Dear Ms. Hill:
It’s not often that a singer is able to ride the coattails of one rather excellent album for the entirety of their career, but you have managed to so in admirable fashion for nearly two decades. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” endures as one of hip-hop/soul’s most acclaimed albums, and functions as your seminal career moment. Even when you had to share the stage with two other bandmates ( as a member of The Fugees), virtually everyone recognized your irrepressible talent, the depth and poetry of your rhymes, and the soulfulness behind the vulnerable timbre of your voice. Your work served as an inspiration for dozens of female artists who aspired to reach your level, or model their artistic endeavors after yours. To this very day, “Miseducation” gets endless playtime in the devices of music lovers and on streaming platforms everywhere. Not to mention there are countless artists who wait a lifetime to win even one Grammy award—let alone five in one fell swoop. If goodwill were hard currency instead of liminal emotion, I’d venture you would probably be richer than either Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.
That said, enough is more than enough.
For the last several years, you’ve become notorious for late and erratic live performances, many of them at venues where people have paid good money to see you perform. I say “people,” but what I really mean are fans—legions of them, in fact. That particular subset is what brings me to pen this difficult but necessary letter. A loyal fan base is the lifeblood of any artist’s success, a fact that seems to have escaped you as you struggle with ‘aligning your energy with the time’ required to put on shows. Your reward for these events is both money and recognition.
Your devotees, and once upon a time I counted myself amongst them, empathize with the idea that you don’t have an ‘on/off’ switch, something no normal human has. As a professional writer, I too struggle with the ‘artistic process’ that enables me to translate ideas and concepts—many of them fairly complex and evolving in real time—into words with meaning and clarity. Nonetheless, those of us who also operate in creative industries, and must earn a living from them, are responsible enough to know that when people are paying us for our particular skill, we have to maintain a standard of professionalism. That means adhering to deadlines, being respectful of others’ time, ensuring adequate preparation, and of course, showing up where we’re supposed to at the appointed time. Otherwise, people (rightly) won’t pay us, and we’ll develop a bad reputation…not to mention the unemployment and grinding poverty that comes with it.
Judging by the barometer of social media, you’ve developed quite a reputation yourself, and not a good one, either. Rather than being complimented for putting on good live shows, your notoriety has now become the subject of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram memes everywhere. One of my personal favorites is one that calls your long-awaited second album “The Audacity of Lauryn Hill,” and jokes about listening to you spend an hour running errands and rummaging through your pocketbook.
As you are no doubt aware, social media users can be a relentlessly brutal crowd, especially when their wrath is kindled. It’s a tough comedown for a superstar once heralded as music’s next best thing, but let’s face it—you kinda have it coming. I say that not to be cruel or to pile on, but to remind you of something you may have forgotten in all those years in creative exile: Don’t trifle with your fans.
You see, the true north of your artistic compass must be to do what’s best for the people who effectively pay your bills. This means that if your ‘energy isn’t aligned’ or whatever, you shouldn’t agree to make appearances that will either result in you showing up late, or putting on a show that is unworthy of your fan base. It’s not good for them or you.
All of which brings me to my final point: Maybe the issue isn’t really with a misaligned Chakra. Maybe your creative tank has exhausted itself completely. After years of dining out on the strength of one solo album, and work you did as part of a now disbanded group, is there really any legitimate reason to keep performing without dropping any new music? If it’s so tough for you to find your center, why even bother? Perhaps it’s time to consider hanging up your microphone for good. As for your devotees, it might be time for them to stop letting you get away with your sense of entitlement, and cease giving you a pass for one good album.
Some of your loyalists might miss being left hanging for hours at your short, underwhelming performances, but I’m willing to bet they’ll survive. After all, we’ll always have memories of The Fugees and “Miseducation” to keep us warm at night. Especially if you don’t intend to make anything new—which given the changed landscape of hip hop, I’m not entirely convinced you should do.
The music world has moved on…it’s probably best you do the same.
Bearded scribe for CNBC by day, crime-fighting couch potato by night. Gym rat in between, and movie junkie on alternate weekends. Former Reuters and Dow Jones/WSJ reporter. Also a contributor at TheGrio.com