5 MINUTES WITH MS. HILL
“We can’t plan life. All we can do is be available for it.”
I’m incredibly honoured and very proud to have the legendary Ms. Lauryn Hill aka L Boogie on this modest little Polaroid & Music platform of mine.
Normally I kick off my features with an elaborate introduction of the artist, but you have to be born in the 2000’s or simply live under a rock if you don’t know who Ms. Lauryn Hill is. You must know her from the Fugees , or you must know her from her debut solo album ‘The MisEducation Of Lauryn Hill’. Some of you must know her from her role in Sister Act II. In any case, thousands of words and many ink has been spilled over this woman and her incredible work, so if you are completely oblivious to this ‘grand dame’ yet eager to learn more so you can understand the importance of this feature better, then I kindly suggest you catch up on the basics via her Wikipedia here, or dive into a full track by track break down of her prolific debut album here, or watch some old Fugees live footage here.
Now. Let me go straight to the story behind the Polaroid. That’s the reason why most of you are here anyway.
Disclaimer. This feature is written out in traditional APS style where I recount my personal memories attached to a Polaroid moment. Over the years, as I evolved to video interviews, due to time constraints and the heavy workload that comes with video, writing became less prior and my written features became more objective and less personal with a bigger focus on the video content. More artist, less Ouni. Because this feature aligned itself with the 10th year of me doing APolaroidStory.Com I decided to share this moment the way I started out 10 years ago. By writing it out, up close and personal, from my perspective and exact mindset at the time.
Do you remember the first time you ever heard or saw Lauryn Hill? I do. Crystal clear. I first saw Lauryn Hill in Sister Act II. I’m not sure if I saw it in the movies or on TV but I remember being stunned, not only by Lauryn her beauty, but also her voice, which she eloquently showcased throughout the movie. Most of all, I connected to the character she played; a young girl who wanted to follow her dreams but dealt with resistance from her mother yet followed her own path anyway. It was the first time I watched a movie where a I saw a character that actually went through something I could relate to. It didn’t matter the story was set in another country, or the main characters’ skin color and language was different from mine. I found out much later in life that Sister Act II was directed by Bill Duke, somebody I have much admiration and respect for and I understood even more why this modest little movie is still so magical, uplifting and inspiring. A few years passed and my cousin came into my house one day. I was a pre-teen, my cousin was already 18 and she had a CD in her hands with 3 ‘statue’ heads on, titled ‘The Score’ from the ‘Fugees’. She went straight to the cd player and put on a track titled; ‘Killing Me Softly’. The minute I heard Lauryn Hill’s voice it engraved itself in every fiber inside of me that could possibly feel ‘vibration’. Hooked on the track, I went straight to the record store and bought the Fugees CD myself and was accidentally thrown into a world of hiphop I only knew from a one hour radio special on Sundays. At that time, the only CD’s I personally owned were Michael Jackson’s ‘BAD’ & ‘Dangerous’ and Mariah Carey’s ‘Music Box’. So to discover the gritty sound of ‘How Many Mics’ was quit a sonic change to say the least. I was too young to understand all the slang in the album (although I understood the group calling out ‘wack rappers’ very well: “Sold your soul for some secular muzak that’s wack, plus you use that loop over and over, claiming that you got a new style , your attempts are futile, Ooo Chile.”) but sonically I felt that this was the music I wanted to dive deeper in. And then one day, a couple of years later I was in a little record store and I found a copy of a CD called ‘The MisEducation Of Lauryn Hill’. In the 90’s you didn’t have this overload of artist information. You had to buy special music magazines , which I didn’t really have access to, music blogs were non-existing and the internet was barely kicking off. I lived in a small Flemish village called ‘Veldegem’ and nobody in my surroundings taught me anything about art or culture. Culture wasn’t important in my early child education, I was raised in a “you do what I say and shut up, your hobbies are not a job” type of era. Nobody introduced me to hiphop, it was something that came to me by accident. So all I could do was watch MTV to get any type of information about any type of artist and even then, it was dance, pop and rock music that took most of the broadcasting space but still, there was a plethora of video making-offs, interviews and live shows on there and endless amounts of music videos, which as a young music nerd I devoured. MTV literally was my music bible. (#ripMTV btw) I was completely oblivious to Lauryn Hill her actual career path so far and had no idea she had a new album out, I just recognised her name from that Fugees album I purchased years before. Back then, most record stores had headphones connected to a CD player and you were allowed to have a listen before you purchased an album. I listened and not much later I took that album home.
Over the course of two decades ‘The MisEducation Of Lauryn Hill’ has been a staple in my music collection and an always re-occurring soundtrack to certain events in my life. I must have played this album a 1000 times and more in this lifetime. It was the foundation of my future taste in music and it set the bar in what I found to be great production, great vocals and it definitely set the bar for the type of music I liked since the entire album is laced in soul, reggae, boom-bap, r’n’b, gospel and hiphop. But more importantly it set the bar for me in such a way that to call something ‘great’ music, it needed to have a message that can transcend time and space. I was raised in a very religious environment, where I was in bible study, catechism class and christian camps on one week and then the next weekend I was raised as a muslim girl into Islam in a mosque. Sounds completely ludicrous, but it’s my story and this is what happens when you are the child of divorced parents who come from different religious backgrounds. As a child it was hard to find anybody who could relate to the symbolism, ethical codes, dogma and constant religiously laced environment I was exposed to. Lauryn Hill’s album did not only discuss, early motherhood, heartbreak and her relationship with friends or lovers, something I only fully understand years later, since I was too young at the time to fully grasp all the topics she was talking about, but I did understand every religious or spiritual reference she addressed on her album and her connection to the divine. And she did that while singing and rapping over an eclectic, rich production infusing different genres with actual instruments. There was nobody like her doing that in the mainstream realm of music. The CD cover booklet with lyrics helped me discover new words and topics, which enriched my English vocabulary and sparked my interest to look up what she was talking about. The snippets of the album made me contemplate about the meaning of ‘LOVE’ when I was just in puberty myself. Love or relationships was not something that was discussed in my upbringing, but Lauryn’s point of view of young girls sleeping around always stuck by me: “Plus when, you gave it up so easy, you ain’t even fooling him, if you did it then, then you’d probably fuck again.” A few simple bars sung in an uplifting way to wittily teach the simple concept of having self-worth as a girl/woman. Simple but effective, since that line always stuck by me for some reason.
Even later when I distanced myself from religion in general and I was introduced to Buddhism, universal law, astrology and spirituality and replaced the gods for energy, galaxies, stars, constellations and planets, I still found a lot of universal symbolism about fait and love in her album. Lauryn Hill allegedly wrote ‘The MisEducation Of Lauryn Hill’ somewhere between her 18-22 and by the time the album was released she was pregnant of her first son Zion at age 23. Looking back as an adult myself now, it’s quite stunning that a young girl that didn’t even live a full grown up life shared so much wisdom and knowledge in her debut album. I’m spiritual enough to understand that I can believe she was purely ‘channeling’ a message, almost like a prophet. Until this day, I carry much of the moral codes and little messages that are in that album with me, whether she addresses loyalty or faith or betrayal, unconditional love, painful break-ups or even the universal laws of karma. Every word or bar or vocal in that album still feels relevant to this day. In times when I need comfort or guidance or courage, Ms. Hill’s debut album is what I grab towards. Over the years many of her fans and myself started to understand that Ms. Hill didn’t follow the traditional road of celebrity, we understood she wasn’t the type of artist you would see on every red carpet, fashion or award show and she sure as hell wasn’t about to release music like fashion designers do every six months with their runway collections. Besides the release of her intimate acoustic album ‘MTV Unplugged 2.0 in 2002, her ‘Ode’ to (and with) Bob Marley wrapped into a single titled ‘Turn Your Lights Down Low’ in 1999 and years later in 2014 the critical and bar heavy sniper track ‘Consumerism’ there was never a new album released. I didn’t really care that much, her debut album was fulfilling enough with every replay that I was fine with no new music out. I only saw Lauryn Hill perform live once in my life, at a Belgian festival called ‘Cactus Festival’ in the city of Bruges somewhere in the summer of 2005. I didn’t even start APolaroidStory.Com back then. I remember standing front row and being in total awe. Yes, she already played her songs in a different tempo/production back then, but I really didn’t care. It’s her work, she can do what she wants with it. It’s thàt good, the message is still relevant, the rendition of the song is almost not important anymore. She is one of the best rappers out there. She is a great vocalist. I wouldn’t care if she performed her songs upside down on a ladder. Yes it’s a bit harder to sing along to her classics, but I loved her new renditions too, so I didn’t care. My hero was right in front of my eyes and she was brilliant. When I returned back to my friends after the concert I noticed for the first time there was a certain resistance towards her as an artist. In my total admiration I completely missed the criticism the crowd – including my friends – had for the concert and her performance. I didn’t understand it, but it was there. The criticism never left. The fact that over the years Ms. Hill for some reason doesn’t show up on scheduled time didn’t decrease that global criticism, and as time passed by, when you heard the name ‘Lauryn Hill’, the word association people would have were: ‘late’, ‘difficult’, ‘diva’, ‘one album hit wonder’, ‘overrated’. Add this social media era to the mix where everybody has an ‘expert opinion’ on everything and I see those words popping up, in comments on my timeline, on practically every Lauryn Hill article I see passing by to this day.
However, my respect for her still stand the test of time. Mostly because I simply never saw an artist like her. Yes, many great artists came after her, yes Beyonce is amazing, great, fantastic, but she is not Lauryn Hill. Sometimes Ms. Hill reminds me of Nina Simone. Another lady who didn’t let anyone push or control her and was an individualist. A true artist. I never followed the ordinary path and I made atypical choices in my life, maybe it’s because of that I never associated Lauryn Hill with the word associations I see flying across the net. I have tremendous respect for her, because from what I know, she is not to be persuaded by money. (Ms. Hill allegedly declined a 90 million dollar offer for a reunion tour with The Fugees.) She is not seduced by fame or glamour. She doesn’t fuck with vanity. And as I grew up into the adult I am today – or at least try to be – I started to appreciate that side of her more than ever, especially after meeting so many artists building APolaroidStory.Com. Where we now applaud Cardi B for having a baby in the midst of her career, 20 years ago Lauryn Hill was mocked, scrutinised and critiqued for her choice to become a mother during the same time she won 5 Grammys during the hight of her solo career. Mind you, she already had two Grammys from her time with the Fugees. And what did she do? She said: ‘Au Revoir’ and had five more children after that and disappeared from the public spotlight. I have tremendous respect for that, because you have to trust your talent and your skill so much to understand and whole heartily believe that you can have different choices and paths in your life and that chasing superficiality like fame and money is not something you MUST do if you want to become a true artist. There are different choices you can make. You don’t hàve to be the burned-out, tormented, faded and opioid addicted superstar desperately keeping yourself relevant in the media or overly present on social media in order to succeed or to satisfy an image of what people find ‘successful’ or ‘famous’ or ‘rock n roll’. I understood Lauryn Hill just lives by the beat of her own drum, fame is just something that came with her art and she will not compromise her flow in life just for the sake of satisfying an image the world thinks she must fit in. So, she does things her way. That takes tremendous character. If anything, perhaps Lauryn Hill is more a messenger than an entertainer? Besides, booing and whistling doesn’t fade Ms. Hill that much. When she was only 13 years old, she entered a talent competition and got boo’d out by the entire crowd but kept going anyway. With sass and confidence. Un-bothered. Diamonds and Pressure, right? I do admit, in defence of all the grumpy people cursing her out because Ms. Hill keeps on being late for her own shows: standing for an hour staring at an empty stage does hurt your legs a bit, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed Ms. Hill somehow finds a way to show up on time, so she can give her fans’ legs a rest and shut up the haters once and for all.
So. Knowing all that, it also meant I already accepted I would probably never be able to meet Lauryn Hill or portray her on this modest little platform of mine. Miracles would have to occur in order for that to happen. And then, right before the summer of 2019 kicked off, Belgian festival Couleur Cafe announced Lauryn Hill as a closing headliner of their 2019 festival edition. I’ve been doing APolaroidStory.Com out of passion and love for almost 10 years, most of it after my working hours. I’m at the crossing point of ‘should I stay or should I go now’, an existential crisis where I question everything. My life. My work. My dedication to music. The hours I spend studying it. The sacrifices I made of pursuing a ‘creative career’ instead of a corporate one. On top of that, I lost most of my admiration or let’s say idolisation for artists over the years. I transformed blind admiration and fan worship into simple respect for their music and craftsmanship. Long story short, I have changed a lot while doing APS, I’m no longer the naive fan and I can’t write from that perspective anymore, and the knowledge I acquired about the music industry made me less romantic and more critical of what I consider to be ‘great’ artists. In the midst of this personal crisis, I hear Lauryn Hill is performing in Brussels and I thought by myself: For the sake of your dedication from the past 10 years, you have to at least try to take that Polaroid picture, somehow, someway. I tried to ignore the : ‘but she will never do this, I don’t have anybody to introduce me, I’m an irrelevant shrimp in a big ocean of content sharks, I’m just a little platform in Belgium with not enough subscribers or followers, –voices in my head and decided to give it a go.
I first approached the festival organisation and asked if they could help me introduce me to Lauryn Hill, something I did years before with another Belgian festival in order to get my D’Angelo Polaroid. Couleur Café quickly briefed me that her team is not responding to anything or anyone, and that it would be impossible and they don’t see it happening. The standard answer I mostly get from any Belgian entity in music. Every time I try to respect hierarchy, nothing happens. Funny enough, the ‘what the hell are you asking, are you crazy, this is impossible, who the hell are you anyway’ undertone is a very Belgian mentality. If I ever let that stop me, I would never have the body of work I assembled over the years. But as mentioned before. I was tired. Tired of keeping my platform alive. Tired of the endless editing hours that lead to not enough viewers or readers or whatever the fuck ever. Tired of swimming against the current. Fucking Tired. And I gave up on the idea. Where the old me would throw a party and an expo to celebrate my 10th year anniversary of doing Apolaroidstory.com, which I kicked off on August 7th in 2009, the current me in 2019 decided to skip the entire festival season, in an attempt to distance myself from my own work and take a break from it while battling my de-motivation and disbelieve in my work.
And then, one fine Sunday morning I woke up, well knowing Lauryn Hill would perform in Belgium and me planning of not going. I knew I was giving up. I went from my bed straight to my computer, lit up a joint and all of a sudden a voice said to me: “At least try Ouni, don’t rely on anybody, if you learned anything, you have to make it happen yourself, nobody will do it for you, nobody will help, even after a decade, so just fucking try it and do it yourself, accept that your hustle will never stop or become more easy, so just do it… once more, again, for christ sake, it’s not some random pop star from around the block, It’s L Boogie Ouni, she deserves that extra push.” I sighed and rolled my eyes at this annoying voice in my head constantly telling me not to give up and started researching. While going through previous research notes, I found one email that was supposedly tied to the tour management of Lauryn Hill. I figured the mail would probably bounce back or no longer function, but I decided to mail anyway. I send my request at 2.30PM, took a shower and let it go, having the peace knowing that I at least tried with the means and courage I have. Later that afternoon I was hanging at a friend’s place and he was asking me why I wasn’t going to Lauryn Hill. I said that I didn’t have the travel budget for an entire team, and that although I love her she would be possibly late, and that I have too much respect for her to blatantly ‘bumrush’ her without a proper introduction for a Polaroid and that it would be a problem for public transport and me getting back home if she would show up later than expected… All the excuses in my mental book that I could possibly think of, fuelled by my current de-motivation and disbelieve in my work. While I said all this to my friend, I opened my emails and to my total shock found this in my mailbox:
I could not believe this was happening. The universe works in such mysterious ways. How the hell did THIS happen? And then it occurred to me. Ms Lauryn Hill doesn’t do ànything she doesn’t want to, so this means she actually likes the concept of my work, how small and insignificant it may be. Two hours later I was on my way to Brussels with two of my loyal volunteers who sacrificed their Sunday to come and help me capture this moment. I was briefed that I had to show up in the artist area right after her performance. I had my hopes up that she would start her performance on time, because I knew in my heart, that if she was late, our meeting would be later and quite possibly may be cancelled last-minute. And yes, Ms Lauryn Hill was late. And yes the crowd was not having it. My heart broke a bit because I love her so much, I had a hard time with the criticism, booing and whistling of the crowd. Although I get it, I also have the opinion that if you don’t accept that Lauryn Hill may be late , after a time span of this happening over 20 years, you best not go to a festival just for her, unless you just accept that this is what comes with Ms. Hill and wait and pray for the best. There are not many artists I have that patience for, but Lauryn Hill is one of them. If Prince would be alive, I would wait for hours. Same for D’Angelo, same for Stevie Wonder. If the level of excellence has a certain magic to it, I’ll wait because I know my chances of witnessing magic and be mesmerised are slim. And the older I get, the more I realise that.
So after an hour delay, Miss Hill showed up and did in my honest opinion an amazing show. She had sound difficulties which seemed to frustrate her a bit and I my heart dropped again. I briefed the team and said: “Listen guys, don’t be surprised if our moment will be cancelled, maybe she will be grumpy because of the sound difficulties and will not be in the mood to take freaking Polaroid pictures with us randoms in the middle of the night.” Even then, I still didn’t believe it would happen. Lauryn wrapped up her performance after a solid hour set and while her band was jamming out their instrumental outros, I was already running with my team towards the festival’s press area. I mailed her team that I couldn’t enter the artist area since I didn’t have the right badge and they would have to come and pick me up at the press area. Not much later I hear over the security speaker intercom that press security should immediately give access to a ‘girl with a Polaroid’. I showed the security at the press area my Polaroid camera and I was told to immediately go to the main production office. Once arrived at the production office, I received a phone call from an American number on my cell phone. I picked up and a female voice said to me through the phone: “ELISABETH, WHERE ARE YOU, YOU ARE NOT WHERE YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE.” I felt like I was being reprimanded by a high-school teacher. I told the voice on the phone that we didn’t have access to the artist area and that I just did what I was told to do and the lady on the phone hung up on me. Seconds later I hear a voice filling the entire production hallway yelling: “ELISABETH. WHERE ARE YOU?!” I peeped out the door of the production main office and at the end of the hallway I saw Lauryn’s tourmanager ‘Rebekah’ literally running towards me and I squealed; “YES MAM, I AM HERE MAM,” while I whispered at my team: “Get our stuff together, we have to go!!!” While running towards her I shook out my hand to introduce myself but Rebekah firmly said: “NOPE, THERE IS NO TIME FOR THAT, KEEP MOVING. BETTER RUN BEFORE SHE CHANGES HER MIND. RUN. GO TO THE LEFT. RUN. FASTER.” Imagine me running with my team, leaving Rebekah who followed up closely behind us, all running towards Ms. Lauryn Hill like crazy people, it was hilarious.
And then there she was. She was standing at the end of a huge stairway dressed in all black, she was obviously hearing the rumbling of us running towards her, she leaned over the balcony and said: “Helloooo….? Is it you with the Polaroid….?” I was standing at the beginning of the staircase, looking up above – I swear – like Romeo to Juliet; yelling back: “Yes, Yes, It IS ME. WITH THE POLAROID”. We run up the staircase and once I reached the floor, I shook out my hand, completely out of breath and introduced myself and my team to Ms. Lauryn Hill. I don’t want to sound all superficial, but damn, she is so BEAUTIFUL in real life. She greeted us, all relaxed, with perfect skin and make-up, straight after an hour performance and said: “So where do you want to do this?”. I was stunned, most of the artists I encounter via management are sometimes not even briefed about me or my work and I always have to explain first what I do, so the artists understand what is expected from them, but she was very well-informed about our Polaroid moment. I told her a white wall would be the safest option and while I was preparing my film and camera, completely out of breath I expressed my love and respect for her and tried to explain that I have been listening to her music ever since the Fugees to ‘The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill’ and that her music stuck by me over a period of 20 years and that I’m so incredibly grateful that she granted me this moment to portray her on Polaroid. Honestly it was a confused monologue of a crazy person, but hey. I was meeting L Boogie, it was hard for me not to be completely shook to meet a woman whose artistry had a huge impact on my life. She was super co-operative and gave me different poses. Her energy was warm, kind and open. She told me she loves Polaroid and that she likes all the stuff you can do to alter the film. She was genuinely down for this entire process and it was an amazing moment for me , as a simple fan of her and her music to experience. She let me take Polaroids of her boots, she asked me to take a full portrait, (I didn’t have the balls to tell her that full silhouette on a Polaroid is somewhat challenging and most likely to end up in an underexposed failure but hey, Ms. Hill wants a full silhouette? I’ll give her a full silhouette.) In the midst of our brief meeting, another person was nervously waiting for a moment with Lauryn Hill. Lauryn Hill’s tour manager took her under her arm and told me: “You better take a Polaroid of this girl right here too.” I was still processing my meeting with Lauryn Hill while our team was getting our stuff together to leave, and I only realised later that the girl who was waiting, just as stunned as me to meet Lauryn Hill was rising star ‘Sampa The Great’. It was comforting to witness that most people are completely flabbergasted when they meet Lauryn Hill. I’d compare it with looking straight into to sun for a couple of seconds. You feel a bit dizzy and your eyes see glittering stars and light flares.
So… what’s the moral of the story?
I don’t know. Good things happen when you work hard? The universe works in mysterious ways? What is meant to be, will be? Everything is Everything? What you trow out, comes back to you star? Change, it comes eventually? Deep in my heart, I made up my mind to find my own destiny? Be fearless like Lauryn and move into your life by the beat of your own drum against the status quo of expectations, against all odds?
I don’t know. All I can say is that this moment happened at a time when my faith about practically everything in my life, including the ‘purpose’ of my work, is seriously tested. And that this incredibly beautiful and important moment happened in the midst of that sentiment. If anything, this encounter gave me a little bit more hope that ‘hard work’ and ‘persistence’ and ‘believing in yourself’ or ‘it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey’ are not empty quotes tricking us into making life a bit easier. As I said, I’m in a period of my life where I question everything, even aspirational quotes. Truth be told, I don’t know the moral of this story, at best, this write out, is the exact backdrop behind this Polaroid moment. It’s literally the millions of unfiltered thoughts in my head attached to these Polaroid shots. An instant moment with Ms. Hill, an instant moment in my restless mind. All I know, is that I’m incredibly grateful that this moment happened. Because I know it’s very rare. Ms. Hill is not the type of artist who engages in a lot of press interviews or shoots, wherever she is in the world. She can have the biggest directors and photographers travel with her if she wants to. But for some reason, she just liked A Polaroid Story. I know my relentless believe in my work and the continuous executing of it over the years, no matter the opinion of others lead me to this moment and for that I’m humbled, grateful and proud.
It took me two days to have the courage to look at the Polaroids because I had to take them in such a short time span, I didn’t have the courage to look at them out of fear to see them developed badly or shot too dark, overexposed, badly framed or with fucked up film. I waited 3 days to look at my D’Angelo polaroid caus I was only allowed to take one shot and I was scared to death his eyes where closed. LOL. Polaroid gives you the best results if you take time for each and every shot, so shooting like I did, nervous, with my heart racing and a bit in awe, one quick snap after the other in less than 3 minutes is risky business. When I finally had the courage the look at my shots I was relieved to see the Polaroids turned out just fine. I also realised I wanted to ask her so many questions, take so much more pictures of her, I realised I didn’t have the time to ask her about her new music she is working on, I realised how dope it would be to document her raw and unfiltered for a documentary and then that annoying voice in my head popped up again and said: “Well. You can’t quit APolaroidStory.Com now… I mean…. you shot possibly one of the most significant artists who are still alive of your time, how can you stop now? Maybe this is the universe telling you to keep going? Who knows, if she’d ever release new music, she might be down to do an interview with you one day. You never know….Right…? Ouni?”
I leave you with a modest video edit of our 5 minutes with Ms Hill, while you can enjoy a few highlights of her performance at Couleur Cafe Festival, Brussels.
Thanks for reading, I know it was long. Kudos to you! 😉
Special thanks to Jeremy D’Hamers, Pamela Evbuomwan, Lavito Beats, Rebekah and Joshua for their contributions to this story.