Lauryn Hill paid high tribute to Nina Simone at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on Monday night, performing a short set of covers with help from a dozen-person band and singer Jazmine Sullivan.
Hill took the stage after Netflix premiered What Happened, Miss Simone?, a stirring documentary chronicling Simone’s life, career and hardships. The film, due out on Netflix on June 26, uses conversations with loved ones, old concert footage and interviews to show Simone’s journey from classical piano training in the segregated South to her major involvement in the civil right’s movement, which ripped her family – and nearly her career – apart. Many of her songs, like “Goddamn, Mississippi” and “To Be Young, Gifted And Black,” became anthems of the movement.
Hill did her best to bring Simone to life at the historic venue. Bounding on stage after some technical difficulties, the singer – who also has a career dotted with struggle and social activism – launched into a version of the French song “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and the folk song “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair,” both of which Simone herself once sang. Hill’s voice was hoarse from recording, according to her introduction, and before segueing into Simone’s hit “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life,” she warned the crowd: “We’re going to try to rap this. You with me?”
It wasn’t perfect – she had to stop and start three times due to sound level mishaps – but Hill stepped out from behind the mic and danced around the stage, doing her best to embody Simone’s bravado. She then passed the mic to Jazmine Sullivan for a heartening cover of “Baltimore,” which Sullivan first debuted last month.
Hill then took back the stage, and acted as a band leader, calling on her musicians to hit solos during an instrumental version of “African Mailman.” A drummer, harpist, violinist, saxophonist, pianist, trumpeter and vocalist each took turns making the iconic track their own.
The performance was a precursor to a forthcoming Nina Simone tribute album, which will feature Usher, Robert Glasper and Mary J. Blige, among others, and Hill seemed to speak for all the featured artists when she closed out the night. “Thank you to Nina Simone for existing – and being bold enough to speak.”