Much can be said, and has been said, about the relationship between art and social identity. An artist’s race, his or her sexuality — perceived, performed, and even private — as well as his or her politics, become tools that can elucidate the motivation behind their work, as well as its broader social and cultural significance. In making a celebrity’s private life public, their personal characteristics social, and their individuality a token of universal characteristics of an era, pop culture icons become in equal measure sources of power and vulnerable subjects to media distortion, scandal, and exaggeration.
It’s within this dual, dynamic, and often contradictory conversation that female cultural icons — particularly, black female icons, like Beyoncé Knowles and Lauryn Hill — become targets of wide-ranging and abhorrently racist and sexist double standards. Critical race theory and gender analysis tear these gross mischaracterizations apart, but usually fail to contextualize them within the context of the artists’ and icons’ career-spanning evolutions.
Janell Hobson’s recent essay, “The Rise of Beyoncé, The Fall of Lauryn Hill: A Tale of Two Icons,” is particularly guilty of this. The piece claims that the trajectory of Beyoncé’s and Hill’s success, as well as the basis of their criticisms, derive from a shared point of racism and sexism. While I agree, Hobson’s reductive binaries, which pit the “lyrical genius” of Lauryn Hill — rapping and crooning on politics, love, religion, and the resistance of corporate media — against Beyoncé’s “superficial fanfare concerning clubbing, looking fabulous, and having her own money to spend… while occasionally championing women’s empowerment” disservices both artists. Inasmuch as it fails to provide a nuanced portrayal of the artists’ politics, it also fails to delve into the complexity of managing public and private artistic, creative, and political personas. Hobson’s piece doesn’t accurately account for how both Beyoncé and Lauryn Hill, subject to the same pressures of “white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism,” exist within what Hobson cites Patricia Hill Collins in calling “the politics of containment,” and doesn’t go deeper into the specific trajectory of Lauryn Hills “fall” and Beyoncé’s “rise” within the context of their artistic development. Ultimately, it doesn’t allow us to really look at why an artist like Beyoncé was able to become a global superstar in a way that Lauryn Hill could have never done.
Let’s take a closer look at Hill’s career. She was only 21 when she, along with her Fugees collaborators Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel, released The Score, an album still touted as one of the best hip-hop records of its generation. The Score suffused wanton reggae with heavily militaristic raps, seductive croons with contentious political assertions; it redefined hip-hop as a poetic and intellectual art form and created a new space for black artists — especially black women — to articulate their frustrations, desires, and visions for a just society. That The Fugees carved this space for themselves within hip hop allowed the trio to subvert traditional models of black masculinity and black femininity. On “Ready Or Not,” Hills croons seductively, “Ready or not / here I come / you can’t hide / gonna find you / and make you want me,” and then asserts her power as she coolly and pugnaciously spits lines like, “I play my enemies like a game of chess.” On “The Mask,” Pras critiques masculinity and its limits: “Well, did you shoot him? / Naw, kid, I didn’t have the balls / that’s when I realized I’m bumpin’ too much Biggie Smalls.” Lauryn Hill expresses her desire to be romantically pursued, and Pras critiques the rigid constraints of masculinity presented in hip hop. Their lyrics demonstrate how the heavily political subversion of gender and race was fundamental to an album that explored and critiqued life in the ghetto; it was essential to The Fugees’ public personas, stage presence, and aesthetic import. Being politically radical was as much a part of The Fugees’ image as it was their art.
This trend continued when Hill went solo and released her classic album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Its title derives from African-American author and historian Carter G. Woodson’s essay, The Mis-Education of the Negro, in which the author theorizes the communal and political problems facing blacks and different ways they can be redressed. Despite The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’s heavy emphasis on motherhood and Hill’s love for her unborn child, the album nevertheless situates her understanding of motherhood, love, and gender within an expressly political context, giving these topics new meaning and resonance. In much the same way as she did with The Fugees, Hill constructed a solo artistic presence in which each constituent part of her identity — her race, her gender, her sexuality and love life — signified a political and social agenda.
Beyoncé took a radically different approach when portraying her race and femininity. Beginning her career at 16 in Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé, along with Kelly Roland and Michelle Williams, succeeded through both her talent and her promotion of female empowerment. “Survivor” embraces independence from men, and breakout track “Say My Name,” in a similar vein, articulates the frustration with a cheating boyfriend, and asserts that, as women, they deserve better. While some of Destiny Child’s songs challenge traditional gender roles by advocating female fortitude, many of the tracks — like “Bills, Bills, Bills,” for instance — only do so insofar as they ingratiate traditional models of femininity, like economic dependence to men: the group asks “Can you pay my bills / can you pay my telephone bills?” and answers its own question with “I don’t think you do / so you and me are through.” While Lauryn Hill’s artistic persona (as well as her private persona) critiques all forms of social categorization as a path to liberation, Beyoncé has long found empowerment and liberation within them. You could say that Hill’s mission in portraying her blackness and femininity is inherently anti-social, while Beyoncé’s is entirely social.
Perhaps it’s for this reason that Beyoncé achieved long-lasting super-stardom whereas Hill couldn’t maintain her fame. After Beyoncé left Destiny’s Child and went solo in 2003 with the release of Dangerously in Love, her integration within a traditional gender model became all the more explicit. While the album itself received mixed critical reviews, its single “Crazy in Love” — featuring her future husband, Jay-Z — shows Beyoncé feeling flustered and completely smitten by her unnamed partner, a natural, although categorically “feminine,” trope. On her second album, the widely praised B’Day, she confirms her place as a desirable and commercially successful figure. Beyoncé continues to positing herself this way on I Am… Sasha Fierce, in tracks like “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” “Diva,” and “Video Phone,” and further establishes this persona on her most recent album, 4.
Beyoncé’s portrayal of empowerment is complex: she promotes individuality and self-determination, but, as Janell Hobson notes, disguises all markers of her difference, “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.” She uses self-empowerment as a proxy for subversive action; her aim is to expand the limits of the social strictures that repress and devalue women (which we assume will engender liberation), instead of dismantling those — the male gaze, the devaluation of natural hair, a reluctance to unconditionally embrace feminism (distinguished from “modern feminism”) — that repress black women in the first place. It’s a matter of strategy as opposed to integrity; a specific means of utilizing one’s identity to relate to the world. It could indicate why, for example, Beyoncé can record songs about women’s empowerment in general terms as opposed to songs specifically about black women and the unique struggles they face, which she, as a black woman married to a black man, is certainly not oblivious to.
Acknowledging the different strategies Lauryn Hill and Beyoncé have embraced in proffering their identity to their audiences doesn’t have to come at the expense of either’s artistic credibility. Both are grown women, entitled to make their own personal as well as artistic choices. The disturbing difference is in the way in which Beyoncé’s less radical persona makes it possible for her to perform at the inauguration, lavish herself in dramatic fireworks at the Super Bowl, and literally equate herself to a queen, while Hill — despite her great talent and many artistic achievements — fights accusations of racism and insanity, and is now being tried as a criminal for tax evasion.