The Decline and Fall, and Hopeful Resurrection, of One of America's Greatest Divas, Lauryn Hill

While the International Business Times named Beyoncé and Jay-Z pop music’s first billionaire couple this week, R&B icon Lauryn Hill appeared in court again regarding the tax-evasion charges she pleaded guilty to last year. Fifteen years ago, Hill was both a single mother and a superstar, poised to take her place on top of the world with the release of her soon-to-be multi-Grammy-winning album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Now, as the recording artist faces possible jail time for her avoidance of Uncle Sam, we’re left to wonder: what happened to this woman who was once “more powerful than two Cleopatras?”

Whether performing as Fugees front-woman or as a solo artist, Lauryn Hill’s career has hardly been without controversy. Early on, there were the wild and unfounded rumors of Hill’s preference for starvation over having white people buy her music. Then there was the raw, and questionably magnificent, MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 album that spawned accusations of raspy vocals (hey, at least they’re real—no lip-syncing or melodyne to be found on those recordings). Sprinkled in between was Hill’s friendship with the mysterious Brother Anthony, Hill’s spiritual adviser, who may or may not be a cult leader, and who may or may not think people should give up all their money (but not to the IRS, apparently).  

Lauryn Hill is also the refugee of numerous concert catastrophes. In the years since her Miseducation, the singer has become notorious for tardiness, leaving audiences waiting for more than three hours to see her perform. She’s racked up her share of show cancellations as well, canceling her 2009 European tour dates due to health issues. And who could forget the 2003 Vatican Christmas concert where she called out the Catholic Church and suggested it repent for its pedo problem, which—let’s be honest—was both totally inappropriate and sort of heroic.

Hill made headlines again in 2011 when she split with her longtime partner and father of five of her children, Rohan Marley—son of Bob Marley—a split mainly attributed to her pregnancy with someone else’s child. Marley soon ran off with a Brazilian supermodel (who, like Hill, also has a first son named Zion, bizarrely enough). And just when you thought there might be a dull moment, 2012 saw Lauryn Hill pleading guilty to her failure to file taxes, with Beyoncé coming to her defense when the aptly named boy-band, Mindless Behavior, mocked Hill and her tax traumas at the BET awards.  

All of this has been building up to this week’s tax-evasion sentencing slash eviction notice double-header. Currently, Hill’s sentencing has been postponed until May 6, so the singer can have extra time to come up with funds to pay restitution. Hill was expected to sign a record contract that would bring in the revenue required to pay up last fall, but that didn’t happen. Her lawyers anticipate that she will be able to take a loan against two properties and pay up by the May 6 deadline, hopefully increasing the possibility of a probation sentence as opposed to actual jail time for Hill, mother of six. On top of that, Hill also faces an eviction lawsuit filed by the landlord of the South Orange New Jersey mansion she has been renting since 2009 because she failed to pay last month’s rent—a pretty aggressive move considering that she’s otherwise paid her rent for years. Rumor has it that these eviction efforts might have something to do with Hill being denied a permit to use the house as a recording studio last year.  

But back to the tax-evasion: let’s do some math here. If Hill earned $1.8 million in the three years from 2005 to 2007, without subtracting any of the taxes she didn’t pay anyhow, that’s an average of $600,000 per year (according to Rolling Stone, it was actually $818,000, $222,000 and $761,000 respectively for the three years, but we’ll use the average for simplicity). These kinds of numbers put Hill very modestly in the lower echelons of the "1 percent”—which, for a multi-Grammy-winning recording artist, is even more modest. During the years in question, Hill already had four of her six children, so between her and the four kids, that breaks down to $120,000 per head. In other words, while it’s true that Lauryn Hill is not penniless, as Judge Madeline Cox Arleo pointed out in court this week, clearly no one’s been buying any Bentleys.

So is the media being a little sensationalist? It’s not as though Hill didn’t pay her taxes back in the late '90s when she was making the big bucks—the $25 million-a-year big bucks—and has presumably paid taxes since 2007, or they’d be after her for that, too, no?

Meanwhile, on the Isle of Manhattan, just 18 miles away from the South Orange mansion Hill may soon be evicted from, hedge funders are wiping their arses with the kind of cash Hill was making between 2005 and 2007, and those people are probably doing shiftier things than ducking off the grid for a while and not filing tax returns. Of course, none of those folks created a multi-platinum selling Grammy-winning masterpiece back in the '90s, so they’d have to be as corrupt as Bernie Madoff to make headlines like Hill. Well that, and let’s be real: most of them aren’t assertive, outspoken black women. Sure, we know that according to the system, Lauryn Hill should pay, and it looks like she will, but proportionally her crime is not enormous, and if it were about being entitled or joining the Moorish Nation or thinking she could get away with it, then she’d have probably kept on doing it after 2007.  

Yet at the same time, Hill’s explanations for her actions, as stated quite eloquently on her Tumblr site, don’t quite add up. Hill is crystal clear on her reasons for pulling out of the industry and the limelight in order to be able to artistically relaunch herself outside of an environment that operates on a “dynamic of compromise,” as she puts it. But she’s not so clear on why she didn’t file taxes, except that the two events—hiding from taxes and the world—happened at the same time. She states, “I did not deliberately abandon my fans, nor did I deliberately abandon any responsibilities, but I did however put my safety, health and freedom and the freedom, safety and health of my family first over all other material concerns!” 

It leaves us asking the obvious question: how does the need to protect the family correlate to not filing taxes? Is it that she couldn’t work when she was off the grid and in hiding, so she needed the extra cash and couldn’t give it up to Uncle Sam just then? Was she afraid that if the IRS knew her address, details of her whereabouts would be universally compromised—i.e. she deliberately didn’t file because she didn’t want anyone to know where she was? Was not paying taxes a part of her resistance to the system she was trying to escape? Or is this just a lame excuse for not wanting to pay up during those years? But if so, why those three years? Why file from 2008 to the present if she’s just trying to escape the system? Perhaps it really was a rough patch that she hoped to handle later on when funds from fresh and more positive sources were more forthcoming.  

Whatever the reason for Hill’s tax troubles, it looks as though a purported million-dollar record deal with Sony has finally come through, and her lawyers are confident that based on the deal, Hill will be able to get a loan and pay the back taxes. While the news of a million-dollar record contract seems as though it might be embellished with a bit of PR inflation—a relic of the olden days when people actually bought music and record labels were flush with cash to give real advances—who knows? It could be one of those raping-and-pillaging 360 deals, and if Hill stays in the press like this, and if no news is bad news, Sony might actually see a return on that investment, and Hill will be all paid up with the law.  

Hopefully she can do so without having to compromise too much of her creative message, because it seems that with the new material she’s been performing on tour with Nas, her voice is very much back and has a whole lot to say. The title song of her half of the tour, “Black Rage,” rewrites the classic “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, but in place of the Julie Andrews laundry list of favorite things, we are presented with Hill’s list of the sources of Black Rage.   

To watch Lauryn Hill perform “Black Rage” is to watch a true artist. Most people just don’t remember what one looks like because our entertainment industry has become progressively less hospitable to the real performing artists who are out there. But perhaps some will remember an awkward 13-year-old Lauryn Hill taking the stage at the Apollo for the first time. This little girl started off pitchy, but actually improved her singing in the face of the crowd’s challenging boos. Do you remember that they booed before they stood up and applauded? Perhaps it will happen again for Lauryn Hill, for as she once told us, “After winter must come spring. Change: it comes eventually.”

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