October 4, 2023

“I know how much this would have meant to her”

The Mzansi Youth Choir performs

Mzansi Youth Choir sings “It’s OK” in honor of ‘AGT’ contestant Nightbirde, who died of cancer in 2022. (Photos: NBC)

Two years after singer-songwriter and cancer patient won Nightbirde America’s Got Talent rate Simon Cowell’s Golden Buzzer and heart – and the hearts of millions of viewers – with her upbeat original ballad “It’s OK”, her presence continued to be felt this week on the AGT Season 18 premiere. At the emotional end of the episode, Soweto’s Mzansi Youth Choir gave a triumphant twist to Nightbirde’s anthem – and they made Golden Buzzer history themselves.

Nightbirde (real name: Jane Marczewski) would probably have won AGT Season 16, but unfortunately the folk-pop chanteuse, who had only been given a 2% chance of survival by doctors at the time of her audition, had to leave the competition to focus on her cancer treatment. In February 2022, Nightbirde tragically lost her battle with cancer at the age of 31, but shortly after her death, Lebanese dance troupe Mayyas auditioned for AGT Season 17, citing the brave and resilient singer as their main inspiration. Mayyas also earned a Golden Buzzer (from judge Sofia Vergara), and they won the whole show. Marczewski never saw Mayyas perform, but it turns out she did hear a version of the Mzansi Youth Choir’s glorious “It’s OK” cover before her death. And now the South African choral group may have the chance to repeat Mayyas’ success while continuing to honor one of the series’ most beloved contestants.

“When we heard Nightbirde sing this song on this stage, we were very inspired and moved by her story, so we decided to record the song,” explained one of the Mzansi Youth Choir members at Tuesday’s premiere. “To our surprise, she responded so beautifully. This song has been such a pillar of strength for us as a choir during difficult times. We just want to carry on her legacy.

As soon as the Mzansi Youth Choir began their intricately harmonized and choreographed performance, it was clear that the panel was impressed. But when the group got to the familiar, hopeful chorus of the chorus, it clicked for the judges. Cowell exchanged a knowing look across the desk with Howie Mandel, who said a simple “Wowand put his head in his hands, while Vergara and Heidi Klum sighed audibly with sad eyes. A standing ovation from all four judges followed, as host Terry Crews dabbed his eyes and remarked, “What a beautiful tribute to a beautiful person.”

“My God, God, Oh dearCowell stammered, with a rare loss of words as he processed what he had just witnessed.

Simon Cowell with Nightbirde in 2021. (Photo: Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Simon Cowell with Nightbirde in 2021. (Photo: Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

“For anyone who doesn’t know, we have lost a very, very special person of ours AGT family,” Klum told the studio audience. “[This song] has a very special meaning in my heart. It was very pretty. Thank you.”

“I’ll always remember Nightbirde,” Mandel said. “And to see it touch people on the other side of the world — incredible. You deserved so much more than a yes. You deserve a ‘thank you’.”

“That was the perfect thing AGT audition,” said a noticeably choked Vergara.

At that point, Cowell finally spoke, though he could barely get the words out. “This brought back so many memories for me,” he said, trying not to cry as Vergara rubbed his shoulder supportively. “I know how much this would have meant to her.” Cowell paused again when he finally burst into tears, but continued stoically after wiping his eyes. “Until the end, she was so passionate about sharing her music. This has gone all over the world, and you’ve come back here with the most amazing tribute. It was just breathtaking, honestly.”

Watch Nightbirde’s original “It’s OK” breakout performance below:

At that point, the live audience chanted: “Gold buzzer! Gold buzzer! Gold buzzer!” So Cowell suggested something the show had never done before… and introduced the concept of a audience– Selected Gold Buzzer. (Each AGT the season’s usual six Golden Buzzers—one pushed individually by each judge, one pushed by Crews, and one unanimously employed by the panel—fast-tracks recipients into
the live rounds of the show.)

“This is for you. This for [the audience]. This is for Jane,” Cowell announced. And with that, Crews and the panel struck the Golden Buzzer on behalf of the “fifth judge,” the America’s Got Talent audience. Cowell and his castmates then jumped on stage to congratulate Mzansi Youth Choir amid a shower of celebratory confetti, with Mandell describing their “It’s OK” performance as “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in my life” and telling Cowell them that they had “no idea” how much this moment had meant to him.

Simon Cowell responds to Mzansi Youth Choir's Nightbirde cover.  (Photos: NBC)

Simon Cowell reacts to the cover of Nightbirde by the Mzansi Youth Choir. (Photos: NBC)

Tuesday two o’clock AGT The season 18 premiere featured other dramatic moments — especially when Ukrainian acrobatic trio Three G fell three times during their gripping routine, but their persistence was still rewarded with four yeses – as well as lighter ones, such as the energetic performance of cult comedy hair-metal band Steel Panther (who Real had to tone down their famous raunchy Sunset Strip shtick for this family-friendly show). But while Season 18 has only just begun, it’s hard to imagine there will be a moment as moving or memorable as the Mzansi Youth Choir’s “It’s OK.”

America’s Got Talent Season 18 returns with more auditions on Tuesday, June 6.

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