There seems to be an entire spectrum of public attitudes toward Lauryn Hill. The extremes are incontestable Lauryn-Can-Do-No-Wrong fandom and the Lauryn-As-We-Know-Her-Is-Never-Coming-Back-And-We’re-Cool-With-It camp. A number of people seem to fall somewhere in the middle, vacillating between the warm swell of nostalgic appreciation they feel when a track from Miseducation plays and the uneasy concessions they make when she’s late to a gig, entitled with fans, or writing official statements about relationship status or tax evasion.
No matter where you stand, you can likely agree that time and circumstance have greatly altered Lauryn. This was hardly unexpected, as the 15 years between Miseducation and now have also yielded significant changes in us. We couldn’t have expected the years to preserve her the way we remembered her.
But few could’ve imagined, in 1998, that in 2012, Lauryn would be a mother of six, with zero additional studio albums released, facing prison time for three counts of misdemeanor failure to pay taxes between 2005 and 2007. Hill issued a lengthy statement via Tumblr about “going underground” to safeguard her family and protect their interests, wrapping with an explanation that she had every intent to pay up eventually:
My intention has always been to get this situation rectified. When I was working consistently without being affected by the interferences mentioned above, I filed and paid my taxes. This only stopped when it was necessary to withdraw from society, in order to guarantee the safety and well-being of myself and my family.
News of possible prison time–to the tune of three years–saddened many, but it was the mug shot itself, released earlier this week, that really did me in.
Though the IRS seems intent on making examples of celebrities with back-owed tax debt, I’d hoped Lauryn wouldn’t be arrested or tried in this case. It’s only two unfiled tax years, and even if she can’t afford the debt in a lump sum, it would be easy enough to establish a payment plan. She has kids ranging from mid-teens to infancy; the idea of her being split from them for this is deeply unsettling–especially since, to her mind, she’s in this position because she “went into hiding,” trying to protect them.
The mug shot makes the charges all too real, all non-negotiable. It would seem from Lauryn’s stoic, resigned, defeated, tired expression, she may be experiencing a similar reality check.
With her small afro and large almond eyes, she still resembles the Lauryn we once knew. But the unsmiling mouth, the slow march of time across her face, and the puffiness and immutable sadness around those iconic eyes alert us to just how much things have changed.
In her mug shot, Lauryn looks like a time-elapsed photo. If the girls in my dorm had seen this picture while we were taking turns playing every track of her Miseducation album sophomore year, we would’ve laughed at the absurdity of the image–not because we thought Lauryn would never grow older, but because it was impossible to believe that she would grow this unhappy. If this was her future, we didn’t want to know it.
Even now, seeing her in this situation triggers a kind of denial. Is it all this precarious? Fame, freedom, mental health, life? And is it this easy for the public, many of whom are certain Lauryn’s problems were completely within her power to prevent, to cast off its artists when they cease to produce? For me, Lauryn’s experiences have been cautionary: it’s easy to belittle, underestimate, or misunderstand work you cannot do. It’s easy to spout oversimplified solutions to problems you’ll never have. And it’s impossible to know someone else’s torment; the only fair and kind thing to do is support her as she stumbles through it.