One recent midsummer afternoon, I trekked from Central Brooklyn to the South Bronx to meet the pioneering hip-hop journalist and feminist writer Joan Morgan, author of the new book She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. We were to meet off the 5 train’s 138th Street stop, in an area some new shop owners and developers have taken to calling “SoBro.” This part of the Bronx feels industrial but also very much in flux. The highways are wide and noisy, and overpasses blot the skyline. On the same block, there are old, seemingly abandoned storefronts, low-level project buildings, and high-rise condos under construction.
Morgan and I were meeting for drinks and dinner at Beatstro, a new restaurant on Alexander Avenue that serves as an homage to hip-hop—arguably the multicultural borough’s most well-known cultural export. Hand-painted murals and graffiti-inspired paintings adorn the walls; classic records from artists such as the Wu-Tang Clan and MC Lyte line the shelves by the entrance. Definitive books on the art form—Decoded, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, The Tao of Wu—lie out on the tables. Soft, textured, and deep-ruby, the lounge furniture comes from Bronx-area manufacturers.
Joan Morgan was born in Jamaica, but as a child, in the seventies, she lived in the South Bronx with her mother and brothers. She attended Wesleyan University, then made her name writing about the intersections of art, culture, and politics for the Village Voice, Vibe, Spin, and Giant in the nineties. The nineties have been called the golden era of hip-hop writing; it’s also the decade in which hip-hop became cemented as an inescapable commercial force. In 1999, Morgan published her first book, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. The text is part coming-of-age story and part theory. In it, Morgan coins the term hip-hop feminism, which she meant as a way of asserting a feminist identity different from the first or second waves and different from the feminism of late-twentieth-century black academics like Patricia Hill Collins and Paula Giddings. The feminism Morgan proposed would be informed by the same postindustrial, post–civil rights, post-soul milieu from which hip-hop grew. It would be looser, more pliable, supple enough for questions, contradictions, accountability, and personal responsibility. It would not center the wrongs black women suffered at the hands of white people or men. It would be embodied and sex positive. “We need a feminism that possesses the same fundamental understanding held by any true student of hip-hop,” Morgan writes. “Truth can’t be found in the voice of any one rapper but in the juxtaposition of many. The keys that unlock the riches of contemporary black female identity lie not in choosing Latifah over Lil’ Kim, or even Foxy Brown over Salt-N-Pepa. They lie at the magical intersection where those contrary voices meet—the juncture where ‘truth’ is no longer black and white but subtle, intriguing shades of gray.”
Morgan’s book invigorated black women. Glossies like Honey excerpted it. My girlfriends and I, at the end of our high school careers, aching to leave home and become women— though unsure what that meant—devoured it. We’d grown up on a steady stream of MTV and BET, and our significant teen experiences played out to a backdrop of classics such as Ready to Die, Doggystyle, Aquemini, and All Eyez on Me. Many of the songs we loved smeared and disparaged women and performed an unfeeling and harsh masculinity, one the men and boys in our lives sometimes mirrored. Morgan’s intervention was critical. It also became canonical. A reissue of Chickenheads in 2017 features an introduction written by Brittney Cooper, a professor at Rutgers and the author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Finds Her Superpower. “The first graduate seminar I ever taught was on hiphop feminism,” she writes.
Released in 1998, Lauryn Hill’s first solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was also a canonical intervention—to both the previously male-dominated sphere of hip-hop as well as the white-dominated upper echelons of the music industry and pop culture. It immediately went to number one on the Billboard 200 and nearly went gold in its first week of sales. The song “Doo Wop (That Thing)” became the first number one single by a female hip-hop artist in history. It was the first rap project to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year (there has been only one since).
As an artist, Hill stood out for her assured delivery of intricate rhymes and her singing voice, an alto as bittersweet as memory. She’d blended the two approaches since her work earlier in the decade with the Fugees. Her solo debut was hotly anticipated, and Hill delivered. It’s a book of an album, with diasporic melodies and live instrumentation. She wrote lyrics with specific hyperlocal elements of black memoir, like in “Every Ghetto, Every City”:
A bag of Bontons, twenty cents and a nickel
Springfield Ave. had the best popsicles
Saturday-morning cartoons and kung fu
Main-street roots tonic with the dreads
July fourth races off of Parker
Fireworks at Martin Stadium
The untouchable PSP, where all them crazy niggas be
And car thieves got away through Irvington
And she wrote vulnerable, romantic negotiations in “Ex-Factor” and “I Used to Love Him,” as well as absolutions to a higher power in “Tell Him.” The record made a space for hip-hop to be tender and transcendent.
Publishing almost twenty years to the date of The Miseducation’s launch, Joan Morgan’s She Begat This is a cultural history of the landmark album. With deft, crisp prose, it’s a feat of cultural reportage that examines the impact of The Miseducation, especially on a black female audience. “I didn’t love the album enough to write that kind of treatment of it: track by track by track by track,” Morgan explained. “What I loved about the album, particularly twenty years later, was that it was a real cultural moment. I had a very strong reaction to The Miseducation when it came out. I was definitely interested in the Lauryn moment.”
In the late nineties, before Twitter hashtags and “black girls are magic” affirmations and natural-hair YouTubers, the “Lauryn moment” showed black women possibilities. Morgan wished to examine “where black girls were at the end of the twentieth century versus where we are now.” She Begat This includes the voices of other pioneers of hip-hop journalism, such as Kierna Mayo, dream hampton, Michaela Angela Davis, and Akiba Solomon, as well as those of activists and culture workers like Lynnèe Denise and Tarana Burke. Morgan is finishing a Ph.D. in American studies, but She Begat This does not feel like a staid piece of theory or criticism. When I asked Morgan about her clear and musical literary voice, she said when she first started writing, “I literally had just moved out of the South Bronx to Harlem. And so I really write the way I speak, and I write the way I think, and that has a lot of different influences. This borough is certainly one of them. Going to school in Riverdale—at a really elite prep school in a completely different part of the Bronx—is one of them. Wesleyan is another one. Being Jamaican. And so I flipped back and forth between those things all the time.”
In the intervening twenty years since Lauryn Hill’s album was released, I’ve left my mother’s house, lived in three cities, had three careers and four serious boyfriends, gained new friendships, and lost old ones. The queer women–led Movement for Black Lives has changed our lexicon—terms like school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, and intersectional feminism are mainstream. The most visible pop star in the world is Beyoncé; she released a visual album, Lemonade, that draws from African diasporic spirituality and the lyricism of Alice Walker’s womanism. Morgan’s central premise is that Lauryn Hill gave birth to now. “This is a really incredible moment to look around in pop culture and see representations of yourself that are diverse enough that somebody goes, Oh, okay, that person reminds me of me. But we didn’t have that for a really long time,” Morgan said. “I’m a Caribbean first-generation immigrant who grew up in the South Bronx in the height of the rubble. I didn’t see me anywhere.”
Morgan and I talked about the confounding highs and lows of this moment, when black women’s representation in the media is perhaps the best it’s ever been, but we still earn sixty-three cents on the dollar compared with white men. We’re four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women and 35 percent more likely to die at the hands of our intimate partners. Even thinking about the glorious success of the Bronx-born Cardi B can be disheartening. Her debut album went to number one this past spring (with a single that sampled Hill’s “Ex-Factor,” no less), but she was only the second female emcee ever to earn the number one spot on the Billboard 200. Over the course of two hours, Morgan and I didn’t come to any neat conclusions.
Morgan told me that we are in “crisis mode” when it comes to our interpersonal relationships, especially romantic. She said she couldn’t have anticipated this nadir when she first started writing about black women and feminism in the nineties, though perhaps she should have. “I am meeting more and more black women who are suffering from loneliness, a really deep ongoing loneliness that manifests into other things like depression,” she told me. Our increased connectivity and digital intimacy may have come at the cost of sustainable real-life social interactions and community building. “It doesn’t help if we don’t call things what they are,” Morgan said. “We need to talk about black women’s health. We need to talk about the things that are making us stressed out. We are carrying such stress within our bodies but not acknowledging that some of it comes from home.”
Lauryn Hill announced an anniversary tour in support of The Miseducation’s anniversary, but as of now, she’s canceled several dates. Many of the live shows she’s performed over the past two decades have disappointed fans with their late starts, bizarre wardrobe choices, and manically arranged versions of hits. The Miseducation is her only studio album. It remains to be seen whether she’ll ever release a full-length project again. Morgan wrote an Essence cover story on Hill in 2006. It concludes, “Not only has L-Boogie left the building but the Lauryn Hill icon we helped create may very well also have been an illusion.”
Hill is not an icon for today. The burden of being the first or the only one is onerous. Perhaps she shouldn’t have ever had to carry it. Morgan said she hopes that today’s black women will gain an ability to exist between a “spectrum of identities and experiences,” accept goodness and pleasure, and learn to endure the discomfort of naming our pain. For all her vulnerability on The Miseducation, Lauryn was still oblique about her troubles. She filtered so much of herself through an unattainable, unassailable goddess persona, with stifling, middle-class, ghetto-shaming politics. Beyoncé is notable for her media silence, but the narratives of her music speak candidly. “Bey is in a much better place than Lauryn was because Bey could talk about her relationship and bare it all,” Morgan said. And yet Beyoncé’s power and independence probably wouldn’t have been possible without Hill. Morgan’s new book is a useful document, a multidimensional map, of the fruitful era that made it happen.
Danielle A. Jackson was born in Memphis and lives in Brooklyn. She is an associate editor at Longreads and has contributed essays to the Poetry Foundation, Literary Hub, and The New Yorker online.