Grammy Award-winning singer Lauryn Hill stood in federal court Monday and compared her experience in the music business to the slavery her ancestors endured before a judge sentenced her to three months in prison for failing to pay about $1 million in taxes over the past decade.
"I am a child of former slaves who had a system imposed on them," Hill said before U.S. Magistrate Madeline Cox Arleo. "I had an economic system imposed on me."
Hill, who started singing with the Fugees as a teenager in the 1990s before releasing her multiplatinum 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, pleaded guilty last year to failing to pay taxes on more than $1.8 million earned from 2005 to 2007. Monday's sentencing also took into account unpaid state and federal taxes in 2008 and 2009 that brought the total earnings to about $2.3 million.
Despite having paid more than $900,000 in the past several days, Hill still owes interest and penalties, the U.S. attorney's office said.
In a forceful but controlled statement to the judge punctuated by occasional raps with her first on the podium, Hill described how she failed to pay taxes during a period when she'd dropped out of the music business to protect herself and her children, who now number six.
She said the treatment she received while she was in the entertainment business led to her decision to leave it.
"There were veiled threats, there was blacklisting," she said, without giving specifics. "I was told, 'That's how it goes, it comes with the territory.' I came to be perceived as a cash cow and not a person. When people capitalize on a persona, they forget there is a person in there."
In addition to serving three months in prison, Hill must pay a $60,000 fine. After she is released from prison, she will be under parole supervision for a year, the first three months of which will be spent under home confinement.
The 37-year-old South Orange resident had faced a maximum sentence of one year each on three counts of failing to file taxes. Her attorney had sought probation, arguing that Hill's charitable works, her family circumstances and the fact she paid back the taxes she owed should merit consideration.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandra Moser acknowledged Hill's creative talent and work on behalf of impoverished children but called Hill's explanation for her actions "a parade of excuses centering around her feeling put upon" that don't exempt her from her responsibilities.
"She wasn't interested in all those years in paying what she owed," Moser told the judge.
At the time of her arrest last year, Hill wrote a criticism rejecting pop culture's "climate of hostility, false entitlement, manipulation, racial prejudice, sexism and ageism."
"Over-commercialization and its resulting restrictions and limitations can be very damaging and distorting to the inherent nature of the individual," Hill wrote. "I did not deliberately abandon my fans, nor did I deliberately abandon any responsibilities, but I did however put my safety, health and freedom and the freedom, safety and health of my family first over all other material concerns! I also embraced my right to resist a system intentionally opposing my right to whole and integral survival."
Hill is to report to prison by July 8. It's not clear where she'll serve her sentence. She didn't comment after the sentencing.
She said in a recent post online that she has signed a recording contract with Sony.
"She is looking forward to putting her case behind her and getting back to her music and creating again," attorney Nathan Hochman said.