Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Misunderstanding of Lauryn Hill By Shelah Moody

         “Lauryn Hill has a brilliant mind.” –Nikki Giovanni

        When is ok for a woman to be a diva?

In this writer’s humble opinion, a woman has the right to be a diva if she has earned at least five Grammys.
A woman has a right to be a diva if she is responsible for at least five children.
A woman has the right to be a diva when she redefines a musical genre (i.e. pop music) gets people to think out of the box and influences a new generation of singer/songwriters.
A woman has a right to be a diva if she  has been subjected to  public breakups, meltdowns, lawsuits, bad hair and makeup days and ridicule and still, she rises.
            Ms. Lauryn Hill earned has the right to be a          diva. 
            In the late nineties , Lauryn Hill was perhaps the most famous black woman in the world. Lauryn Hill was the Michael Jackson of her time. Soon after the release of first solo album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” the singer’s deadlocked image dominated the covers of Rolling Stone, Vogue and People. She was praised for her brains and beauty. Her songs:  “Doo Wop (That Thing,”) “Lost Ones,” “When It Hurts So Bad,” “To Zion” made us dance and think, too. When she went on self imposed hiatus in 2000, we began to embrace singers such as India.Arie, Estelle and a fiery young Jamaican vocalist named Cherine Anderson, hungry for a new Lauryn Hill.  
A woman has a right to be diva is she is the leader of a band and her musical success and reputation ride on the competence of her band, sound engineers and venue.
            Many people have criticized Lauryn Hill’s long awaited performance at the 32nd Annual Harmony Festival, June 13 at Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa. Everything from quality of her sound and her interactions with her band members have been scrutinized.
Standing at the near the front of the stage in the photo/media pit, I did observe Ms. Hill doing her best to put on a good show despite sound and organizational glitches.
I was close enough to see Ms. Hill giving musical direction, which is what a bandleader does. She surprised me with pretty good covers of Bob Marley’s “Zimbabwe” and “I Only Have Eyes For You,” made famous by the Flamingos. I was close enough to see Ms. Hill sweating in an elegant, silky suit reminiscent of Alexander McQueen, her newly straightened hair blowing in the  breeze.
“They (the audience) knows how they like the music, see,” Ms. Hill told the sound crew, before segueing into “When It Hurts So Bad:”  “Bring the bass down a little bit, and bring me up.”
Check out this clip, where the crowd cheers her on with “We Love You Lauryn Hill:
After her closing number, “Doo Wop,” Ms. Hill said: “I love you, Santa Rosa!”

In defense of Ms. Hill, at least she knew where she was! I recently attended the performance of an old school singer in Sacramento who thought she was performing in Saratoga, but that’s a different dish.
            It would have been nice if Ms. Hill had agreed to a press conference at some point during the Harmony festival.
I had no personal interaction with Ms. Hill that day, but I was close enough to the stage to feel as if she were watching as security escorted me out of the media pit in a misunderstanding, and later let me back in. I did not have access to Ms. Hill’s private area backstage. But this is what I was told the next day by a longtime friend member of the press corps in an email:
 “Her reputation is that she is an angry bitchy person who is more diva than Whitney Houston, or Naomi Campbell. She lived up to it, and more, and she disappointed everyone. She stunk. She yelled instead of sang, she bitched instead of smiled, and she isn't ready to bring her act to the stage.”
Excuse me? This writer was disturbed by these comments for more than one reason. Clearly these are hurtful comments aimed at a certain class of the population. A class of which I happen to belong.  While I have no problem with the term “diva,” when used in the right context, I feel that “angry” and “bitchy” are two controlling images used to undermine black women. defines a diva as “a distinguished female singer” and a “prima donna.” If this is the case, then this individual could have compared Ms. Hill to Barbara Streisand, Madonna or Lady Ga Ga for that matter. Instead, he chose to pick, or pick on, two black women who rose to the top of their fields; one used to be America’s darling before she got a hold of the sickness called drug addiction (which transcends race, class and gender) and began canceling shows, and another who broke racial barriers as one of the first black supermodels and happened to assault one of her staff. .
Ms. Hill did not cancel her show and pressed on despite technical problems. To my knowledge, she did not hit anyone with her cell phone.
   A few weeks later, I discussed the Lauryn Hill incident with Grammy nominated poet/activist/scholar Nikki Giovanni when she appeared at an event called “Conversations With Wise Women” in San Francisco. Giovanni, who recently published a children’s
“Lauryn Hill is a brilliant musicologist,” said Giovanni. “What she conceives and how she carries it out—I think she’s way ahead of the curve.
Giovanni, who recently published a children’s book on hip hop, said the term “bitch” is often applied to women who do not follow someone else’s program or agenda.
They said the same thing about Nina Simone. But I think they say the same thing about any brilliant musical performer. They thing that because you’re a musician you’re supposed to put a wind up in your back and move to their tune. Aside from being brilliant, she’s a very nice young woman.”And
yes it is ok to be a Diva.
Ms. Lauryn Hill returns to the Bay Area at on Aug. 22 as part of the Rock the Bells hip hop tour at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View
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