Lauryn Hill is rightly regarded as one of the most exciting and original talents of her generation. As singer, songwriter and rapper, she first came to prominence as a member of the hip-hop trio the Fugees, before launching a short-lived but impactful solo career. She is also regarded as one of music’s lost geniuses, avoiding the limelight — and the studio — to raise her five children with Rohan Marley, son of reggae legend Bob. Right now, with a life that has involved no-shows at concerts and a prison sentence, it doesn’t look like she’ll be adding to her five Grammy awards.
Acting in Hollywood or the Fugees?
Singer-songwriter, producer and actress Lauryn Noelle Hill was born in East Orange, New Jersey, on May 26, 1975, to Valerie Hill, a teacher, and Mal Hill, a computer consultant. The family relocated first to New York, then to Newark, before putting down roots in South Orange.
A natural performer, Hill was singing at school and at Harlem's Apollo Theater by the age of 13. Soon after, she met Prakazrel "Pras" Michel and his cousin, Wyclef Jean, and the three formed a band focusing on hip hop, soul and R&B. First called Tranzlator Crew (later becoming the Fugees), the group began performing in local clubs, with Hill singing lead vocals — she taught herself to rap around this time.
Hill also tried her hand at acting at an early age. When she was just a high school sophomore (attending Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey), Hill landed a recurring role on the television soap opera As the World Turns. Soon after, she earned a featured part in the popular film Sister Act II: Back in the Habit, starring Whoopi Goldberg.
The Rise of the Fugees: 'The Score'
Instead of heading to Hollywood, Hill enrolled at Columbia University in 1993. She studied there for a year before pursuing a performance career. The Fugees released their first album, Blunted on Reality, in 1994, but it met with mixed reviews and poor sales. However, a brace of remixes by producer Salaam Remi would move the group’s sound in a new direction and start to win fans over. Two years later, the group released a hugely successful second project, The Score (1996). Featuring the hit single "Killing Me Softly," which highlighted Hill's bold and soulful vocals, the album sold 17 million copies — making the Fugees the highest-selling rap group of all time — and garnered two Grammy awards (best rap album and best R&B performance by a duo or group).
Following The Score's release in 1996, the Fugees have briefly reunited for live performances, but have not worked on another album. These scant appearances have been somewhat strained, amid rumours of tensions between the three members of the group. A few attempts to reunite in the studio were also unsuccessful, with Pras saying: “We went in the studio and recorded a couple records that were incredible. But, to put it nicely, it’s dead. Me and Clef, we on the same page, but Lauryn is in her zone.”
Going Solo: 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill'
Lauryn Hill's first solo effort, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), established her as a headline talent in her own right. The album, recorded in Jamaica, has sold more than 19 million copies worldwide since 2009 and earned the singer-songwriter five Grammys, three American Music Awards, a Billboard Award, a Soul Train Award and an MTV Music Award. Again, it combined soul with hip hop and splashes of reggae, showing a musical lightness of touch that belied some of the deeper, personal issues the lyrics delved into. The break-up of the Fugees was handled deftly — “It’s funny how money change a situation,” she rapped on "Lost Ones" — while the infectious lead single, "Doo Wop (That Thing)," rocketed straight to No. 1 on the Billboard 100. “Hill has made an album of often-astonishing power, strength and feeling,” wrote Entertainment Weekly.
There was one bitter coda, however. New Ark, the musicians who worked on much of the album, eventually filed a suit against Hill in 1998 for failing to credit them properly. The case was settled out of court.
It was a dark period for Hill. Uncomfortable with fame, she retreated into spirituality, bible study and shied away from the limelight. “I don’t think I ever handled celebrity,” she told Essence, “for a period of time I had to step away entirely.”
After an extended hiatus, Hill returned in 2002 with MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, a recording of her two-hour acoustic performance on the popular series MTV Unplugged. Most reviews were disappointed, not only by Hill’s new direction — there was a distinct lack of rapping — but also by her persona, which was seen by some as self-indulgent and wearing the weight of the world on her shoulders. “Probably not the worst album ever released by an artist of substance… but in the running,” was the judgement of the Village Voice.
Outside of her performance career, Hill is a dedicated activist. She founded an organization dedicated to serving underprivileged urban youth called the Refugee Camp Youth Project; the group raises money to send inner-city children in Hill's native New Jersey to summer camp.
Hill has five children with longtime boyfriend Rohan Marley, the son of Bob Marley: Zion (born in August 1997), Selah Louise (November 1998), Joshua (January 2002), John (2003) and Sarah (January 2008). Hill also has a son from a later relationship, Micah, who was born on July 23, 2011.
Facing Prison for Tax Evasion
In May 2013, a 37-year-old Hill made headlines when she was sentenced to three months in prison for not paying federal taxes on approximately $1.8 million in earnings. The hip hop singer had pleaded guilty to the tax-evasion charges in 2012. "I needed to be able to earn so I could pay my taxes, without compromising the health and welfare of my children, and I was being denied that," Hill said in a statement, following her sentencing. Sympathy was already in short supply from the many fans who were denied refunds in 2009 when she cut a show short (and then cancelled her comeback tour) for unspecified health reasons.
John Legend, who played piano on "Everything Is Everything," sums up her short but very sweet career perfectly: “Lauryn had that blend of toughness and soulfulness, melody and swagger. She did it better than anybody still has done it. People are still trying to capture that moment.”
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