Heroes Eventually Die: Lauryn Hill and “Us”

“Even the sun goes down, heroes eventually die
Horoscopes often lie and sometimes “y”
Nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever
But until they close the curtain
it’s him & I Aquemini..” — Outkast excerpted from Aquemini

To worship Lauryn Hill is to miss the point entirely. The impulse to glorify her genius or gift only creates a dangerous distance between her humanity and “ours” (a fiction in its own right). It is to obscure that which binds us; our pain and our triumph and the countless points of intersection and overlap in all of our fabulously messy and non-linear life trajectories. Of course, the temptation to attribute her success to the specifics of Lauryn Hill (the celebrity as differentiated from the person) is somehow always lurking in the shadows of our mind. I imagine it is similarly seductive to indulge one’s vampiric audience by performing the omniscient all-knowing celebrity archetype our culture shamelessly demands. But who am I kidding? Lauryn is more often cannibalized than revered. Fans have been harboring oceans of resentment against her since the release of her Unplugged album. She has quickly become the Joaquin Phoenix of hip hop. There is something terrifyingly toxic about this compulsion to possess her; to leave her stranded atop the mountain of mastership she ascended back in the “Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” days. I retired my naive attempt to understand fans’ deeply rooted sense of betrayal a long time ago. It is my hope that the circulation of the above videos disrupts the cliche (and vindictive) narrative of Lauryn as some raging lunatic or bitter politician or fallen angel or scorned lover or religious zealot or any other combination of rigid and dichotomous identities that we’ve scripted her into. In “The Uses of The Blues” James Baldwin writes:

In evading my humanity, you have done something to your own humanity. We all do this all the time, of course. One labels people. But in the doing of this, you have not described anything — you have not described me, you have only described yourself. What I think of you says more about me than it can possibly say about you.

And so I wonder what the construction of Lauryn’s “insanity” in the popular American imaginary says about us. What is our stake in preserving her persona; in some romantic freeze frame of her glowing radiant image in the Ex-Factor video? What threat does change pose to the fragile balance of our universe? I found that the above speech demystifies this rather cruel relationship between artist and audience and reveals something far more tender and vulnerable (but not unbearably so). Lauryn’s playful mockery of the first brave high school student’s convoluted language effectively disarms the audience’s expectation of her to play “politician”. Once she establishes a conversational level of engagement, it becomes clear that her intent is not to impart cliche wisdom (a la Diddy) or deliver an impassioned indictment of “the Industry” and it’s perilous evils. The epicness of it all falls away with every appropriately corny Matrix reference and nostalgic anecdote. There is no sentimental soundtrack quietly manipulating the students in the background; no staged Dead Poet’s SocietyOh Captain, My Captain” moment of collective Eureka! It is far less cinematic and earth-shatteringly transformative. Instead, we are all left with more questions about ourselves than answers about Lauryn. To me, that alone is the greatest testament to her speech making abilities and reflects an honest portrait of a person offering her own experience and story to illustrate that ultimately we know nothing and isn’t that a beautiful and necessary surrender? I think so.

7 Responses to “Heroes Eventually Die: Lauryn Hill and “Us””
  1. Nylle says:

    Isa, you just articulated–with great authority and clarity might I add–what I have been trying to convey to non-artist individuals who represent themselves as fan’s in general. Particularly though, fan’s of Lauryn Hill. I am currently working on my thesis project, which centers on Lauryn. I have been absolutely baffled by the sense of entitlement that people continue to hold for the mind, body, soul, spirit, and artistry of Lauryn Hill. I have sincerely mourned over our distorted and further mutilated concepts of humanity.

    Only yesterday–literally–did I come to understand this dysfunctional relationship. Only then realizing that we have accepted and internalized this kind of human interaction as normal–if such a primitive word can be used. Thank you for writing such a timely piece.

  2. Isa says:

    thank you for the comment, nylle! I appreciate your thoughtful read. I saw that you re-posted the text on a fugees online board. It’s strange to see folks read themselves into the writing…I think you did an incredible job fielding the responses individually. one of my favorite authors junot diaz speaks of the need to strengthen the reading public (that we’ve somehow invested more in creating strong writers than readers) and comment sections reflect back that need. It’s truly a breath of fresh air to receive feedback that demonstrates engagement. I would love to read some of your thesis project if (and when) you would be comfortable with that. email: inakazawa@gmail.com. thanks again, hope you’ll come back to the site.

  3. madamejosele says:

    Awesome post.. awesome post

  4. supafrenz says:

    this is so great. thank you for writing this…poignant.

  5. mz510 says:

    This is so on point. You I was never one of those to just right the woman off as crazy but I was one of those who said L. Boogie where’s the next album. Yet, at the end of the day I now say thank you for what you have given us.

  6. Kat says:

    This is beautiful. Thank you.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] unbottled and unpackaged. Yes. GT is weepy and sentimental. Love. Love. Love Lauryn. Pic found here. Posted by gt on March 10, 2011 share    leave a comment […]

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