A special performance rocked the 2015 New York City premiere for Liz Garbus’ Nina Simone documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? at the legendary Apollo Theater. In conjunction with the film’s premiere on Netflix, an album will be released featuring contemporary artists including Mary J. Blige, Usher, and Jazmine Sullivan interpreting Nina Simone’s songs. The audience was in for the surprise of a lifetime, when an unannounced participant in the project and a modern day Nina Simone in many ways, Ms. Lauryn Hill, was introduced to screams of excitement from the crowd.
Film producer Jayson Jackson noted during Hill’s introduction, that she was in the studio working tirelessly over the past week finishing her contribution(s) to the album (producers hope to release it near the film’s June 26 release date), so her voice was raspy and hoarse at times. Not a single member of the audience minded. Dressed in a flowing white ensemble that resembled a more conservative version of an ensemble of Nina’s featured in the documentary, Hill embodied Nina’s spirit as she commanded the audience’s attention throughout the performance.
She opened her set with a dark take on “No Me Quite Pas”, backed by an extensive set of musicians, from brass and strings, to a harpist and a dj. Every song was performed in the same vein Hill performs her own songs currently: They are reinterpreted, reconfigured, and extended to Hill’s liking, and, clearly the audience’s too. She dug in deeper and darker on her imagining of “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair”, singing the title line over and over with such power and emotion, her rasp actually gave her a slight Nina-esque quality.
After two covers, she debuted something new. In true Lauryn Hill fashion it took three false starts while trying to configure the sound and the audio track being incorporated to get it right. She re-imagined “Ain’t Go No, I Got Life” by weaving four of her own rap verses. They were difficult to decipher in their entirety because of her rasp (she even joked, “I’m going to rap, with this [pointing at her throat]”), coupled with her seemingly to be referencing lyrics on the music stand next to her. Hopefully the studio version will surface soon and cement the brilliance of the spitfire delivery and incredible energy she brought to the live performance.
To ice the cake on an already incredible mini-performance, Hill introduced Jazmine Sullivan to the stage. Sullivan’s contribution to the album, “Baltimore”, was debuted last month at the height of the turmoil in the city. Sullivan took to the stage as Hill commanded the audience get on their feet, and delivered a poignant and powerful reading of the song. Her voice soared over the instrumentation, and her soulfulness struck a chord the audience, especially considering the social climate in Baltimore today.
Hill returned to the stage once more to shine some light on the band, and lead them in a solidifying rendition of Nina’s instrumental “African Mailman”. She would point at a member of the band, and they would have their minute to shine, perform a solo, and be received warmly by the audience. Each member of the band showed out and helped bring the evening to a stellar close. Hill’s voice may have been shaky at times, but her presence commanded nothing short of respect and adoration for the late, great Nina Simone.