Lauryn Hill And The Question Of What Responsibilities Do Artists Have To Their Audiences?

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Writer Stefan Schumacher is so over Lauryn Hill, he had to write an essay about it.

More specifically, in the essay aptly entitled, “It’s Finally Time To Stop Caring About Lauryn Hill,” Schumacher talks about being a lifelong fan of the former Fugees member and falling out of love with her, particularly over her inability to appreciate the fans, especially those who pay to see her in concert.

He writes in part:

I wanted to see Ms. Hill, but something just didn’t sit right with me about paying that much for an artist who hasn’t produced anything of relevance in almost two decades. Not to mention her reputation for being an inconsistent and unreliable performer—canceling shows, coming on stage hours late, passing out.

It occurred to me that, as great as Miseducation and The Fugees’ The Score are, they’re part of a distant past. Lauryn Hill was a great artist. She’s not anymore and it’s time we stop holding her in that regard, waiting for her to pay off on a promise that’s long since expired.

In addition to her poor showmanship at shows, Schumacher isn’t much of a fan of her recent releases either. In fact, he hated her new song, “Black Rage,” which was a formerly unreleased song Hill shared with fans to speak on the happenings in Ferguson, Missouri. He said of the track, “Her singing is thin and uneven and the recording is of poor quality.” You can listen to it here, but personally I don’t think it’s that bad. In fact, it’s probably the best Lauryn Hill we have heard since her debut album. And I mean that sincerely.

Nevertheless, Hill’s inability to duplicate or even maintain any semblance of mainstream success has left Schumacher with questions. Lots of them. An article filled with them in fact:

“What is she doing with her time? How many kids does she have? Is she broke? Will she return to her former glory? What was with that strange acoustic set she did for MTV back in… whenever that was, 2002?”

“Who does one album that sells six million copies in the U.S. alone and another that sells eight million, and then just stops?”

“Remember when Lauryn was winning all those Grammys that year in that white pant suit (1999)?”

“Do we long for DMX’s return to glory? Are we desperate for reunions of Outkast and Black Star, neither of which have made albums in years?”

“Making obligatory appearances for your charitable organization is equivalent to slavery?”

“Did you forget about me?”

Honestly, his inquiry into why Hill has become such a musical disappointment to him (and other tangents) are boundless and apparently unanswerable.

Despite that, he vows:

So I’m leaving Ms. Hill alone. Not because I’m hoping she’ll be back, but because she’s no longer worth waiting on. She has two classic albums under her belt, but she’s more of a memorable flash in the pan than a legend. She used to be great. I used to love her. But not anymore.

Poor Schumacher. And not because he has lost his musical muse, but because, as they say, he done stepped in it now. So much so that rapper Talib Kweli decided to spit some wax poetry of his own in an equally long and flowery piece entitled In Defense of Ms. Hill, in which he argues that Hill is an artist, and as an artist, her first obligation is to deliver an honest expression of her art – despite the desires of her fans.

More specifically he writes:

The great thing about making art for yourself is that if you do it well, millions of people will relate to it and embrace it. They will support you and make it possible for you to have a career and feed your family, all with your art. These are your fans, and their passion, dedication and contribution to your life are to be cherished and respected.

However fans are not your boss, and listening to them when it comes to creative decisions is a slippery slope. I am not obligated to make the same album over and over again just because fans demand it. I am allowed to try new things, succeed at them or fail at them. I am allowed to not make music anymore ever, if that’s what I choose to do. I am allowed to give a sh**ty show or not even show up if I feel like it. Hopefully that will never happen, but if it does, it will never take away from the quality of the work I’ve already put out into the world.

Interesting debate here. And as always, I implore you to read both essays – in addition to this one – to get a clearer understanding of the debate. I will say that I am personally least interested in both of their arguments when it comes to the validity of calling Hill a legend. Like many “great” lists beforehand, this conversation is subjective and not very interesting. And while Kweli might personally still see value in Hill as an artist, Schumacher is well within his right as the receiver of an art to make the determination based on personal appeal.

However, I believe that both sides do raise some interesting and valid points about the responsibility an artist has to his or her fans. As Kweli rightly noted, an artist’s first responsibility is to their art. Period. As a daily columnist, I fully understand the necessity of having the space to explore topics and opinions, which sometimes are contrary to long ingrained public beliefs and thoughts of both society as well as my personal identities as a black woman. I also see the necessity in exploring topics and expressing opinions in places folks feel I am not entitled to. Sometimes the reactions I get bother me, but regardless of how ridiculous they are at times, I still can’t allow the negative responses to sway the way the ball of my pen swerves.

Besides, who wants to read an inauthentic writer?

I am a firm believer that within those spaces of great debate and uncertainty is where innovation happens. And I am quite comfortable with the fact that even if folks don’t agree with me, I like to think that I at least made folks think and challenged a few perceptions of things in the process. That’s what I strive for anyway. And that is what I truly believe makes one a good writer and artist in general. So if Schumacher doesn’t like her new stuff, well, that’s too bad for him, but not necessarily for her or for music in general. I mean, we all know the music scene has changed significantly since Hill first arrived on the scene, so who is to say how another Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album would be received right now? And wouldn’t that be much worse than her putting out new, albeit, different music? Since Schumacher likes ruminating so much, let him answer those questions.

With that said, if I don’t turn in these little trinkets of innovation in some semblance of “on-time,” I’m not going to get published and paid for my work. And rightfully so. I mean, I would love it if folks would just hand me money because they thought I was great and all, but I also understand that those who pay me for my craft want me to actually deliver something. And that is where I believe Schumacher has a major point.

If it is truly about the art for some artists, then they should host free shows and performances where they are free to come at whatever time and junction they want. However, thanks to capitalism, not too many artists can afford to live like that. That’s why we sell our work. And while the act of selling ourselves and our talent does not entitle people to shape who you are, it does carry with it some responsibilities – one of them being to be considerate enough of the people who are making it possible for you to eat and pay off some bills. I’m just saying….

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