Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Misunderstanding of Lauryn Hill

Grammy-winning singer Lauryn Hill had drifted to the margins of the pop culture radar in recent years until Monday, when she made surprising headlines by being sentenced to three months in prison for failing to pay nearly $1 million in taxes. She then raised some eyebrows even further by audaciously comparing her situation to the slavery of her ancestors.

“I am a child of former slaves who had a system imposed on them,” Hill exclaimed in a forceful statement to the court. “I had an economic system imposed on me.” A little bit of advice to millionaire rock stars: unless you want your credibility rating and degree of public sympathy for you to plunge to zero, don’t compare the outcome of your own choices to the crushing misery of a slave.

Despite her mixed creative output and audience reception in recent years, Hill is one of the most successful women in the history of the music business. Now 37, she hit it big as a teenager in the 1990s with the Fugees before hitting it even bigger with her multiplatinum 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. She has a shelf full of Grammys, including one for co-producing Santana’s blockbuster Supernatural album.

In 2000, Hill began to feel the oppressive demands of fame and the music industry, and dropped out of the public eye supposedly to protect herself and her children, now numbering six, from its pressures. “I was told, ‘That’s how it goes, it comes with the territory.’ I came to be perceived as a cash cow and not a person. When people capitalize on a persona, they forget there is a person in there.”

She’s not wrong about that. From the outside, the music biz is all hip glamour and living large; but the truth is that it’s a more ruthless industry than Hollywood, and artists – especially young, naive artists – are sometimes exploited until they are wrung out and left with nothing. Witness bankrupted examples like Toni Braxton and TLC.

But that isn’t what happened to Hill. She dropped out and simply refused to pay all the taxes she owed during this period. “I embraced my right to resist a system intentionally opposing my right to whole and integral survival,” she later wrote. Someone needs to explain to Hill that her “right to whole and integral survival,” whatever that is, does not include a right to break the law.

The prosecutor correctly called Hill’s explanation “a parade of excuses centering around her feeling put upon” that don't exempt her from her responsibilities. The judge agreed. In addition to doing time in prison, Hill must pay a $60,000 fine. She will be under parole supervision for a year after that, the first three months of which will be spent under house arrest.

Hill complained recently that she’s “been fighting for existential and economic freedom, which means the freedom to create and live without someone threatening, controlling, and/or manipulating the art and the artist, by tying the purse strings.” She doesn’t seem to understand that it’s called the music business, not music charity, and she has profited enormously from it, regardless of her personal dissatisfaction. “Over-commercialization and its resulting restrictions and limitations can be very damaging and distorting to the inherent nature of the individual,” Hill wrote.

No question about that. And no one is denying her the artistic right to go off and create music on her own terms, with little or no commercial value if she prefers, that feeds her soul. She just shouldn’t expect that to satisfy the executives at Sony, with whom she just signed a recording contract. They’re going to expect her to make big money for them, and if she resents that, she shouldn’t have signed. There are countless penniless, unknown musicians out there who would kill for that contract.

Lauryn Hill also shouldn’t expect to get away with refusing to pay taxes on that big money. And she shouldn’t expect her sense of entitlement to earn the sympathy of law-abiding, hard-working taxpayers all across this country who are struggling for a fraction of the “existential and economic freedom” she attained at a young age, and for which she and her children should be grateful.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/7/13)