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Masi Asare

Masi Asare is a songwriter, voice coach, and PhD candidate in Performance Studies at New York University. Her voice students perform on Broadway, in touring productions, and at downtown rock/pop venues. Her songwriting has received honors from ASCAP, the Dramatists Guild, and the Ziegfeld Club, and her secret agent musical Sympathy Jones is produced around the world. Asare has served on the editorial staff of TDR and as a grant writer for Columbia University. She holds a BA from Harvard.

“Singing Unhealthy: Lauryn Hill and the Limits of Vocal Sound”
From a classical perspective, the popular singing voice is fundamentally unhealthy. It is largely on the grounds of preserving aspiring (classical) singers’ vocal health that jazz and classical vocal studies remain segregated in U.S. conservatories. The well-publicized accounts of artists’ vocal difficulties or so-called vocal deterioration—think Adele, Sam Smith, John Mayer, and the late, great Whitney Houston—reinforce perceptions that popular song is at best risky and at worst unsustainable. What’s more, the rhetoric around vocal health and popular music masks a historical belief that Black people’s voices are linked to unhealth—vocal and otherwise. African American singers have long been admired for giving voice to the spectacular emotional and physical hardship of the Black experience. But this admiration cuts multiple ways: For a singer of any race to contort her voice into the shape of Black song is to risk a certain contamination—to risk falling into vocal unhealth.

Within this context, I listen to a series of recordings that chart the shifting contours of Lauryn Hill’s vocal sound over time. What lessons, I ask, does this sound carry for the aspiring singer? Known for her swift ascent to stardom with the Fugees, and equally dramatic disappearance from public and professional life following the release of her only solo album, Lauryn Hill’s voice both enchants and angers her fans. Google is quick to suggest “Lauryn Hill bad voice” as a useful search string. Here, I listen through Sister Act 2 (1993) to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), through MTV Unplugged 2.0 (2002) and Nina Revisited: A Tribute to Nina Simone (2015)—to which she contributed six songs. Variously sweet, rough-edged, smoky, or hoarse; whether a velvet tone, a heavy gasp, or a battle cry, Hill’s sound, with its insistent rattle of vibrato, compels questions about what might or might not count as healthy, and why. 

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