and it is here I have found myself looping back to the beginning. The loop is one of Beth’s ways of getting to thinkING, as songs were Reagon’s way of getting to singing and as hip-hop was my way of getting to blogging. We have used the fabric/quilt metaphor and I hope we continue to do so. I suggest we also consider the song and sample as guiding metaphors as we continue to move forward and back this semester.

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