The times have changed and the era of raw artistry seems to be slowly shifting to one of pre-packaged professionals. It begs the question: Where does Ms. Lauryn Hill fit in?
To some, Ms. Lauryn Hill is a living legend— a Hip-Hop fairy god martyr. To others, she seems a few tics shy of a “bag lady”. Those who got a chance to watch her in her element at the Black Girls Rock! Awards (a show created to uplift Black Women who may be otherwise overlooked) were either left inspired… or confused.
Verse 1: The Pursuit of Perfection
In today’s world of: click tracks, live Auto-Tune, pre-recorded performances, glamour armies, choreographed “freestyle” dances, and corporate sponsored colonics, most of us aren’t used to seeing imperfection on stage anymore. Today’s concertgoer and live-viewer sort of just wants to sing along, take pictures, and post it all to social media in real-time; in an effort to be acknowledged by both artist and fans alike. In some way, pledging your allegiance to a flawless demigod is a reflection of your life and social status. The deepest connection to an artist, short of stalking, is that of the elusive “retweet” or “mention”; not so much spiritual growth or even an autograph. So, aside from the committee-approved (pre-rehearsed) vocal run, everything must remain as polished as humanly digitally possible.
For someone of Ms. Hill’s musical caliber and apparent devotion to the African Diaspora, perfection may look and feel all together different. While some artists fume and vex over red carpet time, she may very well be more concerned with how to achieve a transcendent performance. Who knows? What we do know is that the prospect of playing the same song… the same way… for 20 years must seem like Analog Purgatory. This would mean that, given a capable band (which she has), the freedom to experiment with your music is both tempting and overwhelming. “Should I mix in a Trap beat to make it modern? Should I switch to Fela to honor my roots? Should I break it down here or… here?!”
For most artists, the thrill of sharing something unpolished and creatively raw is usually reserved for management and algorithmic industry robots. Not to mention that the symbiotic relationship between an artist, an audience, and social media has changed the performance experience to say the least. The performer pours their heart out before a sea of blue-lit faces bowed before smart phones, the audience yearns for a “post-able” moment, and both parties pray silently for “likes” and followers. The pressure of knowing that everything you do, whether good or bad, will be etched in digital stone can cause even the most seasoned performer to go out of their way to eliminate all chances of failure and self-consciousness… or just not show up at all.
Verse 2: The Gods Must Be Crazy
Let’s be honest, every artist is a little weird. Okay… really weird depending on your definition of weird. Some will only write a song if they can get a particular candle, a particular pen, and be in a particular studio surrounded by white orchids. Some may not even touch a stage unless they’ve eaten 23 green M&Ms, while facing east and brushing their beard counter-clockwise. For a chosen few, these superstitions and eccentricities (as well as the occasional arrest, overdose, or seizure) can be seen as formulas for success. For the rest, it’s the reason why Thanksgiving is always so tense.
Ms. Hill, at this point, has seemed to have lost her right to eccentricity. Whether it be: the fact she’s been classified as crazy, the stigma that mental health issues carry in the Black Community, the fact that the industry at-large has declared her difficult, or just a simple case of biased third-party anecdote disguised as fact, she is an easy target for criticism. To those who revere her, Ms. Hill is a god incarnate who can do no wrong. To the “Mean Girls of Twitter” however, she’s a fatted calf ready for virtual sacrifice. “Is she crazy? Why she wear that? What the f*ck is a Fela? Why does she keep pointing at the speakers and looking off stage? Why they just didn’t get Rihanna to sing?”
Gossip folks will always find something to say. We know that, for the most part, it’s because online negativity garners the attention that these soul-less cyberbullying ringworms so desperately desire. Every good parasite needs a host. Be that as it may, what concerns even the most casual music aficionado, is that the criticism have less to do with an artist’s music, and more so to do with the artist’s image. And one must wonder just how the legends of yesteryear would fair out in today’s marketplace of corporate artists? Would Jimi Hendrix have a shot? Would Miles Davis or Janis Joplin get a deal? Sh*t… what would happen to Miss Nina Simone?
There are thousands of examples of music, film, visual, and even literary artists becoming more detached from societal expectations the deeper they delve into their craft. We tolerate odd behavior from winners, so long as they are winning. So who gets to draw the “crazy line” in the sand? You? The industry? Lifetime movies?
Verse 3: Painting By Numbers
While we all can appreciate the well-oiled performance machines that we’ve grown accustomed to, thanks to the savvy industry shamans, true Art is about expression. It is about going into oneself and making the abstract elements of our existence make sense in a tangible (or downloadable) form. It is more about astrological charts than it is sales charts— or at least that’s what an artist would say.
The average consumer judges the quality of an album by its first week sales. One week. Television shows are gauged on an episodic basis. No one watches… it’s gone. Is it a bad album/show or a bad marketing department? You’ll never get a chance to know. On to the next one.
When the fans are more concerned with sales and branding, there is less incentive for an artist to rock the boat in an effort to reach for artistic legacy and integrity. The S.S. Formulaic is a big, slow-turning ship and the shareholders can’t afford for you to try out that didgeridoo solo.
How will this analytical approach to art play out in the long run? Will there be less Ms. Lauryn Hills in favor of puppy-mill clone army girl groups? Probably. The analytics have spoken and “The GoldenDoodles” are going on a Snapchat tour with “E####### Connection” this summer.
Ms. Hill’s Black Girls Rock! Awards performance seemed to be met with both reverence and ridicule. She tried things. She reached, pulled back, and reached some more. She did and then re-did.
For those who appreciated her effort, they were granted a glimpse at one artist’s attempt at her idea of perfection. For those that didn’t appreciate her effort, they were granted a glimpse at a waste of good airtime.
The bifurcation of opinions towards Ms. Lauryn Hill may be indicative of a larger issue with Black culture, but we can let Don Lemon and Talib Kweli debate that. What we must decide is what we individually think of someone like Ms. Hill.
Is she an eccentric diva? Is she crazy and in need of meds? Or is she an artist still struggling to find herself in the public eye?
Whatever your opinion is of Ms. Hill there is no denying her work and impact on countless artists (including the writer) and music fans alike. The torch she carried will and must be taken up for the sake of Art and Hip Hop culture. It’s doubtful, however, that the next little girl to inherit her work will be like the corporate clones we’ve grown to love. No, she will be meek, introspective, and laden with the burden of African roots—past, present, and future. She may write of this legacy in a simple notebook and carry it all in possibly a cloth bag of sorts. Yes… a bag lady.
Lauryn Hill – “Lost Ones” Gloriously Remixed:
Willard Hill is a Los Angeles-based Recording Artist/Producer, Howard University graduate, and fan of the Oxford Comma from New Orleans, La.