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The Miscalculation of Lauryn Hill

Hill is a really brilliant creative mind, one of the best rappers alive when she puts her mind to it. Words, in an endless flow, are her primary medium, words that seek to layer on the soul like a balm on the wound of injustice. So it's not surprising to read passages like this, also on her Tumblr page:
I entered into my craft full of optimism (which I still possess), but immediately saw the suppressive force with which the system attempts to maintain it's [sic] control over a given paradigm. I've seen people promote addiction, use sabotage, blacklisting, media bullying and any other coercion technique they could, to prevent artists from knowing their true value, or exercising their full power. These devices of control, no matter how well intentioned (or not), can have a devastating outcome on the lives of people, especially creative types who must grow and exist within a certain environment and according to a certain pace, in order to live and create optimally.

The artist's message, to us and to the court, is that a poisonous, dangerous climate of exploitation within the music industry forced her into exile. Once there, she had no way to regain an income sufficient to pay her large back-tax bill and support her children.

Pretty sketchy logic, and I'm not here to defend it. Exploited, embattled and in exile she may have been (royalty checks in hand), but it's hard to believe she couldn't come to some arrangement to make payments toward her debt. Her family would have been better off if she had.

That said, the jail time seems unnecessarily harsh. She has repaid the debt, however belatedly. Throwing her in the slammer doesn't help.

Hill also recently announced a contract with Sony, launching her own record label to release an album of new music. She hasn't released a new studio album since her 1998 megahit solo debut, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," for which she received five Grammy awards, including Album of the Year. A reported 19 million copies of that album have been sold worldwide.

Hill was required to release a roughed-out single from the new album in advance. "[I]n an ideal scenario, I would not have to rush the release of new music...but the message is still there," she wrote in a note on her Tumblr page. The song, " Neurotic Society," lays out her indictment of contemporary culture. The song shows she has lost none of her power as a rapper and as a poet. The music in this "compulsory" version, is an agitated wallpaper background; interesting, if pointless on its own. The voice is the main thing.

Answering speculation that the deal with Sony was designed to earn the money to pay off her debt, Hill recently posted:
This is an old conflict between art and commerce...free minds, and minds that are perhaps overly tethered to structure. This is about inequity, and the resulting disenfranchisement caused by it. I've 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.

And that is the heart of the matter: The artist is demanding freedom, taking steps to create and to preserve that freedom even if it put her on the wrong side of the law.

It is hard to blame an artist for being an artist, even when that means acting counter to her own best interests. The recording industry is full of blood-sucking ghouls acting against the best interests of their own artists.

Lauryn Hill is right: This is an old conflict and one that will be with us for as long as artists are forced to be businessmen. Some are good at it. Most are either good artists or good businessmen and not both.

The recording industry, the media and especially audiences need to realize this important distinction and find ways to accommodate their champions, to encourage and cultivate them, to look after their interests, without destroying them.

At a concert at the Hollywood Palladium in 2012, after pleading guilty to three counts of tax fraud and in the wake of the death of Whitney Houston, Hill entreated the sold-out audience to be good to artists while they are alive. Her remarks were intended to be an expression of grief for Houston, but they could just as easily be a personal plea for understanding.

"Love your artists," she said. "When they falter, hold them accountable. But love them."

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson.
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