By Nicholas Brady
Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 album is criminally slept on, an example of how far a first impression can carry on. The album cannot escape how badly it was received when it was released in 2002. Many critics described Unplugged as her descent into “celebrity madness,” the ableist media’s object of obsession. Lauryn Hill still cannot escape this characterization, yet this live album that found no critical or commercial success, has perhaps found an afterlife in those who understand and can appreciate its rawness: writers, poets, songwriters, organizers. The album takes the unplugged format to its extreme: Ms. Hill performs no pre-released songs, her voice is sick with a cold, strained, she reads many of her songs straight from the book. It is clear to anyone listening, especially music critics, that the songs were not fully prepared, produced, or even rehearsed. Some of the songs fizzle away within the performance itself, into interesting, eloquent narratives — what some may today call a “Kanye rant.” Like many things Kanye is known for, Lauryn did it first, singularly.
Consider her performance of “I Get Out.” At 1:32, she stops the performance to turn the page and clear her throat. Critics of the album have cited this as an example of Hill’s lack of professionalism and propriety. A part of why she chose to perform all new songs were due to a desire to distance herself from the material that made her famous, especially as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill became wrapped up in lawsuits from former friends and family. The system of intellectual property and commodification interrupted the social fabric behind the songs, creating a crisis that sparked her search for a new politics of performance. Across the performance, Ms. Hill discusses how her personal life reveals the matrix of social and psychological captivity that arises from communicative capitalism’s hyper-surveillance of black performing bodies. Thus what is described as a mental breakdown represents Hill’s personal and political calculus to move away from her embattled material and craft songs and performances differently.
At 1:32 where she breaks the song, she is singing a critical juncture in the poem. She sings “Now I’m choosin life yo/ I’ll take the sacrifice, yo/ If everything must go, then go/ That’s how I choose to live.” Hill stops the song right where she chooses a form life that may entail that “everything must go.” This choice is ambivalent, affirming the indeterminate chance in between knowledge of “life” and “death” Hill’s singing is a prayer for life, not as an assured status but as a status one must work to gain, struggle to attain, and fight to maintain. In this drama, every compromise is an act of violence that “represses her to death.” Against the backdrop of civil death and assured physical demise, Hill chokes on her own prayer for life at the end of the played clip. She takes a drink of water while the audience applauds, afterwards she repeats the line with a still noticeably scarred laugh.
As she turns the page her laughter allows the audience to release its own anxiety and ambivalence about the performance by cheering. The call finds its response and Ms. Hill exhales into the previous line, finding the groove where she forgot, this small space of nothingness often skipped over. “That’s how I choose to live.” The choice of life is “the reason I must die.” This gap in the performance. An exuberance found in what M. Nourbese Philip, in “Fugues, Fragments and Fissures—A Work in Progress” calls “the jazz of memory.” As a “fragile memory… crumbles at the touch of reality” a new whole is weaved from the fragments given. Shards in the void are bonded into something else, perhaps not new. Indeterminate. Nourbese writes further, “Our collective fragments of memory. And isn’t this what we do—improvise, filling the gaps in our memory with our fictions masquerading as truth dress up as lies playing ole marse with we minds.”
This moment in the song reveals Unplugged as an album of fragments — of precious, intense moments in between expanses of lectures, poems, and songs. The gems are woven throughout. Moments of improvised creativity and lucid analysis that elide simple bifurcations between the fragment and the w/hole. Nourbese asks us to consider “when does the fragment cease being a part of the w/hole? To become its own w/hole?”
What would it mean for us to take Ms. Hill’s fragmentary hook seriously? Just get out. Towards a politics of blackness that refuses the social bonds of capitalism, nationalism, internationalism. Get out. Of the places that refuse you. Of the relations that consume you, but do not feed you. Where is the world for those tired of being targeted? When consciousness and flesh are territories, there is no where to run. There is no destination. No black country. We desire the blackness of land itself, where flesh meets earth. The same land they claim ownership we claim nativity to. All lands. We recognize no borders, only violence. No jurisdiction remains untouched from the unpayable debt owed to those denied nativity everywhere. What can we do in the face of the anti-black world? Just get out.
I don’t want no fucking country here
or there and all the way back, I don’t like it, none of it.
easy as that…
Dionne Brand writes this in her collection of poetry entitled Land to Light On. Brand’s declaration against the belonging of country and nation is both against the patriotism of the modern nation-state but also the belonging to nations going “all the way back.” Brand points us to a sense of place in excess of nationalistic imaginaries. “light passes through me lightless, sound soundless” Lightless, the indeterminate potential of the abyss calls out. Just Get Out. This a sense of place that language cannot describe, an anti-geo that cannot be graphed, and this poem affirms this anti-geography.
A political call of the void and from the void against any politics of integration or human community born from its dispossession: “I’m giving up on land to light on, and why not/ I can’t perfect my own shadow.” This is not a black theory seeking integration and recognition into a global community, but a disavowal of the world that disavows it for the sake of perfecting our own shadow.
This is a black sense of place out its mind, just in time.