Editor’s Note: This paper was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.
In a 1999 cover story for Rolling Stone, Lauryn Hill said about her exit from the Fugees, “But the funny thing about liberation is that once you get it, anything other feels awkward.” Over the next couple of years, however, she would experience liberation of a different nature–a deep spiritual renewal. Hints of Hill’s spiritual transformation were present in her post-solo album interviews and award acceptance speeches, but she clearly unfolded her journey of faith in an unexpected place, via an unassuming solo acoustic guitar performance on MTV’s Time Square Studios. Her 2001 MTV Unplugged No. 2 performance was received by much of the music press at the time as a public breakdown. In an interview with Essence after the performance, the journalist indicated, “a growing concern for her vulnerability. I worry about the 27-year-old’s willingness to speak from the heart about how passionately she has rededicated her life to God.” Other publications were not as gracious calling the performance a “nervous breakdown” filled with “psychobabble, self-help happy talk, ranting, and preaching” and touting “a philosophy tailor-made for the tantrum-throwing, I-don’t-do-stairs world of soul divas and supermodels.”
Near the beginning of the performance Hill tells her audience, “Fantasy’s what people want but reality is what they need. And I’ve just retired from the fantasy part.” According to Hill, reality begins with refusing to dress up her body or voice in the way that the music industry expects her to do. In her performance, she wears jeans and a NY Mets hat while singing with a hoarse, tired and cracking voice. Furthermore, Hill uses performative techniques akin to leading a church service with the understated vulnerability of her unaccompanied acoustic guitar. She utilizes testimony, preaching and singing songs of worship, all in a hip-hop folk style to witness to her audience a message of liberation through the gospel. A gospel she believes, in the words of Jesus, proclaims good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and the oppressed, and recovers the sight of those blinded by the system.
In a 2012 paper titled, “’The People Inside My Head, Too’: Madness, Black Womanhood, and the Radical Performance of Lauryn Hill,” La Marr Jurelle Bruce argues that Hill purposely aligns herself with the trope of mad, black woman in the vein of other female vocalists such as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Hillis not trying to destabilize her audience’s gendered and racial expectations but works in a performance mode perceived by listeners as someone who has gone crazy, when, in fact, she has not. Though she refers to herself throughout this performance as “crazy”, “deranged” and “emotionally unstable”, she is operating in a different mode, as a modern day prophet. Hill is prophetically speaking against “the system.”
She identifies enslavement to materialism, celebrity worship and self-centeredness as aspects of this system, which she names as part of late-capitalist American culture and people’s inner lives. But most notably, she opposes the historic and present racial discrimination against African Americans and uses her personal gospel transformation as a guide to speak up for those oppressed by the American justice system. The liberation Hill sings of is both physical and spiritual. Through this comprehensive sense of the gospel, Hill addresses the issues that lie at the center of both the oppressors and oppressed, a sinful heart in need of grace.
The beginning song tryptic of “Adam Lives in Theory,” “Oh Jerusalem” and “War in the Mind (Freedom Time)” outlines Hill’s belief on the source of personal and cultural oppression. Hill drops her strongest critique of the sinful world in “War in the Mind (Freedom Time).”
According to Hill, in her extended forceful raps, reminiscent of the delivery of African-American preachers, people’s minds are splintered realities in Western post-modernist cultures. She deconstructs any and all -isms–religions, televangelists, and academia–in broad strokes. These systems Hill describes as depraved and sinfully disordered but also acknowledges that individual human hearts are implicated. All of humanity is so wrapped up in these realities, Hill sings, that when “Truth comes, we can’t hear it/When you’ve been programmed to fear it.” At this point, a tonal shift occurs which becomes the foundation for the rest of the performance. Hill in her gritty, sandpaper-toned preaching rap tells her audience, “Where there’s no repentance there can be no admission/And that sentence, more serious than Vietnam/The atom bomb and Saddam and Minister Farrakhan.” The audience applauds in response to Hill’s call for repentance and then she goes on to explain, “His word has nailed/Everything to the tree/Severing all of me/From all I used to be.” Referencing the transformative power of the gospel on her life and as the vehicle through which freedom is obtained.
Thus far in the performance, Hill has spoken against oppressive systems and hinted at the gospel as a liberating force. These themes are then injected into real world struggles experienced by African-Americans in “The Mystery of Iniquity”, “So Much Things to Say” and “I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel).” In “I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel),” Hill humanizes the problem of systemic racism by retelling the story of the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man, by four plainclothes NYPD officers with forty-one bullets. At trial it was discovered that Amadou was reaching for his wallet in his pocket (and not a gun as the officers believed) when he was shot. Prefacing the song, Hill explains the difficulty she encountered writing this song and how God intervened, providing her a direction: “Now I realize that this song is about freedom. You see. We can look at one human being but it’s about the spirit of freedom being taken out. And how it’s taken out in all of us.” Tragically set using flowing arpeggiated minor chords in the lower register of her acoustic guitar, she sings about how black lives are thought of as “cheap,” “easy to be wasted” and views the shooting as history repeating itself. In her devastation over Amadou’s death, she finds comfort in Psalm 37:1, “Fret not thyself I say, against these laws of man” and subscribes what Pilate said in response to the Jews at Jesus’ trial to Amadou, “His blood is on their hands.” Singing desperately and pleadingly she loses her voice asking her audience to wake up from their sleep regarding tragic deaths like these and from now on to “choose well,” “rebel,” and repent.
Prophetically uncovering sinful hearts, which create and sustain these unjust systems, Hill reveals God’s heart for liberation of the oppressed but then in “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” she identifies as one of the oppressed, vulnerably singing about her own need for gospel liberation.
In the simple narrative, Hill details her internal struggle between Satan, who tells her peace of mind is not possible, and God, who says it is impossible without him. She sincerely seeks God’s truth, loving embrace, and longs to repent of her past, leaving her old self behind. Shifting from smoothly strummed chords to a heavy-laden reggae beat, Hill repeats over and over again that it is possible to find peace of mind with God’s gift of freedom. Here justice and peace are intrinsically linked by Hill, in the sense that justice will bring about a peace that “means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight.” In that space of acceptance of God’s freedom and rest she can sing softly, “What a joy it is to be alive/To get another chance,” and then overwhelmed by God’s grace in her life she tearfully sings about the peace she has found.
Following this emotional unloading is a twelve minute interlude, that functions like a sermon on sin, total depravity, materialism, pursuing God-given passion, gospel transformation, spiritual warfare, and marriage, with the goal of weaving into her audience a picture of personal and societal peace. Within this sermon, she also provides the framework for her performance and the gospel of liberation:
And that’s what all these songs about. Problem, cause and solution. Free your mind. Yeah. It’s like we all think that the gospel is join a church building and that’s deception. You know, the real gospel is repent. Which means let go of all that crap that’s killing you. Life is supposed be a pleasurable experience not this torment.
Hill’s powerful prophetic words for gospel justice within a broken system were not well received beyond MTV’s Time Square studio by critics or consumers. She still continues to be viewed, as she testified to in this performance, as “crazy”, “deranged” and “emotionally unstable” and is comfortable with accepting those labels. Her intent as a musical prophet is to wake up her audience from the slumber of consumerism, self-centeredness and racism of late-capitalist American culture. As Dr. Claudette Carr writes in a January 2014 post at Afritorial, “Lauryn Hill, is positioning herself in the tradition of Old Testament Prophets, as an outcast… a Concious [sic] Pariah.” Like Jeremiah, she weeps over the injustices in this world and like John the Baptist, she is preparing the way for her audience to see and accept the liberating freedom of the gospel. Hill’s performance, then, captures the love of God for each individual sinner and his love of justice, in this case, particularly for African-Americans suffering under systemic racism. And her prophetic call is for all of humanity to respond by doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with their God. Hill’s final words echo what the Apostle Paul wrote in the Book of Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free, stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” she proclaims:
God is saying, “Get free. Confess, man. Understand that. Look everybody is going through the same stuff. Same issues it’s just a bunch of repression.” And I’m sayin’, “Man, life it’s too, too valuable, man, for us to sit here in these boxes all repressed, you know, afraid to admit what we really going through.” You know what I’m sayin’? I’m tired of that.
 Touré. “Lady Soul”, Rolling Stone. February 18, 1999. Accessed February 3, 2015.
 See Ibid. and Pearl Cleage, “Looking for Lauryn”, Essence, July 1, 2002, 89-94.
 See Lauryn Hill, “Album of the Year Acceptance Speech”, 41st Annual Grammy Awards, CBS, aired February 24, 1999 and Lauryn Hill, “Essence Award Acceptance Speech“, 13th Annual Essence Awards, Turner Classic Movies, aired June 2, 1999.
 Cleage, “Looking for Lauryn”, 90.
 Nathan Rabin, “Lauryn Hill: MTV Unplugged Version 2.0”, The A.V. Club, May 21, 2002. Accessed January 11, 2015.
 Alex Petridis, “Songs from La-La Land”, The Guardian, April 26, 2002. Accessed January 11, 2015.
 La Marr Jurelle Bruce, “’The People Inside My Head, Too’: Madness, Black Womanhood, and the Radical Performance of Lauryn Hill”, African American Review (45, no. 3, Fall 2012), 371-89.
 Lauryn Hill, “Outro” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, with Lauryn Hill, Colombia Records, 2002.
 Jane Fritsch, “The Diallo Verdict: The Overview; 4 Officers in Diallo Shooting Are Acquitted of All Charges”, The New York Times, February 26, 2000. Accessed March 11, 2015.
 Hill, “Interlude 3” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.
 Tim Keller, “Justice”, (sermon, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City, NY, October 23, 2005)
 Hill, “Interlude 5” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.
 Claudette Carr, “Locating Lauryn Hill’s Consumerism.” Afritorial. January 14, 2014. Accessed March 11, 2015.
 Hill, “Outro” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.