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Lauryn Hill's tribute to Nina Simone brought the singer's spirit back to the Apollo

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Noam Galai/Getty Images

There are a few ways one generally gets introduced to Nina Simone and her legacy. Certainly, students of classical music or jazz or the Civil Rights era will see her name immortalized in history books. But if you try to find her through hip-hop, you’ll see how her legacy has touched generations. And no one has upheld that legacy quite like Lauryn Hill.

For context’s sake, Netflix showed its latest documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?which hits the streaming service on June 26th, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem on Monday. It was a fitting venue; Simone last performed there in 1969, and the building is precious in a way that reflects Nina’s importance to Black America. The film itself was a focused, unflinching look at the singer’s life, from her rise as America’s "High Priestess of Soul," to her fall from grace and even mental stability, to her triumphant return to form. It’s a work of art. What director Liz Garbus accomplished is heartbreaking and powerful, a portrait of a difficult genius (and when are our American geniuses ever not difficult?) struggling against her time and herself while making art out of the conflict.

But I wasn’t there to review the film. I was there for Lauryn Hill, the "secret" closing act of the night. Now, Nina Simone’s importance to the culture is undeniable, but the truth is I’ve been listening to Lauryn longer. I’d first heard Nina’s name in that classic line on "Ready or Not":

So while you’re imitating Al Capone / I’ll be Nina Simone / And defecating on your microphone

For me, the connection on that night was obvious. Both women made indelible marks on music through craft, poetry, and a willingness to speak against social injustice. Both women struggled with love, money, and fame. So I suppose I went expecting nothing less than the musical equivalent of a seance; that Lauryn would meet Nina’s spirit onstage and we’d all be changed by their combined presence.

I expected the musical equivalent of a seance

That spirit was never wholly summoned. The show was imperfect. Lauryn’s voice was hoarse from rushing to record an upcoming but unannounced tribute albumNina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone (which features the likes of Usher, Jazmine Sullivan, and Mary J. Blige). Sound issues rendered whole sections of the onstage orchestra inaudible. And when Lauryn started "Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair," there were three false starts due to syncing problems. Like the film we had just watched, it was a stark reminder that performing isn’t easy.

When things worked, though, it was easy to get swept away, and you remembered why Nina’s music was so important. Nina Simone, as an artist, was an icon whose music spoke to the unrest of the 1960s. She was a classically trained pianist who rose to international fame and found herself compelled to infuse the plight of black people into her work. Considering the bloodshed and terror now facing blacks in America today and the lasting commitment to protesting injustice, her music is as necessary as ever. All Lauryn Hill had to do was add a present-day spin to Simone’s message. And, despite the technical issues, she succeeded.

During her set, Lauryn took "Ne Me Quitte Pas," a French song about holding onto a lost love, and turned it into a prayer for Nina. She took "Ain’t Got No, I Got Life," a song about freedom, and updated it with her own dazzling display of lyricism. ("Lyrics with the safety off / Now dance around these n----- like Baryshnikov.") Later in the evening, Lauryn invited Jazmine Sullivan onstage to sing a moving cover of "Baltimore," which was all too appropriate considering the recent death of Freddie Gray and the riots that followed. And the orchestra closed the night with a lengthy cover of "African Mailman," giving each of the musicians a chance to flex their muscles with pure, joyful jazz.

"Thank you Nina Simone for existing, and being bold enough to speak."

Before stepping offstage, Lauryn Hill took the mic and said simply, "Thank you Nina Simone for existing, and being bold enough to speak." It was all that needed to be said, but thanks should go to her as well, for exemplifying the enduring power of difficult women in music. What Happened Nina Simone? showed how Nina’s music transcended hardship. Lauryn’s tribute did the same.