In 2000, a young Lauryn Hill gave a speech to the Academy of Achievement in Scottsdale, Arizona, to a group of people not much younger than her own 25 years. "I don't think I'm cool," she said to them. "Please don't be glorified by what people say. I'm not brilliant, I'm not a genius, I'm not even gifted really. I have gifts but these are things that all come from God, through me."
Hearing such an influential artist speak of herself in this way is a rare display of celebrity humility, perhaps an indication that Lauryn Hill was never really the typical celebrity.
Today, she is no longer the carefree, polarizing, vocal political spirit that crafted the album of a generation. At 41, Lauryn Hill, or Ms. Hill as she prefers to be called, is a different woman; a performer who has been transformed not just IN the public eye, but in many ways, because of it.
In 1998 Hill released her critically acclaimed solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Not only did the album's sales break records, it won the 1999 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, the first hip-hop album ever to do so. Immediately, the quiet New Jersey native was thrust into the public eye, reaching a level of celebrity she had only dreamed of. Her quest to prove her worth apart from her former group, the Fugees, had worked magnificently but, for Hill, the execution of her journey to self-discovery had worked almost too well. It wasn't long before she realized that living under the microscope was too harsh a reality to bear.
Jayson Jackson, Hill's former manager, told Rolling Stone, "She couldn't go to the grocery store without makeup, and I think that had an adverse effect on her." She retreated from the spotlight, finding solace in her children and her relationship with longtime beau Rohan Marley, the son of legendary reggae artist Bob Marley.
Her image was so fiercely cemented in hip-hop culture that the world was shocked when she re-emerged in 2001 to record her MTV Unplugged 2.0 album. Her locs were gone, and her tired face lay bare, save the tears that streamed down her cheeks. She ranted much of the performance, disavowing the spotlight she had once yearned for. "I had created this public persona, this public illusion, and it held me hostage. I couldn't be a real person, because you're too afraid of what your public will say. At that point, I had to do some dying," she said on the album's intro track.
The project was deemed a failure, and Hill was criticized harshly, with media outlets condemning her as "unhinged." Her career deteriorated. Her lack of punctuality made headlines, if she even bothered to show. Now Ms. Hill is back with a bombastic show and a reputation to regain.
Her latest concert series is titled "The MLH Caravan: A Diaspora Calling!" The tour kicked off in August in Philadelphia, following a successful warmup in Brooklyn. The music she's sharing on this tour has a distinct purpose. Hill explains, "The MLH Caravan allows me to continue the theme of unity and celebration of the many facets of cultural and artistic beauty throughout the African diaspora while on tour this summer and fall. In these days of tension, tumult, and transition, an exchange of this kind can yield direction, expression, understanding and empowerment as well as connection, self-love and appreciation that hopefully overflows into our respective communities."
Her tour aspirations reflect her former self. Performance videos show a vivacious, more focused visionary than the one on the brink of implosion in 2001. Those looking for a Miseducation revival may be disappointed. Hill does perform songs from the album, but they are almost always reimagined. What she brings to the stage is a refreshing remix of the old Hill and the new.
Lauryn Hill has come full circle. With the MLH Caravan, we see her as an artist who has finally settled comfortably into her identity. She is unconcerned with perceptions of her appearance, or criticism of her performances. She is wholeheartedly engaged in the music she is performing, and the message her show purports. Ms. Hill has stripped all distractions away, and brings us a show that is full of, created by, and ultimately fosters the spread of love through music.