In 2008 I saw Erykah Badu in concert. New Amerykah (part one) had just been released and she spent a bulk of the first half of the show singing songs from the new album and providing longwinded stories about them. Ok. Fine. She told us she had titled this show The Vortex and she didn’t care that we had paid money, she was taking us where she wanted us to go. Ok. Fine.
Somewhere in the middle, Badu came out with two large medicine balls and did an entire interpretative dance as she sang ‘Green Eyes’. People were unmoved, so much so that they moved towards the exit and left before the show ended. If they had stayed, they would have seen Badu flow into classic Baduizm tunes. Suddenly, the music became a mix of R&B, funk, and jazz. The audience rose to its feet. This was the Erykah Badu we had paid our hard-earned money to see. Badu came down from the stage and started dancing in the aisle with the people. She then announced, “I gotta go y’all before they fine me for going over time.” Some dude must have yelled something about how she couldn’t go because she was just getting started because Erykah clapped back and said, “Nawl. Y’all m**thaf*ckas just getting started.” Well, excuse me.
Last week, rapper Talib Kweli penned an article for Medium, titled “In Defense of Ms. Hill.” Kweli’s article is actually a response to an article also in Medium where the writer, Stefan Schumacher, said he had pretty much given up on Lauryn Hill and would no longer support her given her recent show antics and the fact that she doesn’t sing the songs from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the ones we fell in love to, the exact same way as they appeared on the album. Of course that’s his right as a consumer. Kweli’s response was that artists tend to make music for themselves and therefore they have no real obligations to their fans.
The great thing about making art for yourself is that if you do it well, millions of people will relate to it and embrace it. They will support you and make it possible for you to have a career and feed your family, all with your art. These are your fans, and their passion, dedication and contribution to your life are to be cherished and respected.
However fans are not your boss, and listening to them when it comes to creative decisions is a slippery slope. I am not obligated to make the same album over and over again just because fans demand it. I am allowed to try new things, succeed at them or fail at them. I am allowed to not make music anymore ever, if that’s what I choose to do. I am allowed to give a shitty show or not even show up if I feel like it.
On Lauryn Hill specifically he wrote:
When you pay for a Lauryn Hill concert you are not paying for her to do what you want, you are paying for her to do what she wants. She is not an iPod nor is she a trained monkey. She doesn’t have to do her hits and she doesn’t have to do the songs the way you want to hear them. She doesn’t owe you that. The world does not revolve around you, and you ain’t gotta like it. Get over yourself. If you have a negative experience at her concert, go home, put on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and the next time she does come through your town, don’t go to her concert. Problem solved. Just because you had a negative experience at a Lauryn Hill show doesn’t mean her contribution to the world is invalid or deserves to be disrespected.
I’m going to have to call slight BS. I’m not a singer, but I’m a writer. I spend hours toiling over works of fiction pieces and while these are stories that are in my heart, spirit, and soul. They are stories that have to get out regardless of if they are ever read, I would be lying if I said I don’t want anyone to a. read them and b. enjoy them. I want somebody, anybody, my mama n’em at least, to tell me that my story moved them, made them think, made them laugh, stayed with them. It is part of being an artist, this need for the ego to be stroked. Just a little. Sometimes. Even when we act like it doesn’t matter. It does matter to some degree or why would artists keep putting themselves and their work out there (and ask for payment) before strangers – where it could either be praised or devoured?
Artists who continue to create music have a tough time being allowed to grow because the unfortunate reality is that some people freeze frame their artists and keep them in the time period where they fell in love with them and that’s all they want to hear from them. It’s usually that first album because that’s probably when the artist was the most free, most creative, most hungry. Sure, die-hard fans will stick with an artist through their “experimental” phase, but most artists know what’s up. If they didn’t then why has Erykah Badu recently done tours where she performs the entire Baduizm or Mama’s Gun album and nothing else? Why is Nas doing shows with a live orchestra (fancy!) where he’s only performing songs from Illmatic? Stevie Wonder is going on a Songs From the Key of Life Tour. Maybe artists don’t think they owe the fans anything, but they definitely know what to do if they want to pack a house and collect a nice check.
Lauryn Hill is a special case because she hasn’t put out any recent music, therefore Miseducation is what the people want to hear because it’s all they’ve really had to listen to for the past 16 years. Yes, I know she had that MTV acoustic album. I had the chance to see OutKast perform twice this summer and they haven’t put any new music out together in 10 years. They came out and did all the hits, I mean all of them. And they killed it both times. However, Andre 3000 had expressed reservations about having to stick with the hits in a The New York Times article. After OutKast failed to wow the Coachella show (their first live performance of the new tour), Andre said:
“So Prince called a couple days after,” he explained. “It was my first time actually talking to Prince. He said: ‘When you come back, people want to be wowed. And what’s the best way to wow people? Just give them the hits.'” Benjamin protested and said he didn’t want to just go through the hits, but Prince advised him that he had been there himself and from experience, when you give an audience the hits first, an artist is able to do whatever he or she wants. “He broke it down like this: ‘You’re a grown man. You’re either going to do it or you’re not.”
Maybe I’m a selfish fan for wanting to be wowed – this doesn’t mean you have to do the same old same old, but having some consideration for your audience – you know the people who paid to see you – is not going to kill all of your artistic integrity and creativity. I’ve seen Jill Scott and Bilal (just to name two) remix some of their beloved songs and still get a positive response from the crowd. Maybe it’s because they maintained the same high energy and enthusiasm as if they were doing the original so that you didn’t really miss the old version. Maybe it was only die hard fans in the room. But we didn’t walk away feeling cheated or deprived, like money had been wasted.
The last time I saw Lauryn Hill perform was in the summer of 2001 or maybe 2002 at Smokin’ Grooves and she came out with an acoustic guitar, a stool, a bongos player, and a box of tissues. The songs she sang were unrecognizable and I vowed that I would never spend my money to see her perform again since I had attended, loved, and been spoiled by her show during the Miseducation tour. Miseducation was the soundtrack to my Senior year of high school. It was magical and mystical and still makes my soul swoon and sing. So, that’s how this fan wants to remember Lauryn Hill. She owes me nothing because I have no expectations of her, which means she is free to be.
Diana Veiga is a Spelman woman, a DC resident, and a freelance writer. Of course, she’s also on Twitter.