The Rise Of Beyoncé, The Fall Of Lauryn Hill: A Tale Of Two Icons

By Guest Contributor Janell Hobson; originally published at The Feminist Wire

Lauryn HillFifteen years ago, the stardom of then-23-year-old Lauryn Hill had peaked when she released what would become her defining musical legacy.  After rising to popularity as part of the hip-hop trio The Fugees, with fellow members Wyclef Jean and Pras, she later released her solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which went on to garner multiplatinum sales and five Grammy Awards for the recognizably brilliant singer-rapper.  Such accomplishments made her the first female artist to be nominated for and to win the most Grammys in a single night and her album the first hip-hop-themed work to win the Grammy’s top prize of Album of the Year.

Interestingly, the same year of Lauryn’s solo album debut, a 16-year-old who would later be known only by her first name – Beyoncé – also emerged on the pop scene when Destiny’s Child released their self-titled debut album.  And in a curious one-degree-of-separation of the two icons, Destiny’s Child’s collaboration with Wyclef on their song “No No No” led to the group’s first successfully released single, which topped R&B charts.

In retrospect, it seems easy to trace what would become a commingled narrative: one star rises while another one declines.  One star (Ms. Hill) presumably declined a starring role in the Hollywood faux-feminist blockbuster, Charlie’s Angels, while the other star (Beyoncé), along with fellow group members, provided the necessary “girl power” anthem – “Independent Women, Part I” – for the movie’s soundtrack.  One star virtually disappeared from the mainstream media while the other star appeared ubiquitously, covering every magazine from Sports Illustratedto Vogue to GQ to the feminist publication Ms.

One star proved a lyrical genius – rapping and crooning on politics, love, religion, and the resistance of corporate media – while the other preferred more superficial fanfare concerning clubbing, looking fabulous, and having her own money to spend as she fends off heartaches and trifling lovers, while occasionally championing women’s empowerment.  One star refused the pop-culture make-over, preferring instead to rock her natural hair and bask in her dark-skinned beauty, while the other has made a signature look out of blond weaves and other variations on white beauty standards that her light-skinned beauty can more easily appropriate.

Still, it’s complicated. For while Ms. Hill occasionally appeared at concerts in deliberately unattractive getups – to fend off any sexual objectification of her natural beauty – Beyoncé played to the male gaze and crafted a nuanced portrayal of black female desirability: at once appropriating “blonde ambitions” while simultaneously undermining those same white beauty “model-thin size-zero” standards by embracing a “bootylicious” aesthetic of her (and by extension other black women’s) natural curves.  And then there’s the contrast in their personal choices: Ms. Hill eschewed the music industry and traditional marriage to produce six children with long-time partner Rohan Marley, while Beyoncé experienced a meteoric rise on the pop scene and adhered to the traditional standards of marriage and motherhood, when partnering with Shawn “Jay Z” Carter and becoming a mother to a young daughter, Blue Ivy.

BeyonceIn a perfect world, both Lauryn Hill and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter would have their different choices celebrated, would share the spotlight, and would make alternate appearances in mainstream media.  Instead, the ascendancy of one star and the decline of another reveals what Patricia Hill Collins describes as the “politics of containment” concerning the hypervisibility of African American women – in which certain icons are singly, rather than simultaneously, promoted – which is also used to render invisible the multiple forms of oppression that intersect in the lives of the majority of black women in this country, and throughout the world.  By placing the two icons alongside each other, we have an opportunity to examine the treatment of high-profile black women in the public sphere and intersect racial and sexual politics.

Currently, in 2013, both icons are now positioned with the state in different yet analogous ways.  Beyoncé certainly seems to wield political power–having financially contributed with her husband to the successful re-election campaign of President Barack Obama and singing the National Anthem at his inauguration earlier this year.  However, this did not prevent her from being highly criticized in a “lip-synching” scandal or from being scrutinized on the legitimacy of her wedding-anniversary vacation on the island of Cuba last month.

Still, these criticisms are rather trivial when compared to the trouble Lauryn Hill has faced this year as she must later serve a three-month prison sentence, with follow-up home-confinement and counseling for her mental health (re: her “conspiracy theory” rants), after pleading guilty to tax evasion.  Whatever one may think of Ms. Hill’s actions, it comes as no surprise that she is now held up in the public sphere as a “criminal” and typical “angry”–even “crazy”–black woman.  That she would now be criminalized at the same time that the FBI has listed former Black Panther Party member Assata Shakur as the first woman among their “Most Wanted Terrorists,” while an inquisitive and intelligent high-school student, Kiera Wilmot, was recently expelled and charged with a felony for a science experiment gone wrong in a Florida school, reminds us all of the continued labeling of black women’s “outsider” and “outlaw” status and the societal need to frame us as “examples” for discipline and punishment.

Lauryn Hill and Beyoncé may be very different in their image production and in their career and personal choices, but what binds them together is their function under the high-surveillance gaze as public black women who are being disciplined and contained.  What we can learn from both, however, is their political maneuverings under such a powerful gaze and how they have circulated their rage against the forces of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism.  Both icons have released some of their angriest expressions on the Internet – Beyoncé’s “Bow Down/I Been On,” coupled with her childhood photo as a teen beauty pageant winner with numerous trophies, and Ms. Hill’s “Neurotic Society (Compulsory Mix),” produced under duress at the demand of her record company, SONY, to pay off her fines.  In these moments of rage, one might read between the lines and take note of their refusal to be undermined by excessive criticism or to be boxed in by the corporate and mainstream expectations of pop music artists.

They may be simply egotistical or “neurotic” or even criminal (in the legal case of Ms. Hill or what was alluded to in the criticism of Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba, for which the pop diva expressed “shock” at the public condemnation she received). However, a black woman who assimilates to cultural standards will still find herself just as scrutinized in public as the ones who don’t. They have nonetheless resisted wider narratives of oppression, which expect black women to remain safely in lanes of servitude and invisibility. While most of us, who listened to both artists 15 years ago, perhaps never predicted their present states, at least they had demonstrated then – and demonstrate today – that they will not play it safe.  Regardless of the corporate and state structures that attempt to contain and control these artists, they refuse to relinquish control of their image and their art.

Janell Hobson is an associate professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany. She has authored two books–Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender (2012) and Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (2005)–and regularly blogs and writes for Ms. Magazine, including the cover story, “Beyonce’s Fierce Feminism,” in the Ms. Spring 2013 issue.



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  • Marie

    Bless your ignorant misguided heart. Lauryn had babies with a man that SHE chose not to marry. He asked, she declined. Do some research, sweetheart. You speak as if you have a clue about Lauryn’s life and you clearly don’t. The kids these days.

  • racialicious

    Latoya writing. (Man, we have got to block out our own mod accounts.)

    So there was something I couldn’t put my finger on that troubled me about this piece, and I finally remembered:

    One star refused the pop-culture make-over, preferring instead to rock her natural hair and bask in her dark-skinned beauty, while the other has made a signature look out of blond weaves and other variations on white beauty standards that her light-skinned beauty can more easily appropriate.

    Lauryn felt like she was just as manipulated into a certain image as Beyonce. Maybe more so. I remember reading tons of interviews, back in the 00s, maybe around the time of unplugged, where she talked about how much that image of Lauryn was manufactured. And I remember those interviews were like a punch in the stomach. Growing up, I loved pop stars (esp Mel B, aka Scary Spice) but it wasn’t until I saw Lauryn Hill in “Everything is Everything” that I wanted to actually *be* someone else. Lauryn was showing me an alternate image of “having it all” – and I wanted it. So it was tough to hear her talk about how people were forcing her into a box, despite how glorious it may have looked to me.

    There is definately blondification of pop stars – I’m not saying that point isn’t valid. But I think we should be a bit more cautious about what images we assume are authentic. Just like the natural hair community has a lot of issues with “the right” kind of hair, we project these kinds of ideals on “the right” kind of neo-soul Nubian princess.

  • demetria

    Amazing article.

  • 7thangel

    what’s missing is Lauryn Hill’s unprofessional concert conduct (showing up hours late, no apologies, forgetting songs, etc) which disappointed many of her most loyal fans and contributed to her decline, as did her hiatus prior to her first concert after the long break. this doesn’t diminish the article

    • Dara Crawley

      It kind of does. We can make comparisons between the two artists, but the context really means we can’t just make broad sweeping conclusions about society. Beyonce and Lauryn Hill’s situations share nothing other than being black, female, and famous singers. Beyonce’s career track is completely different than Lauryn’s in context. We could look at media portrayals of them specifically to compare/contrast but broad sweeping statements and assertions don’t really work. Beyonce is a people pleaser and her family crafted her career, while Lauryn’s career was fashioned completely differently…she has had erratic behavior without apologies…then there was that crazy MTV unplugged thing…

    • nicthommi

      I would say what is missing is that Lauryn Hill’s behavior is likely a result of untreated mental illness. I don’t think it’s fair to act like she just did those things b/c she doesn’t value her fans or take her craft seriously.
      I don’t think it’s b/c she’s some unprofessional diva. I think she’s sick, has been sick for a while, and it’s sad that she has no one in her life to give her any help, b/c her defense regarding her failure to pay taxes did not sound like they were coming from a healty mind (esp. the belief that she was being watched).
      I think Lauryn Hill is a much more talented artist(she’s a musician, she wrote beautiful songs that I continue to listen to b/c they all had real meaning) and she was/is beautiful without altering herself, slutting it up, or wearing giant wigs and weaves. But her other problems have kept her from being able to produce anything after her brilliant solo album, and we live in an era where flash (Beyonce and Rihanna) trump substance (name any female neo soul artist from the past decade who doesn’t sell her sexuality as her main asset).
      It’s a shame b/c she could have been so much to so many black girls, and instead they see that the way to get ahead and achieve fame as a black woman is to dance around in your underwear with someone else’s blond hair on your head.
      That Beyonce is on top and Lauryn Hill (and women who dont’ have her problems but do have her talent) is a footnote to me symbolizes so much that is wrong with the world.

      • Yakki45

        Why the criticism of Beyonce? If you aren’t a fan, then that is fine. I find it absurd that she has to be torn down to show what a perceived better artist that Lauryn Hill is.

        I like Lauryn Hill, and think that the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a masterpiece.

        As for saying that she would have been a better example for black women, you are setting a good example of tearing down another black woman’s success just because you don’t like her as an artist. As the article says, there should be room for both artists to be celebrated.

        • nicthommi

          I don’t care for what she or Rihanna stand for in regards to the current music scene, and last time I checked, I was allowed to have that opinion, no matter what the Beyonce fans think (I’m assuming you are a Beyonce fan b/c you didn’t bother to defend Rihanna).

          I do not have to approve of her career choices just b/c e are both black women, and you are a good example of derailing (which is not limited to non people and women of color), and you are doing it b/c you do not agree with me. Sorry, that’s not how it works. I can like or dislike how anyone famous person has achieved fame and I can approve or disapprove of the images they project, esp. if I think they are harmful.

          Nothing I say affects Beyonce. I do not like her image and do not like to think of young black girls emulating her. I’m not a fan of Jay-Z or a LOT of other people either. Does that mean I lose my black card.

      • Lo11

        “(name any female neo soul artist from the past decade who doesn’t sell her sexuality as her main asset).”

        Amel Larrieux. Goapele. Janelle Monae. Meshell Ndegeocello.

        Not trying to step on your point; I agree with what you’re saying. But there are amazing female neo souls artists out there who don’t get ahead by flaunting a “tailored-to-the-white-male-gaze” sexuality; they do it based on their talent and authenticity. They, of course, aren’t as well-known as those who do the former, tho.

  • mr_subjunctive

    Minor correction: felony charges against Kiera Wilmot were dropped on Wednesday, though she may still be expelled from her school. An on-line group raised about $3200 (presently) to send her and her twin sister Kayla to the Advanced Space Academy Program at the U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, AL., as well as another $8100 for legal expenses, which is being placed in a trust to cover educational costs and what legal expenses have already been incurred. So things have turned out a bit better for her than it looked like they would a few days ago. (Ref.)

    The larger point of your post, obviously, still stands.