Lauryn Hill’s 1998 live album MTV Unplugged 2.0 is a draft for revolution. A perfect second album that never quite was, Hill’s political critique is as prescient as it is poetic. She excoriates “Babylon’s benefactors” in what might now be described as a call for abolition, not only of the “criminal justice system,” but of all unholy wars. She denounces the commander-in-chief as the “son of perdition.” She deploys a cascade of legal metaphors, rapping her critique of modern-day lynching. Hill asks, “What do we expect of the system made for the elect?” The song The Mystery of Iniquity is as contemporary as it is unvarnished. Unfinished, the song epitomizes a certain set of struggles against injustice that is best defined as Black politics or the familiar key of Black diasporic life. Lauryn Hills gives us a draft for revolution. I was reminded of the power of this song at the last concert I attended, and perhaps ever will attend in person, Ms. Lauryn Hill performed in Old Westbury, New York, on February 15, 2020. Just before the borders closed, mandated by then President Donald Trump in the United States, the concert was a religious experience for me though I am an atheist, because music is my sacred ritual. I did not know if she would be on time, but it didn’t matter because I knew she had always been on time. With a full band in tow, she finally emerged dressed in all-white. Ever the perfectionist and show woman, Lauryn Hill dutifully performed the songs from over a decade ago that had sustained her and us, her audience.
From an album that never quite was, The Mystery of Iniquity continued to reverberate for me in subsequent months, the summer protests of 2020 in New York City where I live. I heard the prophecy anew in an echo of global chants for Black lives, amidst burning and looting as the coronavirus pandemic raged on. The line “Mafia with diplomas keeping us in a coma / Trying to own a piece of the American corona” took on a new prophetic power. As a professor of Black studies, I have long considered the distance between the mad ravings, conspiracies of the street corner, and the writings of Black academics denied tenure. In Lauryn Hill, I hear Revelations and Rastafari. I hear Haiti. I hear Boukman. I hear Jamaica. I hear the draft for Black revolution. From the Fugees to the Marleys, Lauryn Hill embraced and was embraced by a radical Afro-Caribbean tradition of the poetics of Blackness. She found her voice in the kindred dispossession of how to be Caribbean is to understand intimately the way that refugee gets amputated from its root refuge. Adjacent to a Caribbean diaspora poetics constantly grappling with what it means to be “the wretched of the earth,” Lauryn Hill embodies the call-and-response of the Black diaspora.
In her frustrated and defiant vulnerability, I hear the future prophesied in Black feminist writings by Audre Lorde. Lauryn Hill’s Black diasporic poetic philosophy is an unfinished draft for revolution, a published but unpublished circulating manuscript like philosopher Sylvia Wynter’s Black Metamorphosis. Lauryn Hill like Wynter understands the citational practice of love and theft called taking from Black women thinkers and artists. The price for thinking out loud, should we be surprised her chords and words resonated with Kanye West in 2004 when he took from her? All Falls Down extends Lauryn Hill’s prophecy, an unfinished draft. Expressing another vexed relationship with official knowledge and diplomas, the song on College Dropout features Syleena Johnson singing the taken words. Lauryn Hill’s absence on Kanye’s track is her refusal to be sampled in that moment. On Kayne West’s latest album Donda, a Lauryn Hill sample is featured, this time on her terms.
All falls down. Black feminists have known the apocalypse began with the theft of the first African body, the theft of Indigenous land, the severing of motive will. What cultural critic Saidiya Hartman calls “the plot of her undoing” is when it began. It began with what theorist Hortense Spillers calls “a sequence of blood.” Anishinaabe writer Grace Dillon has written of multiple timelines of apocalypse that resound with her as kindred for Black and Indigenous people in Nalo Hopkinson’s Caribbean sci-fi. For women of color, second sight is not a choice but a position of intersectional being. Intersectionality is not having the choice to not know the apocalypse is now. The lone voice of dissent against Afghanistan, a Black woman Congresswoman Barbara Lee knew this after 9/11 because she understands what it meant to mourn.
Music, for me now more than ever, is catharsis. Lauryn Hill is the lyricist, the soulful songstress, the MC, the oracle, the refugee, the philosopher. Her call-and-response is a draft of what revolution should feel like conflicted, contradictory, and most of all unfinished. ■