Lauryn Hill: from Fugees soul superstar to jail bird

Jul 9, 2013
Richard A Jinman

The 'neo-soul' star who sold millions of records and won a Grammy Award starts a jail term for tax evasion

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THE American hip-hop singer Lauryn Hill has fallen a long way. In 1996, she was arguably the hottest female vocalist in the world thanks to a cover version of the soul standard Killing Me Softly With His Song recorded by her group, The Fugees. It topped music charts around the world and the album from which it was taken - The Score - went on to sell 17 million copies.

But that was then. Today, 38-year-old Hill begins a three-month jail term at a prison in Connecticut. She'll be treated like any other prisoner, the BBC reports, and be required to work in the prison garden, serve food and perform basic maintenance tasks. When she's completed her sentence, the Grammy Award-winner will be placed under house arrest for a further three months and under probation for a full year.

Hill was convicted of tax evasion in May after US authorities accused her of failing to pay tax on $1.8m of the money she earned between 2005 and 2007. Her lawyers said she'd been unable to pay the money after "stepping back" from the music industry to look after her six children. "I needed to be able to earn so I could pay my taxes, without compromising the health and welfare of my children," she told the court.

Hill's tax bill was high because her success didn't end with The Fugees. Its three members – Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel - all began solo projects in 1997, but she scored the biggest hit. Hill's 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a critically-acclaimed smash that sold 20 million copies worldwide. She became one of the figureheads of the 'neo soul' movement and reportedly earned $25 million between 1998 and 1999.

Just when Hill's status as a superstar was unequivocal, her career began to unravel. In 2000, she fell out with her record label and fired her management team. There were reports that she had stopped listening to music entirely, started going to bible classes and fallen under the spell of a 'spiritual advisor' called Brother Anthony. Some people described him as a cult leader.

Hill has made sporadic attempts to make new music since then, but has never come close to repeating her early success. She acquired a reputation as a difficult, possibly unstable artist. In 2003, she was branded "pathologically miserable" by the Catholic Church after she attacked its "corruption, exploitation, and abuses" during a concert in Vatican City.

In 2005, The Fugees attempted a reunion tour, but Jean and Michel soon fell out with Hill. When Jean was asked about the aborted tour he said bluntly: "Lauryn needs help. In my personal opinion, those Fugees reunion shows shouldn't have been done, because we wasn't ready," he told Blues & Soul. "I really felt we shoulda first all gone into a room with Lauryn and a psychiatrist..."

Hill has now repaid much of her tax bill while continuing royalties from her hit albums mean she will remain well-off. There is talk of a new solo album this year – her first in 15 years – but her relationship with the music business remains tortured. Describing her decision to walk away from the record industry in 2000 she said: "I did whatever needed to be done in order to insulate my family from the climate of hostility, false entitlement, manipulation, racial prejudice, sexism and ageism that I was surrounded by."

Today, she is surrounded not by false entitlement, but the walls of the minimum security prison in the city of Danbury.

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