Slowly but surely, since having two landmark downtown venues purchased by promotion giant Live Nation, Riverside has seen a significant uptick in the star power and quality of performing artists making tour stops in our humble slice of SoCal. Last week, the Riverside Municipal Auditorium hosted the legendary Ms. Lauryn HIll and prodigal afrobeat bandleader and saxophonist Seun Kuti and part of Ms. Hill’s “MLH Caravan: A Diaspora Calling!” tour, presented by Live Nation and streaming platform Tidal.
In recent memory, the Riverside Municipal Auditorium has played host to relevant and hotly sought after touring acts, ranging from soul goddess Miss Sharon Jones(RIP) to Swedish satanists Ghost. Just last summer, within the span of one month, one was able to catch the tag team of Wu Tang Clan’s Raekwon and Ghostface Killah on the 20th Anniversary tour of Raekwon’s seminal debut album, “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx”, along with iconic heavy metal act Motorhead, marking what was one of frontman Lemmy Kilmister’s last live appearances before his untimely passing last December.
Along with Riverside’s live music profile recently being raised and reevaluated, so has the legacy of Ms. Lauryn Hill. After a turbulent decade marked by lack of new material, shunning away from public life, and notoriously unpredictable live performances, Ms. Hill, although critically regarded as a magnificent talent since the 1990s, is now being received by fans and press not so much as a tragic figure, but as a trailblazer, whose impact built the way for many to follow. Just last year, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” was inducted into the Library of Congress for cultural preservation. Ms. Hill also contributed six new tracks to the soundtrack for the critically-acclaimed Nina simone documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?”. And just this year, her “Diaspora Calling” tour has been, albeit not without typical speed bumps, a large success, with dates being added to extend the tour into next spring.
It should be clear then, that last Wednesday night was a big night for both Riverside’s live music scene, and also Ms. Hill, who gave her admirers, both longtime and new, nearly 90 minutes of heartstrung deposition making clear her importance as an artist and bravado as a performer.
On a night with such a headlining act as Ms. Lauryn HIll, it may not come as a surprise that the night’s opener may have been overlooked by many. Seun Kuti, the youngest son of legendary Nigerian Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, has toured with his father’s expansive backing band, the Egypt 80, since his passing in 1997, when Seun was only 14 years old. Performing a mix of original material and deep cuts from his father’s recordings, Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 pulled out all the stops. The inescapable energy, pulsating rhythms, and Kuti’s excellent performance as bandleader all felt much more of a spectacle than a typical opening band, as Kuti et al busted out groove after groove, with Kuti’s charisma and technical prowess blooming during extended solo sections. The music recalled the recent surge of Southern Californian artists and bands exploring the connections between African and Latin American music, notably Riverside’s own Quitapenas, which have toured their infectious brand of Afro-Cumbia across the United States. Kuti’s presence on the lineup was a clear indicator of the night’s theme- diaspora. As millions of peoples faced displacement, enslavement, and loss of cultural identity as a means to further the Western Imperial project, entirely new cultures, began to form, each with their own distinct traits and cultural language, but with a common root in African . Kuti, as well as Quitapenas, represent a new generation of artists renegotiating the relationship with the past, and attempting to bring about a cultural project that reassesses the importance and relevance of the historically disenfranchised.
With that in mind, one would be hard pressed to find another artist who examines and embodies the struggles of the diaspora more so than Ms. Lauryn HIll. Known for blending together the sounds and celebrating the lineages of Reggae, Soul, and Hip-hop, Hill’s ninety-minute plus set was a testament to her immeasurable talents as a songwriter, bandleader, and artist, as well as the legacy of her influence.
Despite keeping her audience in suspense until nearly 11PM, and with her DJ notifying the crowd, on a stage without a band, that “Ms. Hill isn’t feeling too well tonight”, which many read as an omen confirming their worst suspicions. But shortly after those fears were quelled, as Ms. Hill’s band took to the stage and tenderized the stage for Ms. Hill’s marathon set. Upon her entrance, Ms. Hill appeared striking a visage similar to a canary, an unflinching figure covered in a bold yellow sweater, with a voice to match.
I have little words to add to what has already been said about the power of Ms. Hill’s music. It’s fearless, yet vulnerable, Genre-fluid, yet grounded in tradition. Last Wednesday night, that music transported a modest concert hall into a world-class venue. Ms. Hill’s presence and command of everything that happened on her stage put her in a class of her own. From performing hits like “Ex-Factor” and a rendition of “(Doo Wop) That Thing” that left everyone playing back-up singer, to her lesser-acknowledged acoustic material, as well as covers of songs by Sade and Nina Simone, and even Fugees classics, such as “How Many Mics” and the timeless cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly”, Ms. Lauryn Hill and her supremely talented band brought a level of bravado and musicianship that would convince even the most fair-weather fan of the talent and iconic legacy of Ms. Lauryn Hill, a storyteller and artist of a generation, who, like many before and after her, continue to navigate and negotiate the effects of the diaspora.
Written by Wolfgang Mowrey