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Beyond Earshot: the invalidation of Lauryn Hill

Beyond Earshot is a new series by Jacob Seferian examining the cultural impact of music, past and present. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter

In 2015 the sun set in Brooklyn as the mic feed cut off, leaving Lauryn Hill and her band on stage to struggle through her 1999 smash “Doo Wop (That Thing)” with no amplification. The thousands of festival goers at AFROPUNK—an annual music festival that celebrates alternative cultural in the African-American community—watched as the singer performed with no volume, effectively silenced. Lauryn Hill had been forty minutes late to her set, and the festival runners had a schedule to keep.

In the past decade, Hill has become notorious for her tardiness, frequently showing up to gigs not-so-fashionably late. Then when she finally arrives, she performs drastically reworked versions of the hits that drew the audience in the first place (for example, once soul ballad “Ex-Factor” becomes a reggae banger and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” is put on warp speed). While some applaud her re-imaginings as part of her ever-evolving artistic expression, others just wish they had the old Lauryn Hill back.

In the late 90s, music needed a voice authentic enough to combat a digitizing world. Consequently, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill dropped the summer of 1998. At this point, Hill was already well-known for her work as a member of genre bending hip-hop trio, the Fugees. However, as important as the Fugees were, it would be her debut solo album (which she wrote, performed, and produced) that would immortalize her musical legacy. Debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 chart, Miseducation would go on to win a then record-breaking 5 Grammy Awards, and eventually sell over 19 million copies. The album was recently inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”

From the music critic’s perspective, Miseducation exploded the possibilities for hip-hop, R&B, and neo-soul. The record showcased Hill’s mastery of her genre as she effortlessly vacillated between world-class vocals and intricate rap. From the listener’s perspective, the album is a deeply personal testimony of love, justice, and black womanhood—14 tracks worth of social critique and hope.

Miseducation became the first hip-hop album is ever receive the Grammy Award for Album of the year, and its critical and commercial success is credited with helping usher hip-hop into mainstream acceptance. It is a record so good that even 18 years later it has us thinking and feeling—and it catapulted Lauryn Hill into a stratosphere of fame she (or no person, for that matter) was ready for at 23 years old. In early 1999, a few months after giving birth to her second of an eventual six children, Hill graced the cover of Time, another first for hip-hop artists. She became the posterchild for the genre, and one of the most recognizable faces in music.

What happened next is blurry.

She bailed on several film projects, and became increasingly secluded and religious. Rumors spread that the spiritual advisor she met with weekly had cult ties, and Hill began to publicly express her disillusionment with fame. In 2001, she made a much anticipated return with a taped live special for MTV Unplugged, debuting new music. But it was not the comeback people were looking for. It confused fans and critics with its vague spiritual lyrics and rambling acoustic melodies. With tears flowing and fingers strumming, she sung, “That old me is left behind.” Painfully vulnerable and confessional, this was not the empowering Lauryn Hill of Miseducation, but rather a woman seeking to be empowered. Rolling Stone called the performance a public breakdown.

At this point, a narrative of post-90’s Lauryn Hill began to be spun: she was considered unstable, unreliable, and unable to live up to her former glory. This narrative only intensified  when she was charged with tax evasion in 2012. She didn’t help matters by penning a public letter on Tumblr where she denounced the evils of capitalism, and likened the IRS to slavery—a stance she carried with her into the courtroom. Ultimately, she ended up serving a three month sentence in federal prison. This saga was thoroughly covered by the media, and Lauryn Hill became a punchline across the Internet (a particularly cringe-worthy jab was made during a BET Awards acceptance speech).

What is troubling is how the media and her fans alike have allowed this narrative to prevail, as if Lauryn Hill’s eccentricities somehow negate her contribution to music. Let’s make one thing clear—Lauryn Hill is a musical genius. While in the Fugees, Hill helped marry hip-hop and reggae, and with Miseducation, she set the bar for every female artist that followed. Every music critic acknowledges it, the Library of Congress acknowledges it, Beyoncé acknowledges it, but the public doesn’t. Somewhere along the cultural trickle-down Lauryn Hill’s legacy was invalidated, and one can’t help but wonder why.

Music is chock-full of troubled, even downright fucked up geniuses. Now, there is a line (although where it’s drawn is widely debated) that when crossed, outweighs an artist’s contributions in their field. However, there seems to be a racial discrepancy in how judgement is dealt. For example, consider the difference in reception last year when news of Nate Parker and Casey Affleck’s past sexual misconduct broke. Parker, a black actor/filmmaker, was vilified by the media and his debut feature film tanked, despite rave reviews. Affleck, a white movie star, won an Academy Award. Both instances were covered by the media, but today Parker’s career is dead in the water while Affleck is still getting work. This is not to insinuate that sexual assault doesn’t warrant character assassination at the hands of the public and media—it most certainly does, but the inequality in career destruction between the two celebrities is indicative of a trend that can be traced throughout our cultural history.

There are atrocities committed by our idols so grave they cannot be overlooked — but what about peculiarities? Brian Wilson (the OG Beach Boy) tried to bury himself alive, yet his LSD-induced schizophrenia is covered by the media sympathetically. Stevie Nicks married the widower of her best friend three months after that friend died, yet that hasn’t diminished her status as a rock icon. Strange how the oddities of white artists don’t define them. The courtesy of separating someone’s personal life from their work is too often unequally extended to artists of color. We’re quick to forget their genius and allow negative aspects of their public personas to overshadow their accomplishments. Serena Williams’ passionate on-court outbursts receive more media attention than the fact that she’s the greatest tennis player (possibly athlete) of all time, and Lauryn Hill becomes that singer who didn’t pay her taxes. Evidently, we live in a culture where the legacies of public figures of color are conditional on their behavior.

The problem goes beyond legacy tarnishing. Nonwhite artists, as well as the communities they advocate for, receive a different media treatment altogether. They’re pitted against one another, their talent contrasted and weighed. Sure, the media tears down white artists all the time, but there’s a disproportionate fervor with which many publications seem to jump at the chance to invalidate the contributions of artists of color. Miseducation recently became a trending topic on Twitter following the release of Beyonce’s Lemonade, with users extensively debating whether or not the 1998 album was a superior depiction of black womanhood. Ask yourself, did Twitter compare Adele’s 21 to Carole King’s Tapestry on such a scale?

We have to take a big step back and ask ourselves how we (white folks and the media we support) commoditize nonwhite artists differently than their white counterparts. We must be conscious of the narratives we weave, and the expectations that fall more heavily on their shoulders. We have to do better, and we can start by affording flawed geniuses like Lauryn Hill the same luxury we afford other flawed luminaries like Kurt Cobain or Steve Jobs.

Yes, Ms. Lauryn Hill might appear to some as unusual, but she has more than earned the world’s respect. An icon who with one album said more and changed more than many do with their entire careers. The narrative of her legacy should not be belittled to her chronic lateness or belief in conspiracy theories, but devoted to honoring the visionary she was, and I believe, still is.

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