COLUMBIA, SC It’s an hour til the new year. The clock is ticking on an empty stage directly in front of the South Carolina State House, where the notorious confederate flag had waved for fifty four years… until 2015 took it down. A congested and anxious crowd stretches all the way down Main Street as they patiently and confusedly wait for the infamously late Lauryn Hill. An equally confused DJ sporadically appears on stage, giving his all to hype up the crowd with old school hip hop and classic Fugees tracks. Ready or not here she comes. Lauryn strides across the stage in a layered cape-like black dress and rimmed hat. She sits quietly on the couch in the middle of the stage next to a table of burning white candles. She picks up a guitar, a surprising sight for most fans who know her as a rapper and poppy R&B singer, and lets her voice flow over the relieved crowd, offering a sense of peace to the close of an intense year for the city.
Since the release of her solo – and only – original album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998, Hill has fallen from the public eye to become somewhat of a musical mystery. Ms. Hill, famed for being the first female musician to win five Grammy Awards, is now renowned for her outlandish behaviour and critical comments toward the music industry and press. In 2013, Ms. Hill served three months in prison for tax evasion. Ten years prior, in 2003, Ms. Hill made controversial statements attacking the Catholic church about child molestation, while playing a Christmas concert at the Vatican. She often appears hours late for her shows and will sometime not appear at all.
Despite media criticism, Ms. Hill has kept herself busy with various personal projects. Her dedication to social justice and activism is little-publicized. She founded The Refugee Camp Youth Project in 1996 to help inner city kids and children living in harsh conditions in countries such as Zaire and Haiti. In fact, her performance at Columbia’s “Famously Hot New Year” was a benefit for local victims of the flood that occurred this past fall.
She recently resurfaced, contributing to “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” the critically acclaimed Netflix documentary. “Feeling Good,” is jaw dropping and sincerely showcases Ms. Hill’s connection to the late Nina Simone. The cover expands Simone’s work with a more upbeat rhythm and familiar sentimental undertones.
In the wake of her performance, Ms. Hill’s reputation inconsistency in the public arena is easy to dismiss. This just might be one of the last true artists, not owned by the industry, but by her artistry. She renounces her celebrity status and creates work on her own terms and time, producing for herself and not because it is expected or owed to anyone. Ms. Hill, mother of six and longtime partner of Rohan Marley (yes, Bob Marley’s son), has kept her values close to home. She abandoned the spotlight for the sake of her family and self, an act that we can assume is difficult for one of R&Bs superstars to undertake.
Ms. Lauryn Hill has been an inspiration and influence to many. In 2014, fellow rapper and activist Talib Kweli penned “In Defense of Ms. Hill” on Medium and produced a song titled “Ms. Hill,” spelling out her legacy and struggles with fame in 2005.
She has been referred to as one the greatest R&B singers of all time; and who could doubt it when her seventeen-year-old Miseducation still resonates with crowds and sells records. (Disclosure: Hill’s producer, Phil Nicolo, just made a statement that a new original album is on the horizon.)
As Ms. Hill ends her set with her greatest hit “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the once-restless crowd experiences a tone that cleanses, the capitol of South Carolina bids goodbye and good riddance to the bullet wounds and torrential rains of 2015, and her deep, melodic voice welcomes the birth of a new year.