Tuesday, August 3, 2010

a thousand [and one] hills

a few weeks ago, i was listening to zoe chace interview ms. lauryn hill on NPR. it appeared as though ms. hill was back: performing again, talking about recording again. i took to twitter and facebook and tentatively shouted it from the various virtual mountaintops. my prayers to the gods of music had been answered: ms. hill is back. i had no idea, at the time, that on her journey back, she would show up in my proverbial back yard. a little over a week ago, i was standing backstage at a concert that i had dreamed of attending since i was about 17. as the announcer began his introduction, i stood next to ms. hill as she climbed the steps to take the stage at the pan african dance festival in kigali, rwanda and i had myself a moment, y'all. i suddenly snapped out of professional organizational mode and fully realized what was happening. ms. hill was back. and she was here. in the land of a thousand hills. if you had told me 15 years ago that this was even possible, there is no way i would've been able to fathom it. but a few brilliant people with a vision and relentless determination made it happen! and i bore witness.

this is the exact time negrita's brain realized what she was witnessing.
...read more here...
it's taken me a week to write this piece,but with good reason. i was busy. i was working. i was traveling. but, mainly, i was waiting for the enormity of the whole thing to sink in. i was waiting for the fact that i had just seen ms. lauryn hill perform live to permeate my consciousness. i was also hesitating. when i was asked to work with the festival, i thought it would be an incredible opportunity to get an exclusive interview with ms. hill. to finally ask all the questions that had been floating around in my head since 'unplugged'. but then when i was given the opportunity to work alongside ms. hill and her team, i realized i had to make a choice: get the exclusive or live the experience. i was uncomfortable with the idea of working so closely with her and then trying to get an interview, as well. it seemed unethical, somewhat. so i chose the latter. and it was truly one of the most incredible encounters of my life, thus far. when someone so unexpectedly crosses your path and leaves you brimming with ideas and inspiration and insight, it's pretty damn amazing. to this day, i'm all goosebumps and whatnot. but that's all i have to say about that. what i will write about is the show itself. (this is why i will never be a journalist, people!)

the audience was restless by the time ms. hill arrived on stage, although they had been woken up by the incredibly talented mike e and afroflow, who had the audience on their feet after several notable local artists performed. she took the stage rocking locally designed and tailored harem pants, a fly tuxedo jacket that i still covet, and locally made basket earrings. i appreciated not only the sentiment behind her decision to showcase rwandan design and textiles, but also the message it sent. well aware of her role as a style icon, she couture-ified local fashion and put a new spin on what we are used to. she pointed an international spotlight on local craftsmanship, which is something i am ridiculously geeked about.

then came the music: she burst onto the stage with 120% energy as she and the band delved into a revised rendition of 'lost ones'. the sound quality was definitely not the best, but the band played their hearts out despite this and the energy was incredible. whether or not people identified with the re-worked song, or with her look, the energy and passion and love was unmistakable, from the start. it's perhaps this aspect that struck me the most because it often happens that when international artists come to africa, they tend to put on a sub-par show. some have the excuse that the sound is not the quality to which they are used; some simply don't bother to bring their A game. but there is the rare artist that performs just as intensely in a small african city as they do in madison square garden, and this was definitely that type of show. the joy of those of us in the front row has been captured for posterity here:

from the beginning to the end of the two-hour show, ms. hill and her ensemble brought back memories as they went through a catalog of hits from the fugees' the score (ready or not, how many mics, killing me softly, and fugee-la) and the miseducation of lauryn hill (ex-factor, forgive them father, zion, lost ones, doo wop (that thing)), and also incorporated favorites from from unplugged (just like the water) and the re-education of lauryn hill (the passion). some hits were re-worked, others stayed true to the original album recording. either way, the crowd--from where i was standing--was carried away with each performance. she also covered bob marley's africa unite (which she performed with the amazing congolese singer and guitarist, lokua kanza) and zimbabwe, which perhaps garnered the most audience participation. i believe my favorite part was when i tore my eyes of the stage for a few minutes to scan the audience and saw so many young faces enraptured by the performance. faces of those who must have been about six years old when miseducation came out. and the fact that they were as carried away as those of us who were riding on a wave of nostalgia spoke volumes about the quality of the music and the energy of the show. it was, simply, good music performed by a consummate professional. ms. hill leapt out of the box in which many of us have kept her since miseducation and led the crowd through a spectacle that featured not only hip-hop and R&B, but also reggae, funk, and rock. it was ride through a variety of genres that resulted in an unexpected, but certainly not disappointing experience. undoubtedly, those waiting to see and hear l-boogie circa 1999 were left wanting. but those waiting to see hear the soul-stirring voice and ridiculously powerful emceeing skills that we fell in love with with the fugees and on miseducation, and the introspective, soulful poetry that emerged out of unplugged got exactly what they were waiting for, and then some. the one constant, over the years is that--as danyel smith wrote in 1999--"people respond to her because she trembles with a real serious kind of truth...." amen.

personally, i was thrilled that after all these years, ms. hill seems to be as much in love in creating music and art as she always was. after all the speculation and rumors surrounding her disappearance from public life, this glimpse of her return to touring and performing is incredibly promising. i have waxed poetic before about how much i miss ms. hill...how no one out there can replace her... how music has not been the same since she went on hiatus. but i for one am glad she's coming back with a new twist. there's an evolution in her performance and in her songwriting that is incredibly inspiring. she still possesses the startlingly introspective viewpoint she introduced us to on miseducation and later on unplugged, but there's a growth there as well. and a love. you can still feel the love she has for what she does. i was as excited after the show as i would've been had she been a brand new artist to whom i was just introduced. i cannot wait to see what she does next. i cannot wait for her next album. i am beyond thrilled that she is recording and touring again. but i am most proud that she chose rwanda to begin this journey. much like the country in which she was performing that night, she demonstrated vulnerability, strength, promise, determination, and innovation. a resilient artist performing for a people and a land that define resilience.

welcome back, ms. hill.

(thank you mike e, for the inspiration for the blog post title)

win tickets to see ms. hill perform at rock the bells over at SocietyHAE!


Jason said...

Great writing! This should be in somebody's magazine. Bless!

Diana said...

Anna, I just re-lived the moment through your beautiful words!!! I remembered what was going through my mind and felt the exact emotions. Great work babe!!!

Ahmeda said...

Sigh**** I am overcome. With jealousy, excitement ( ms Hills journey has brought her back to where we can see/hear/ experience her music), jealousy ( so u like were like in a room with L boogie?) sigh** did I say I was jealous?? Ps. Waddup with the blocked video links? Gr8 post! Reads like I was there with you.. Only I wasn't and I am jealous, lol :-)

negrita said...

@jason thank you so much!
@diana :) thanks...i keep re-living it on the daily like i still can't believe it happened.
@ahmeda video links should be working, luv, just tried them out again. you have to come next time so this jealousy thing is put to rest. lol.

CorporateNapps said...

Just WOW!