Commentary: It’s Time to Be Honest With Lauryn Hill

Enough with responding to one social injustice by perpetuating another.

Posted: 05/21/2013 11:14 AM EDT

A fixture among conscious, pro-Black, anti-government musicians and activists, Lauryn Hill embodies the toll exacted from working on a 21st century underground railroad — surviving, trying to thrive, raising a family, but hiding and escaping from a society and the institutions that have it in for her. We love to love Lauryn for these sacrifices. But it’s time to love her enough to be honest.

No longer just a lyric from “Lost Ones” — money issues have backfired on Ms. Hill. Lately, she put her business out there, telling us the corporatization of the music industry is what led to her financial and psychological hardships. All the while, she was simply trying to make “music for artistic and existential catharsis…necessary for the generations of oppressed people who hadn’t had their voices expressed.” Thank you, Lauryn! We love to love you for your ability to empower through women-centered, racially conscious lyrics providing an “existential catharsis” for us while we figure out how to live life without going crazy.

But what happens when one “existential catharsis” gives cause for another?

Hill’s new single “Neurotic Society (Compulsory Mix)” is a speedy song about a maladaptive society with enough punchiness to make you trip over your own political commitments. We love to love Lauryn for keeping us honest. But let’s return the honesty. In an era where rappers are finally called out for their virulent words – Lil’ Wayne and Rick Ross being the latest to come under fire – there’s something about Hill’s sexual politics that seem anything but revolutionary. Under the dizzying collection of prophetic sound bites, it appears that some of her metaphors and similes suggest that though she’s on the front lines for racial and financial justice, she might not extend her concerns to gay and lesbian communities. 

“Neurotic Society” proclaims again that Babylon is falling — thanks in part to tricksters like ”girl men,” ”drag queens,” and the lies of ”social transvestism.” Whether or not Hill is merely using these comments as examples of the smokescreens and sleight-of-hands that pervade this “Neurotic Society” is unclear. Beyond intention, these sorts of statements suggest that society is in a shambles because it’s been taking too many cues from the LGBTQ community, acting like “girl men,” “drag queens” and “transvestites.” Is her beef with oppressive society or is her issue with people who don’t abide by a traditional family structure? For those who don’t feel me, would it be okay if her song criticized “neurotic society” for acting like “N-----s,” ”mammies” and ”jezebels?” No! Then why does she think it’s cool to critique society by using stereotypes about a community that suggest the community isn’t as valuable as another?

Over the years, Hill’s lyrical lessons have jolted many from societal slumber and historical amnesia enough to make her a tour de force of the ‘conscious’ hip hop market. But Hill’s troubling portraits of lifestyles not her own are as problematic as the racism and capitalist systems she’s fought for so many years. As she tries to “…figure out how to pay her own tax debts,” may she also realize the expense imposed by her “existential catharsis” on LGBTQ individuals as they continue to fight for justice for their lives and partnerships. As we love to love Hill, let’s love her enough to be honest with her: Enough with responding to one social injustice by perpetuating another. You’re a better MC than that!

Monica R. Miller, Ph.D. is the author of Religion and Hip Hop and teaches courses on religion in contemporary culture. Miller will join the faculty of Lehigh University as Assistant Professor of Religion and Africana Studies in the Fall of 2013.

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(Photo: AP Photo/Mel Evans, file)

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