The Miscalculation of Lauryn Hill

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The upshot of former Fugees star Lauryn Hill's legal troubles is that we may see a new studio album from her, the first in 15 years, on her own label, through a deal arranged with Sony ( SNE). The downside? Prison, and three months without being able to pursue her career or be with her kids.

It seems Ms. Lauryn miscalculated.

Here's a brief rundown of the available facts, simple and strange as they may be. More interesting is what's underneath, sweeping themes that together weave a tale of operatic proportions.

Hill was sentenced Monday to serve three months in jail for not paying taxes on an estimated $1.8 million in income from 2005 to 2007. It took her a long time to get around to it, taxing the court's patience, but by the time she was sentenced she had paid $970,000 in federal and state taxes, apparently the total owed excluding interest and fines.

The judge could have sentenced her to three years. Her attorney asked for probation. The judge gave her 90 days plus another nine months of supervised release. She is to start her sentence July 8.

According to media reports, Hill testified in court that she always intended to pay the back taxes but found herself unable to do so when she left the music industry in an effort to protect and care for her six children.

Shortly after her arrest last year, she posted a long statement on her Tumblr page in which she said, "I did whatever needed to be done in order to insulate my family from the climate of hostility, false entitlement, manipulation, racial prejudice, sexism and ageism that I was surrounded by."

But apparently she did too much that left her more exposed to the very threats she was hoping to avoid, which she describes as "a lifestyle that required distortion and compromise."

Now, rather than having to compromise her values at the behest of recording industry executives, she finds herself in the weaker position of having to answer to government and law enforcement officials, far more difficult negotiators.

Mind you, not paying taxes could have been a reasonable gamble. Other high-income tax evaders -- even celebrities who could serve as high-profile examples for prosecution -- aren't necessarily jailed if the court sees another solution. Robert Frank, writing a blog for CNBC, gives some examples: Mary Estelle Curran, an elderly Florida socialite who pleaded guilty to not paying tax on $40 million income hidden in offshore accounts. She was first sentenced to probation, then had her probation revoked, allowing her to go free.

Singer Willie Nelson owed the IRS $16.7 million in 1990 according to Time Magazine; some of his property was seized. Actor Nicolas Cage had a lien filed against his real estate holdings by the IRS in 2010 as a result of owing $14 million. Criminal charges were never filed in either case.

Actor Wesley Snipes, on the other hand, did go to jail, but only after he defended his decision to not file a tax return by claiming he was a nonresident alien, apparently on bad advice from his accountant. The IRS, and the judge, disagreed. He served three years in a white-collar prison.

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. " In 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 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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