The Misinterpretation of Ms. Lauryn Hill

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Lauryn Hill’s long awaited return to music has been riddled with controversy. Everything from her appearance, to the quality of her performances, to her demand to be referred to as Ms. Lauryn Hill, amasses constant scrutiny. Her tax evasion case and impending incarceration are the most recent highly publicized discussions on the iconic artist.

While people have given their two cents on the artist via social media and other various networks, MLH has used her tumblr to address allegations and public opinion.
MLH’s most recent letter was posted a few days ahead of her reporting for a three-month prison sentence for failing to pay taxes on approximately $1.8 million in income.

Her letter has been called a “rant” that blames historical racism for her legal problems, effectively adding to public chatter that she isn’t exactly mentally stable.

When it comes to black women and mental health, there is a fine line between society’s diagnoses that we are sane versus the label that we are just plain cray cray. Therefore certain choices, beliefs, behaviors and statements are more than likely to earn black women their crazy card and it seems that MLH is guilty of nearly all of them. Here are a few that seem applicable:

1. Resist conformity to social expectations that you must be amicable and accommodating.

2. Speak openly and often about historical wrongdoings and the power of intersectionalism within communities of color, specifically black communities.

3. Refuse to erase yourself nor hate yourself nor forget that racism and sexism demands that you do both.

4. Do not seek acceptance or approval (namely from white people).

5. Speak freely when your freedom hangs in the balance.

In the public eye, MLH has essentially crossed the line between socially acceptable freedom of expression and crazy town. Although it is understandable that many see MLH’s letters as having to do with late or bad timing, perhaps this is more about the threat of having one’s freedom taken away, which oftentimes compels a person to speak more freely than ever before concerning their experience(s).

Getting labeled crazy is an experience that many artists and entertainers are intimately familiar with. In an interview with James Lipton from Inside the Actors Studio in 2006, Dave Chappelle disclosed his feelings on the matter when questioned about fellow comedian Martin Lawrence’s influence on his life. Chappelle took the opportunity to address perceptions of mental weakness and the problem with calling individuals crazy.
The worst thing to call somebody is crazy. It’s dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person, so they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit. These people are not crazy, they’re strong people. Maybe the environment is a little sick.
The “environment” Chappelle mentions parallels the historic conditions MLH outlines in her letters. In this sense, a close reading of her most recent letter reveals that her claims are also not so dense or incoherent that they warrant dismissal.

MLH refers to the paradigm of historic racism as a dysfunctional relationship with the individual and his or her surroundings. She contends that:
Anyone forced to live so incredibly diametrically opposed to that which is natural to themselves, will end up in crisis if they don’t successfully find a way to improve or transcend these circumstances! All of which require healing. It is only by the Grace of God and the resilience of the people that things haven’t been worse.
MLH’s points also speak to greater systemic issues that affect black women. In particular, the relationship between black women’s bodies and the economy is one that has evolved from slavery, to peonage, to the now ever-looming crisis of mass incarceration.

This relationship is highlighted in MLH’s account of the prosecutor’s statement during sentencing, noting how she hadn’t given to charity during her years in ‘exile.’
The prosecutor, who was a woman, made a statement during sentencing about me not doing any charity work for a number of years during my ‘exile.’ A) Charity work is not a requirement, but something done because someone wants to. I was clearly doing charitable works way before other people were even thinking about it. And B) Even the judge had to comment that she, meaning I, was both having and raising children during this period. As if that was not challenging enough to do. She sounded like the echo of the grotesque slave master, who expected women to give birth while in the field, scoop the Baby up, and then continue to work. Disgusting.
The expectation that MLH charitably give back a portion of what she earned stems from the historical understanding that black people’s relationship to the state is one of debt and servitude. The court made this relationship even clearer in its language that the IRS “must be made whole,” which MLH also recounts in her letter.

Throughout American history, making the system whole has equated to black people’s indebtedness to the system. Black women in particular have paid the highest debts through their labor and through their children.

Society has historically viewed black women through the prism of their reproductive capacity as part of their general labor capability. In other words, their ability to reproduce plays a central role in their value and what is expected of them in serving the American economic system. Hill's mention of giving birth while in the field is a reminder of this convoluted legacy.

MLH is right to assert that charity work is a choice and not a requirement. In fact, many wealthy people often give to charity as a means to actually avoid paying their taxes, so the prosecutor’s statement is ironic to say the least.

It’s interesting that MLH not paying her taxes garners a spectacle of media attention, while a system that disenfranchises people of color and plays ignorant as Wall Street CEO’s bankrupt citizens (and simultaneously award themselves $20 billion in bonuses) goes unaccounted for as more pressing issues get swept under the rug.

Society unfortunately holds artists accountable for their actions when they fail to impress in a manner that is deemed acceptable and when they fall short of the role model persona many create of them in their heads. Very few formulate intelligent critiques based on their body of work or raise questions on the vision that goes into creating new work, as scholar Monica Miller does in her recent article for BET regarding MLH’s newest single “Neurotic Society.”

People consistently participate in the spectacle when troubled artists show their most vulnerable selves, their humanity, or ask that people question their own. People damn them and turn their backs. On to the next one they go. Hardly taking the time to recognize, this choice says more about them than it does about the artist.


Tania L. Balan-Gaubert is a Haitian American native of Chicago. She received her master’s degree in African American Studies from Columbia University and currently resides in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @tanialaure.

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