Lauryn Hill proves her lasting relevance at election night performance


Ms. Lauryn Hill’s election night show at Queen Elizabeth Theatre was, at its onset, like a swing state: unpredictable. The hip hop icon and Fugees co-founder has developed a reputation for starting shows hours late, getting cut off early, and completely no-showing. But last Tuesday, probability swung in her Vancouver fans’ favour.

Before 22-year-old North London rapper Little Simz took the stage for her opening set, Simz’s DJ decried the US “election based on distrust and hate” that was occurring at the same time. “Why don’t we start the evening off differently?” he proposed before dropping instrumental beats that got the growing audience grooving hard in their seats.

After a few tracks, Simz came out blazing with dexterous, rapid-fire rhymes. Her debut album, last year’s A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons, channels a nearly singular current of energy, but “Gratitude” alone made her performance worthy of far more than a half-full theatre. The crowd showed their appreciation of her explosive rhyming and swaggering body movements; she even did something I never saw before by walking up the aisle during the aggressive “Dead Body”. (She got a third of the way up before being herded back to the stage.) I could only wonder how heated her performance would have been at a more intimate venue like Fortune Sound Club or the Alexander.

Simz wasn’t all loaded tongue and brazen beats though. On “God Bless Mary”, she paid tribute to a (former?) neighbour who never complained about her working on or blasting her music. Simz slung an electric guitar over her shoulders and slowly strummed out the stern “Interlude” which recalled the Fugees or Lauryn Hill in their more resolute moments.

It didn’t take intentionally creeping on audiences’ phone screens to see that people were checking election results as Simz was throwing down and lighting up. But given the historic circumstance, the crowd’s diverted attention was excusable and shouldn’t have been seen as lack of interest in her performance.

By the time Simz wrapped up, and the between-set DJ impressively got everyone cheering, grooving, and singing along while standing on their feet, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania had still yet to report their results. The election wasn’t over. But it wasn’t looking good either. It was the perfect time for Lauryn Hill to start. Her songs are political, but at least the hundreds in attendance could also just enjoy the music for a couple of hours.

Hill’s 11-person band got rolling only 15 minutes past her scheduled 9:20 pm start time. They began without her, and just as I started speculating that the drum solo was only continuing in order for the band to buy time, she made her grand entrance and helped blow off “Everything Is Everything”.

One song in, and Hill was already rapping at warp speed over jazzy crescendos powered by a saxophone, a trumpet, three back-up singers, a DJ, and more.

The crowd burst into cheers when her mad rhyming accelerated into shouting on numerous songs including “Forgive Them Father”. Hill joined her singers in dance on “Final Hour”, breaking it down as the crowd rooted them on. And although fans screamed wildly for every song, “Lost Ones”, which came an hour into her set, was the only song that made them jump when they heard its first few words. Despite such a robust backing band, Hill was still able to overpower them with her torrential rapping.

She didn’t let anyone forget that she could sing too. One of most beautiful numbers was “To Zion” which featured twinkling piano, drums that were as subtle as backlights, and her amplified voice ringing out and out and out and out…

Hill plucked songs from the Fugees’ discography (“Wait a minute. Do we have Fugees fans out here?” she asked a few lines into the vociferously received “How Many Mics”), gave her rendition of Bob Marley’s all-time classic “Jammin’”, and, while sitting on a couch, rocked out “Freedom Time”, rattled off “The Mystery of Iniquity”, and, starting with an unmistakeable finger-picked melody, unspooled “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind”, all from MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.

The crowd only needed to hear one note while the band tuned up in order to recognize the night’s most conspicuously absent song. “Really? Really?? We played one note for you!” Hill exclaimed joyously when fans roared at the opening of set closer “Doo Wop (That Thing)”.

Give it up for Lauryn Hill who despite her reputation started relatively on time and played for so long that people began trickling out after two hours. But those who left missed perhaps the most heartbreakingly resonant part of the night:

I find it hard to say / That everything is all right
Don’t look at me that way / Like everything is all right
Cuz my own eyes can see / Through all your false pretenses
But what you fail to see / Is all the consequences
You think our lives are cheap / And easy to be wasted
As history repeats / So foul you can taste it

With an acoustic guitar in her hands, Hill sang those words from “I Find It Hard to Say (Rebel)”, a song that addressed the 1999 police shooting of 23-year-old Guinea immigrant Amadou Diallo. Although “(Rebel)” appeared 14 years ago on Unplugged, one only needs to remember a fraction of the countless similar shootings over recent years to see their relevance today. Certainly, more than half of a nation was at a loss for words as last Tuesday night wound down and the reality of the next presidency began sinking in.

With the cloud of what was happening simultaneously in the United States hanging over the performance, for at least for a couple of hours, at least there was the life-changing music of Ms. Lauryn Hill to focus on as her songs resounded more clearly and with more immediacy, more familiarity, and more urgency than they likely have in nearly two decades. Her reputation for tardiness be damned – the kind of solace she provided was worth all the wait.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu