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Fresh Out of Jail Lauryn Hill Is Hitting the Road – But Should She?

Lauryn Hill by bastomas (via Flickr)

Lauryn Hill by bastomas (via Flickr)

Call it a divine (yet temporary) intervention or a desperate attempt to gain some semblance of an income after an intense financial hit, but after a number of years filled with publicly documented relationship, financial and emotional issues, Lauryn Hill is returning to the road. On October 4th the controversial singer was released from a federal correctional facility in Connecticut after serving three months for tax evasion. Despite the sentence including an additional three months of house arrest, a federal judge has now allowed her to defer until January 1st, 2014 so she can spend the rest of 2013 on tour.

In relation to other celebrities who have faced time in jail for tax evasion, Hill, who first gained prominence as a child actor on the soap opera As The World Turns and later 1993’s Sister Act 2, got lucky. While his tax lawyers joined him in the clink, Actor Wesley Snipes spent two years behind prison based on 15 million’s worth of back taxes. Self-made media mogul Martha Stewart served eighteen months in jail in 2004 for lying to authorities in relation to an insider trading investigation and for failing to pay back taxes of $220,000. For Hill, who owed 1.8 million on income she made between 2005 and 2007 and narrowly missed an incarceration sentence of three years, plus a $75,000 fine by paying $900,000 of her back taxes (thanks to a freshly inked record deal with Sony Music) before serving her sentence, the conviction was the tip of the iceberg in a decade-plus of erratic behaviour and questionable decision making.

With documented reports of chronic lateness leading to audience members waiting up to three hours for a performance, and then being defensive at the complaints; alleged reports of being involved with a cult leader and unwarranted diva behaviour, such as insisting on being referred to as ‘Ms. Hill’ at an age in which is usually understandable among older, more established artists, the opportunity to make money to pay for lawyers fees and to support her family are obvious, but that is most interesting is the reaction from her fan base, a legion of people who have, despite the valid complaints and publicized musings about her sanity stayed incredibly loyal.

To a fault.

Before rappers like Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim flaunted their wares and their attitudes and Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and now, Miley Cyrus appeared with finely-crafted public personas aimed to sexually titillate, Hill was a queen to a legion of young black women who could relate more to her Timberland boots and baggy clothes than booty shorts and fur coats, representing the image of the round-the-way black girlfriend that was rarely, if ever depicted in popular culture.

There are also those, such as Ebony writer Alexandra Phanor-Faultry who believe that what she used to represent is more important than who she presently is:

While she may be free from captivity today, Hill was always free-minded. Carving out her own path sans regard to public opinion was her constant modus operandi. While many were drawn to her music, behind that powerful voice was always a courageous and independent chocolate naturalista beauty who refused to play it safe on every level. And she spoke to many of us.

There are clear contradictions between what Hill sang about and how she lived her life. Her socially conscious and self-empowering lyrics made black women and men feel, as a fan told me, that she represented the “ultimate black poet / sexy woman without having to be a typical straight-haired pop star.”

After a short stint fronting the Hip-Hop group The Fugees who released the platinum-selling, Grammy award-winning The Score in 1996, Hill released her only full-length studio album, 1998’s Grammy Award-winning The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. After 2000’s erratic live album, MTV Unplugged 2.0, many noted the distinct change in Hill’s emotional stability:

Few bought the album, but many talked about how she could be heard on the record breaking down in tears and saying, “I’m crazy and deranged . . . . I’m emotionally unstable,” and repeatedly rejecting celebrity and the illusions that make it possible. “I used to get dressed for y’all; I don’t do that anymore,” she said on the album. “I used to be a performer, and I really don’t consider myself a performer anymore . . . . I had created this public persona, this public illusion, and it held me hostage. I couldn’t be a real person, because you’re too afraid of what your public will say. At that point, I had to do some dying.”

The lukewarm reception to Unplugged and her personal life (at the time the album was released Hill was the mother to two of her eventually six children and was involved in a tumultuous relationship with Rohan Marley, the son of reggae legend Bob Marley) were an indication that Hill was not exactly walking the walk in relation the self-empowering lyrical themes in her music. The ‘strong black woman’ meme was fading but, in her article “Records for Reflection,” Clutch contributing writer Niema Jordan displays a disconcerting adulation for Hill that mimics the loyal supporters who are so emotionally invested in the initial image Hill represented:

There’s a rawness in Lauryn’s storytelling. From the interludes to the lyrics, she exposes herself. Her vulnerability allows me to become just as open and undone, if only for a few tracks. As she sings about the need to rebel, feeling refreshed afterward, finding peace of mind, and the conquering lion, I am transported into a zone. I write. I meditate. I think. I rethink. When all seems to fall apart, I can light a candle, grab a glass of petit syrah, light a candle, play Lauryn Hill Unplugged, and pull it all together.

But are fans too enraptured with what Hill used to represent, versus who she is now? Her first release since leaving jail is the single “Consumerism” in which the nonsensical lyrics  suggest that there might be a few more emotional issues she needs to address. From Rap Genius:

Modernism has created modern Annotate prisons
Neo-McCarthyisms, new colonialisms
Pessimism makes decisions, hoodooism, hypnotism
Egoism, reagalism, humanism, legalism
Mysticism makes decisions from a purer prism
Magnetism, pragmatism, altruism, pacifism
Idealism, actualism, rehabilitation-ism
Skepticism, small fish ball for recognition press conditions
Sex addiction, ex suspicion
Vexed conflict is secularism

With the backing of Sony and more importantly, the need for an injection to her cashflow, Hill will tour and people will attend. The reasons for this will vary: Some will want to support the embattled singer, bask in nostalgia to simply serve as a witness to what is sure to be a train-wreck. No one should seek pleasure in Hill’s downfall, but this might serve as a wakeup call to those that our idols are not infallible.

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