Simon Day was at the last night of the tumultuous 20th anniversary tour of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
She was meant to be late. She was supposed to be sick. She’s meant to be a “diva”.
Lauryn Hill’s relationship with her live audiences has been complicated for a long time. When you’re the last stop on a long, controversial tour, managing expectations is tricky – especially when she’s one of your favourite artists touring an album that was the soundtrack to your adolescence. I’d been waiting 20 years for last night, but when the tour was announced I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take the risk, afraid I’d be left disappointed by a hero. Seeing the news of high profile support artists being unexpectedly ditched from tour dates, cancellations during the US leg, reviews focused on the long wait for her to come on stage, and then stories from Australia that she caught a cold and was barely able to sing, I wasn’t hopeful about the outcome.
But the album meant so much, I had to take the risk.
Instead, on the last night of this leg of the 20th anniversary tour of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Auckland was treated to a powerful performance by a goddess, a celebration of the groundbreaking album that revealed a vulnerable and feminist side to a genre that so often promoted misogyny. The set was heavy in hip hop. Hill chose to rap much of the album’s sung lyrics, and when she did sing it was channeled through improvisational jazz that at times bordered on punk, her incredible backup singers carrying the album’s famous RnB melodies. The belligerent, violent approach to the reworking of some of the songs was part of an overtly political performance, one that featured visuals of police brutality taken from phone footage and police body cams.
And when Hill did start to sing more in the second half of the show – despite acknowledging the cold she caught in Sydney – her voice was stunning. The entire crowd joined her back up singers in accompanying Hill through some of those songs that were so important to a very visibly 30-40 year old demographic (babysitters must have been in hot demand last night with Marlon Williams crooning across town at a vineyard).
Hearing Hill talk about her son after her beautiful and emotional performance of ‘To Zion’, a song that describes her pressure to have an abortion for the sake of her career, was a deeply intimate moment. Her intricate rendition of ‘Killing Me Softly’ sent shivers down my spine and I may have been closing my eyes. Bringing out Nas to perform their duet ‘If I Ruled the World’ from his second album was the most raw fun of the night (how’s the star power to have one of the greatest rappers of all time perform an amazing hour and a half set as your warm up act!).
While a tribute to the five grammy-winning album, the show was also a chance for Hill to celebrate the music that influenced her. Throughout the night visuals of essential African American musicians from Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin to Tribe Called Quest, as well as clips from Soul Train, played behind her. She ran the eight piece band with a mix of James Brown’s showmanship and Nina Simone’s demands for perfection.
“When it was time for me to finally compose something it was my great joy and great goal to take the classic and unite it with strong and powerful beats that captivated the streets, to create something for my generation that would be just as vulnerable, just as sensitive, just as powerful, just as transparent, just as full of love as the music I grew up with,” she told the crowd.
For the Auckland crowd this album was the music we grew up with. To finally witness it live, to see beautiful and elegant Ms Hill in the flesh, to hear that voice sing those songs, was an emotional journey back in time.
“There are people who tell me these songs got them through heartbreak, through difficult times, there is no greater compliment than that. I have desire to make music about complex things, most of which were about love,” she said.
When the stadium’s lights came up as she breached Spark Arena’s curfew for the Fugees’ ‘Ready or Not’ finale, the love the room had for Hill, and this special album, was revealed in full brightness.
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