Singing autographs upstairs at the Armani emporium in Knightsbridge, England last month, Lauryn Hill was a long way from her hometown of South Orange, New Jersey. At just 24 years old, the superstar hip-hop artist already has a multi-platinum record with The Fugees, a multi-platinum solo record and five Grammy awards under her belt. In short, the girl’s got it goin’ on.
But assumptions that Hill came to Knightsbridge simply to revel in her stardom and sip Dom with George Michael are false. The primary purpose of her appearance was to raise money for the Refugee Project, a non-profit organization Hill founded and chaired in 1996 with hopes of transforming the lives of disadvantaged urban American youth.
This summer, Hill’s Refugee Project will send 100 at-risk 10 to 13 year olds from New York City and Essex County, New Jersey to Camp Hill, a two-week camp in the Catskill Mountains from July 3 to July 17 aimed at enhancing campers’ cultural awareness and self-esteem. The campers will take part in traditional camp activities such as basketball, swimming, and crafts, but the true purpose of Camp Hill is to promote the core values behind The Refugee Project: courage, peace, discipline, faith, strength, determination, wisdom, excellence, service, knowledge and love.
“Of course it’s social and fun based,” says Refugee Project Executive Director Raqiba Sealy, “but it’s got leaning at its core.”
Included activities are a Career Day forum and an Academic Olympics. At the camp’s conclusion, campers will continue to meet once a month throughout the following year to ensure that they incorporate the values learned at Camp Hill into their everyday lives.
Despite robust efforts by Hill, the hip-hop genre still gets a bad rap. The truth is, the shooting deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls earlier this decade make it easy for critics to link violence with hip-hop.
However, since its inception hip-hop has demonstrated a conscious side as well. Hill’s solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is a prime example. Released last year to critical acclaim, Hill’s record promoted positive ideals such as cultural awareness and the value of knowledge. In the weeks and months following the release of that powerful album, popular culture embraced Hill — and plastered her face on more magazines than Tupac and Biggie combined.
Now that Hill has found herself riding the crest of hip-hop’s massive mainstream popularity, she has used her fame to give back to the young urban community that supported hip-hop all along.
“We live in a society where children have TVs and radios as babysitters,” Sealy says. “Parents are at work all day, so whoever is on is the babysitter. Who’s on TV? Celebrities. It’s extremely important for people like Lauryn to take responsibility and create a model that can be constructive. It’s easy to say ‘I?m not a role model,’ but that’s not really the case.”
Hill has done more than simply lend her name to the camp. In addition to her actual visit to the site, Sealy says Hill played a pivotal role in the development of the Camp’s structure by providing a nondenominational spiritual component.
“She’s always sure that being positive is part of our commitment,” Sealy says. In addition to Camp Hill, the Refugee Project sponsors Project CARE, a program that provides assistance to at-risk 12 to 17 year olds, and in the past has organized free concerts to raise money for the refugees of Haiti.