Anthony Carter shares what we can learn from an artist who focused on authenticity, pride, and vision rather than being a commodity.
Ten years ago, I received a call with an offer to work with Lauryn Hill.
As a result of my obsession with this talented young woman, I couldn’t agree to the gig fast enough. In my excitement, I called my sister (a fellow groupie), my cousin and anyone else I could dial up.
While I spent most of the night preparing for the next day’s life changing opportunities, I was not prepared for meeting the artist in person.
She seemed broken.
I saw such misery and pain that my desire for fame and the end of obscurity ended.
All I wanted to do was hug her and ask : how you be ?
What I witnessed was an artist who had been pushed beyond their limits and was in need of rest and contemplation. My perception was that she had been pulled in so many directions for so long that she was now unable to belong to herself.
Was I another fan demanding a performance and happily willing to forego the need that she and we all have to safeguard our talent in ways that allow us to resist the unforgiving pimp that is fame and fortune ?
Was it more important that I pitch my ideas and a way for us to collaborate than offer a soulful connection.
What I had no way of knowing at the time was the dramatic shift that pop culture was gearing up to serve the masses. At a very pivotal time, pop culture was at a point wherein something new was being craved and yet there was a hunkering for predictability.
Lauryn Hill existed at that very pivotal place of between.
Culture critics, academics and community elders love to highlight the problems that occur when we allow musicians and celebrities to rear and influence our children. Few will confess to being influenced by the culture at large and in turn influencing the same culture.
We are all products and creators of our shared cultural experiences.
What Ms. Hill represented in her 1998-2004 heyday was the possibility of success that was based in loving blackness, loving and embracing womanhood and allowing your talent to determine how far you could rise.
Loving blackness in this culture is a problem and can get you much side eyeing and baffled looks.
I said “loving blackness”, not apping, obsessing over or constantly acculturating it.
Her dark skin and full natural hair could have allowed the larger white establishment and pop culture to dismiss her and keep her a small and powerful underground entity.
This ain’t what happened. She wore her blackness proudly.
I saw her on the cover of major fashion magazines sans lightening and all of the other bullshit black folks feel we must consent to if pop culture success is our ultimate goal.
Videos filled with this rich dark skin blasted the air waves and our eyes.
Her love of blackness and respect for black artists who proceeded her was clear.
Unlike many young artists, there was no ridiculous claim to originality and the outrageous claim that she had invented a new and unrealized or unheard of musical art form.
Her music gave young girls something to aspire to and young men a vision of a woman whose primary concern was not the male gaze.
She never denied nor exploited her sexuality.
In the past fifteen years post her solo debut, much has changed and remained the same in regard to black folks, women, music and popular culture.
When my little sister went from talking with much pride about this young woman who had accomplished so much so early in her life to explaining the significance and media sensation that was “Paris Hilton”, I knew the end was near.
It has taken me several years of reading, growing and decolonizing to understand my and the culture’s obsession with this woman. In our spectacle and attention craving culture, we are not supposed to belong to ourselves. We are all led to believe that if we play nice (dead) we will be granted the kingdom and all of the material wealth and access that we can ever hope for regardless of whether it is deserved or not. We live in a culture that demands that we give up ourselves or at least give the impression that we would be willing to if the price was right.
Ms. Hill was having none of that. While I can never proclaim that I understand the intricacies of the HIP/HOP/POP Monster and what it needs to survive, I am clear that when you lead with authenticity and from the heart you will rarely be invite to take a seat at the table of power and privilege. Our fascination with her and her artistry is that she “took” a seat at the table in a very honest and unheard of way . It would have been easy to allow herself to be pimped out and made into an easily digested commodity (she turned down roles in Charlie’s Angels and Beloved). She chose to go another route. This is what I wanted to discuss with her. This was the hunger that I wanted to sate in an effort to figure out how to hold onto myself during a very difficult time in my personal life.
I could have bombarded her with questions that would have basically boiled down to how do you quiet the internal demons that often times lead us to less than stellar thinking ?
How the hell do you say no to powerful people? How do you say yes to the vision you have for yourself ?
At some point, I will get to ask these questions. I would love to discuss camps of creativity for young people of color with her. I would love to attempt and successfully co-create communities of loving resistance with her.
Perhaps, one day very soon, She will return.
There is no guarantee that Ms. Hill would be interested in remounting her throne or that anyone would be interested if she did.
There is a need for young women to see other young women “belong to themselves” and not gleefully trotting towards anything that will offer them celebrity.
Our new world order is full of blond weaves, trash talking and a depth of soul violation that is sickening and almost humorous.
I never worried or winced when my baby sister listened to Lauryn Hill.
I worry when the only thing black woman can do or take pride in is being the “baddest bitch”.
Be like Lauryn and bell hooks: develop a real taste for rebellion, be clear in communication and love yourself fully and maybe we won’t need Ms. Hill because her job and mission is complete and successful.
Read more from Anthony Carter.
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