OP-ED: The Mistreatment Of Lauryn Hill. Why Her Infamous Sydney Show Was A Triumph

Ms. Lauryn Hill was unwell for her performance at Qudos Bank Arena last week. During the show, she struggled with some well-known symptoms of the common cold or flu – one of these was a running nose. MLH constantly dabbed at hers throughout her 90-minute performance with a fancy black hankie.

When us not-super-star-status mortals have to deal with tap-nose, we take comfort in the small luxuries of discretion. Perhaps casually turning to face a corner of a room to inconspicuously wipe or hanging back in a bathroom stall to blow with gusto over the roar of a hand-dryer. Perhaps constructing a small private fort beneath a desk to lie down on a bed of tissues and wallow in self-pity.

There is another comfort, though, that we must forever be grateful for when these ailments consume us. This un-glamorous, snotty nose-tending will not take place on a stage, in an arena, magnified and projected onto several 300 square metre screens in front of an audience of 20,000 people, with all of their Instagram followers looking on. #grateful.

Lauryn Hill is not afforded that luxury. On that night at Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena, she thanked her fans for being patient with her in those scarce moments when she pushed her voice so hard that it cracked. Somehow though, she always found it again. Sure, she didn’t sing the soaring chorus to ‘Zion’ like she did on the album in 1998. Instead, she rapped over her back-up singers who, under her instruction, layered a bed of repetitive and rhythmic harmonies beneath her.

She didn’t choose to take the easy way out and cancel her show to build a fort. Instead, she orchestrated her phenomenal band, pushing it to its full capacity, thinking 10 steps ahead of everyone else and rearranging songs on the fly, with every member’s eyes glued to her so as not to miss a beat. In between songs, she told stories about the evolution of their meaning, about what matters to her most, about human rights, about love. She was warm, gracious and she sang like a fucking boss.

The 20-year anniversary of MLH’s ground-breaking debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, arguably the best R&B album of the 90’s (yes, I know there’s also D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, but we’ll get to that in a moment), is nostalgia at its peak, particularly for anyone lucky enough to experience it in real-time during their highly-formative teen years. Those tiny brain neurons paved pathways rampant with the feels, never to disappear, maybe lying dormant until two decades later when they extravasate, emotions flung just everywhere, in the presence of the Queen.

Yes, we waited, a bit. Lauryn Hill’s start time was however incomparable to D’Angelo’s near two hour delay at Sydney Opera House in 2016, which was received as more histrionic than insufferable and endearingly described as leaving his “audience guessing” only to pull out a “patchy yet brilliant show hard not to be awed”. Perhaps the backlash to Lauryn Hill’s performance is more a case of burning the witch (see, Tina Turner, Courtney Love, Amy Winehouse) while D’Angelo’s “patchiness” is surveyed through a Kintsugi lens; the cracks are filled with powdered gold and his imperfections empower and romanticise him.

Lauryn Hill’s struggle was real that night, but her strength, prowess and coping mechanisms were even more real.

In a Facebook post late last year, Lauryn Hill addressed some of the ‘lateness’ criticism levelled against her in the past, explaining, “I don’t show up late to shows because I don’t care…The challenge is aligning my energy with the time, taking something that isn’t easily classified or contained, and trying to make it available for others.”

“Our challenge is to figure out the best way to accommodate the vitality, spontaneity, and spirit that make the performances worthwhile and special to begin with, while also making that experience available and accessible to others,” she added. “If I didn’t Love and respect the art, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

Creative beings are not one-trick-ponies, no matter how proficient they may be at their craft. They create from way down in those intimate, vulnerable places that so many of us fear, offering up the most precious of fruits for others to consume. If a pony doesn’t do your favourite trick, a hater’s attitude won’t fix it. Rather, it will perpetuate the impossible standards of faux-perfection that plague us all, none of which we want to be held up against ourselves.

Artists help us with our own pain by sitting in their darkness, looking for the light. In the rare moments when an artist’s pain surfaces for everyone to see, compassion and appreciation is our opportunity to shine our light back on them.

‘The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill’ 20th Anniversary Australian Tour finishes up this week in Melbourne. Head here for details.

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