A worldly Nubian energy

The music and art of Lauryn Hill and Chiwoniso Maraire combined sexiness with political consciousness, offering Black women a way out of rigid categorization.

Chiwoniso at Festspillene music festival in Norway. Credit Tor Even Mathisen via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

My first engagements with the music and art of Lauryn Hill and the late Chiwoniso Maraire was as a child in a markedly different Zimbabwe from the one we live in now. Then, the country prided itself on engagement with global arts and culture, as well as local production of the same.

Maraire came first. The feature film More Time, released in 1993, centers around teenage love at the height of the AIDS pandemic. As the film closes, the hip-hop group A Peace of Ebony (of which Maraire was a member) performs a rap song about the dangers of HIV and AIDS.

Some years before, Maraire, alongside Herbert Schwamborn (the German-Zimbabwean also known as Metaphysics) and Tony Chihota (and later another member, Laygwan Sharkie), formed what is generally considered to be Zimbabwe’s first Afro hip-hop group. According to Schwamborn, the last part of the group’s name is an acronym for “A Positive Existence Allowing Cultural Expression of Ebony.” Their first recorded album, From the Native Tongue, was released in 1992 with Keith Farquharson—known for his work with a variety of musical outfits from Zimbabwe and South Africa, including the late Oliver Mtukudzi, Andy Brown (Maraire’s late former husband), and Freshlyground—contributing much of the music and production.

In 1994, A Peace of Ebony won an award in the Radio France International Discovery contest for Best New Group out of Southern Africa. Their entry, in line with their general aesthetic, had been a song titled Vadzimu (the title refers to a Shona term for ancestors), which they performed in Shona, English, and French, and which featured an mbira-infused hip hop sound.

My first interaction with African American artist Lauryn Hill was through a similar genre-bending hip hop group, The Fugees. Hill had met one of her band members, Pras Michel, in high school. He would go on to introduce her to Wyclef Jean, the group’s other member. The group’s name is shortened from Refugees, reflecting the politics of the heritage of Pras and Wyclef who are both of Haitian descent. In 1996, The Fugees released their famed magnum opus, The Score, which featured, among other hits, a cover of Roberta Flack’s hit Killing Me Softly. As the writer Rashad D. Grove observes in an essay about the group: “From Afri-Cuban to reggae to soul to hip-hop, they left no stone unturned. They seamlessly blended hardcore with socially conscious ideals, a hybridity that would prove to have crossover appeal.”

In her book about Hill’s legacy, Joan Morgan observes that while Hill’s bandmates bore hyphenated identities, Hill was solely African American. Nonetheless, Morgan sees Hill’s involvement in the group as a means by which she “deliberately wrote herself into the discourse of diaspora … and fashioned herself a citizen of the world.” One could make similar comparisons to Maraire’s inscription into global citizenship through her association with A Peace of Ebony.

Both Maraire and Hill’s involvement in hip hop can be read as counter-normative given their middle-class backgrounds. Maraire was born in the US where her father, Dumisani Mararire, a former officer in Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Sports and Culture, had emigrated to teach ethnomusicology. Hill was born in Newark, New Jersey to a computer consultant father and a mother who was a teacher. Prior to pursuing music full time, she was enrolled at Columbia University in New York city for at least a year. Given the often classist perceptions of hip hop, it is important to appreciate how two young women from a socioeconomic class that did not identify much with the genre (hip hop has its origins in New York City’s working class housing estates) emerged as important players in its growth and (re)definition. Equally striking is that both were the only female acts in their bands.

To date, Hill has only recorded one solo studio album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Maraire, on the other hand, has two: Ancient Voices and Rebel Woman. Both young women’s debut albums were released in 1998 to much acclaim, establishing Maraire (22) and Hill (23) as exceptional solo artists. Their respective albums feature immense depth and range, broaching complex themes around love, spirituality, power, and oppression. They also feature a fusion of genres. There is hip hop, rap, and patois in The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, while in Ancient Voices, Maraire’s sound fuses mbira, reggae, and soft rock. One song, “The Way of Life” offers a midwestern sound to the accompaniment of the blues harmonica.

In “Forgive Them Father,” Hill makes clever word plays that mention Ethiopian emperor Menelik, and raps about marching through the streets of Soweto, referencing South Africa’s apartheid history. In “Everything is Everything” Hill sings to the disgruntled and disillusioned youth, referencing Abyssinian and Egyptian queens Cleopatra and Nefertiti. Similarly, Maraire is able to weave precolonial themes into her work. The song “Ancient Voices” is a contemporary retelling of the traditional story of Pasipamire, the medium of the spirit Chaminuka, and of impending British colonization. “Nhemamusasa” is a traditional song performed previously by other artists, including the late Ambuya Stella Chiweshe, and which references a ceremony performed to establish a new home. Both also offer social commentary in their works. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” is probably the most recognizable song off Hill’s album and she controversially offers her perspective about materiality in love relationships. In one verse, which gained particular scrutiny as a diss to certain expressions of femininity, Hill raps:

It’s silly when girls sell their soul because it’s in,
Look at where you be in hair weaves like Europeans,
Fake nails done by Koreans.

Maraire tackles commentary on socioeconomic dynamics: in “Madame 20 Cents,” an exchange happens between a nonchalant madam and what seems to be a street kid who narrates their story of dereliction and abandonment. In “Iwai Nesu,” she offers a prayer to God as she highlights the contradictions of lack and excess in society. She sings:

Vamwe vaparara nenzara,
Vamwe vachifa nekuguta
Kumwe vaparara nemvura,
Kumwe vachipera nezuva.”

[some are dying from hunger
while others are dying from excessive eating
Others are dying from floods
while others are dying from droughts]

Both Hill and Maraire also sing stirringly about love and longing. “Tamari” is a popular song by Maraire in which a lover commiserates with Tamari about her lost youth and many burdens, but commits to wait until she is ready for their love. “Wandirasa” similarly tackles love but speaks to the pain of rejection and yearning. In “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” Hill reprises Frankie Valli’s 1967 classic, while in “I Used To Love Him” (featuring Mary J. Blige) she sings of overcoming love.

For artists as young as they both were at the height of their success, the range and depth of their repertoires still mark them today as standout talents whose works have continued to speak to generations of listeners, rousing consciousness and politics. For The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Hill became the first woman to be nominated in ten different Grammy categories going on to win five—another historical first for a woman. And for Ancient Voices, Maraire won the Radio France International Award for Best New Artist.

The presence of both these women within their chosen musical genres is equally important to discuss. The mbira has a strong association with traditional spirituality, and ancestral channeling. Claire Jones notes that:

Women play active musical roles in the possession ceremonies, singing, dancing and playing hosho. They participate on a par with men and often initiate or take the lead in secular contexts … Yet most mbira players are men, whether the instrument is performed in private or at public venues. This gender asymmetry applies across the board amongst the Shona.

Maraire’s adoption of the mbira as her primary musical instrument represents an important defiance of various cultural norms and ideas about women’s position within spiritual practice and contemporary storytelling. Her appropriation of its sound to suit and complement contemporary themes and genres does as well. Fittingly, Maraire’s final public performance before her death in 2013 was with two of the other few well-established female mbira players of her time, Chiweshe and Hope Masike.

Hill’s place within hip-hop as both a singer and rapper is equally important to reflect on. In a genre often associated with misogyny and materialism, Hill stood out for a sound that was both contemporary and socially aware. Further, her immense talent in both rap and singing set her apart from her peers in the genre at the time who solely rapped, such as Missy Elliot, Lil’ Kim, and Da Brat.

Both Hill and Maraire also offered an aesthetic that mixed sexy with intellectual and political consciousness. Maraire was seen as being daring and “radiating an image of confrontation and resistance through her physical appearance,” which often featured dreadlocks, a nose piercing and African prints. And Hill too was donning dreadlocks long before the natural hair revolution; what Morgan sees as “the visual precursor of #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackGirlsRock” before digitality enabled such socially conscious communality.

There is more that could be said for both artists. In later years, both would run into controversies that bring up the age-old debate about whether exceptional talent in youth is a boon or a bane. Maraire passed on, aged only 37, from suspected pneumonia and Hill has more or less retreated into oblivion, with her sporadic musical performances being marked by poor vocals and late appearances.

Still, both embodied worldly Nubian energy, breaking the mold and allowing many others, myself included, to find freedom in rejecting rigid categorizations of their works and identity.

Further Reading