If she never sings another song, wins another Grammy, makes another dollar, stars in another film, or poses for another cover photo again...she will have still been one of the most powerful and influential musicians in my life. Ms. Lauryn Noelle Hill is still phenomenal, even in her absence.
Needless to say, I was so excited to see her face and hear her in the news again this week...but so disheartened that it was for her legal troubles. Lauryn has just been sentenced to 3 months of jail time after pleading guilty to tax evasion, for $1.8 million dollars owed between 2005 and 2007.
In her open letter to fans on April 26, 2013 via Tumblr, she stated that she will be starting a new label with Sony, and that she is working on new music. She's described her absence as a battle between "art and commerce," and her fight for financial freedom. After briefly touching on the inquity of the music industry, and manipulation of business arrangements, she hinted that more would be said.
And I can't wait to hear.
Lauryn is just a few years older than me, and will turn 38 at the end of this month. A relatively young woman, a mother of 6 (5 of which are children with Rohan Marley, son of Bob), an actress, a rapper, and a singer...Lauryn has already seen probably the best and the worst of what life in the music industry has to offer.
The recipient of 5 Grammy awards, it's amazing that having only really released one solo album (plus an MTV Unplugged album), that she is still so legendary, and still so untouchable. There hasn't been anyone even remotely like her, since.
Lauryn Hill can do no wrong, as far as I'm concerned. And despite people questioning her mental state, her financial state, and her marital state, I still can not allow myself to look beyond the fact that in 1998 she released one of THE most powerful albums in "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" of my lifetime. That in the 15 years that have passed since that groundbreaking moment in her career, I have yet to really find a group of songs that spoke to me so clearly, or represented such a moment in time like this album did.
I saw her live at the Molson Ampitheatre in August of 1999, and remember that hit after hit after hit, this woman was on fire. Again, with just ONE album, and a few Fugee hits under her belt. I felt she was unstoppable. That one album sold 19 million copies, and will forever go down in history as a hip hop/R&B classic. Few can dispute that fact.
So despite her musical significance, it does hurt me to see that the sister is struggling. I've heard that despite the legal/financial issues, she's also developed a bit of a reputation for showing up to shows late, singing unrecognizable renditions of her classic tracks, and fans seems to be disappointed with the evolved version of Ms Hill. They want to hear her sing "Ex-Factor" in its original form, and see the pretty, Hollywood version of an urban artist, just like we're used to. Polished. Clean story. Rising fame. The fans wanted to see Lauryn grow, and blossom according to their own standards of what a musician/celebrity should be.
And rightfully so. She touched SO many lives and souls with her music, that it's only natural for listeners to want more from her. Expectations were sky high. We would probably demand it from her if we could. She owes us that much! She owes us to share that talent! That VOICE! That spirit. Especially given the selection of female "role models" we have today in the music industry.
But Lauryn had enough. From she entered the scene as an actress in the early 90s with appearances on various soaps, television programs, and of course that memorable role in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit in 1993. She went on to two fabulous albums with the Fugees in 1994 and 1996, and of course by her solo move in 1998...she was unstoppable. Or so we thought.
After we grooved to "Lost Ones," "That Thing," and "Everything is Everything"...we had no idea that Lauryn would soon vanish from the public eye.
Yes, she appeared on a few movie soundtracks. Showed up in Dave Chappelle's "Block Party" movie. She's toured a bit. Made a controversial comment at the Vatican Christmas concert about the corruption of the church. She's been around, but stories of her apperances and activities have been negative, speculative, and confusing. The Lauryn we heard about didn't sound like the Lauryn we [thought we] knew and LOVED. The erratic, dishevelled Lauryn with too much blush on, wild hair, and an apathetic attitude didn't sound like the Lauryn we admired.
So what went wrong with Lauryn? Absolutely nothing.
This totally reminds me of the Dave Chappelle situation. He was hotter than hot, funnier than ANYONE, and again, at the peak of his career...he vanished. There were stories about his mental health, and demonizing of his actions and thoughts. But the thing with Lauryn and Dave is that they have remained consistent in their explanations: the industry ain't what it seems, and money ain't everything.
Sure, there are MANY who enter, navigate, and conquer the entertainment industry with ease. People like Will Smith come to mind. Mariah Carey. Beyonce. Jamie Foxx. "Urban" entertainers who have just the right mix of personal and professional...charming and relatable, and consistenly make "good" career moves. They continue to rise to the top of their game, and you never hear anything too controversial coming from their camp.
All the power to them. The industry was made for them, and they own it. They have learned to manipulate it to their advantage, and have the lavish lifestyles and fat pocketbooks to prove it.
But not everyone is about that life. Not everyone is equipped to play the game, and study the art of entertainment on that level. Dave didn't want to dance for anyone anymore. Lauryn didn't want to pose for the camera and smile anymore. They both saw something funny going on that didn't sit well with their spirit, and they had the COURAGE and the STRENGTH to walk away with their heads high.
They walked, when 99.9% of people, if placed in their shoes, would have rode that wave as long as possible.
The sad thing is, that their actions were never perceived to be actions of character or self-preservation. Immediately they are mocked and ridiculed for doing something that was hard to understand. On the surface, they seemed like fools. Going into self-imposed exile and leaving the lifestyles of the rich and famous behind them. They sought simplicity. They sought escape. And they were penalized for this.
Dave Chappelle is still a hilarious motherfucker. Lauryn Hill can still sing her ass off. So why have they been reduced to reputations LESS than their talents demand?
Lauryn said she was being compromised "for the sake of the machine," and I believe that's all anyone needed to hear...from either of them. That their personal worth and integrity was far more important to them than the wealth and perceived riches of fame and entertainment industry success.
God bless Dave. God bless Lauryn.
Bless them, because their examples--while anamolies--in their industry are so RARE...but also so powerful. I have learned way more as a woman, as a creative being, and as an individual from Lauryn Hill's example a decade ago, than I ever will from a Beyonce or Mariah (although I respect both of those ladies, and their music to the core).
I have gained more insight and mental stimulation about life from Lauryn's MTV Unplugged Album (2002) than I have from a combination of the top 10 best selling female artists in the past decade combined. Songs like "Mr. Intentional" and "Just Like Water"...songs like "Mystery of Iniquity" and "I Get Out" blew my mind. How bold and amazing was Lauryn to even put out an album like that?
She released a song over the weekend on iTunes called "Neurotic Society..." and it's...interesting. I've only heard it a few times but it is RAMMED with lyrics. Like tooooo much knowledge and it moves really fast. Lyrics like "superficial vanity, borderline insanity, out of order humanity, crime committed to passively."
"Hypocritics on salary, idle hands, devil's agency..." like this is the shit running through her mind right now. NO WONDER the woman can't exist in the mainstream pop world anymore. She has some things to say! Things to say that most people don't want to hear when they turn on the radio, or lock into the Grammy performances. Ms. Lauryn is going there. Hard. Calling it as she sees it:
Hypocrites can't even see their own part in this...
Too much addiction, no consciousness...
Man is not a product...
Like she said on her Unplugged album: "Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need. I've just retired from the fantasy party."
It's been only a couple of days since she was sentenced, but I am really hoping and praying that this is the beginning of the emergence of Lauryn in the public eye. I think people need to hear what she has to say. Yeah, "Neurotic Society" ain't pretty. It doesn't sound like it belongs on the Billboard Hot 100. It's not going to be the background to an endorsed Pepsi or Cover Girl commercial any time soon. It might not win any awards, or bring in a couple million dollars. The new music will not sound like the old music. Guaranteed.
But what it will do is force people to pay attention to what she is trying to say, and has BEEN trying to say. It will open up people's eyes to a new perspective, rather than force them to accept the flaws in the industry and perceived ease at which others navigate it.
God bless Lauryn Hill, because whether she comes out of prison ready to conquer the world again...or not. Whether her forthcoming album is a hit...or not. Whether she smiles and poses for Essence, or presents at the MTV video awards, her legacy has already been set. Her message--to me--has already been heard, loud and clear.
Bless her because people talk so much shit, yet fail to see the real underlying message that she represents. Whether she's a religious fanatic or not, she IS saying something worth listening to.
So I will defend Lauryn Hill to the end. As far as I'm concerned, she can do no wrong. Her mark has already been made in my musical mind, in my spirit, and her creativity continues to be an inspiration to me. Whether it's the 1998 R&B princess Lauryn, or the 2013 inmate Lauryn, I still think she's the bomb, and someone to be admired.
God bless her for showing us that you can be yourself, and play by your own rules at all times DESPITE what people say about, despite what the standard protocol is, and despite what the perceived outcomes and benefits are. She's doing her thing, setting her OWN standards...and I wish her nothing but the best with the next phase of her life, once this ordeal is handled.
Bless her because it can't be easy to do what she's doing, fighting so strongly to just be HERSELF. It can't be easy, but she's doing it. Lauryn is being Lauryn, and I will always support her for that.