Two years after singer-songwriter and cancer patient Nightbirde won America’s Got Talent judge Simon Cowell’s Golden Buzzer and heart — and millions of viewers’ hearts — with her optimistic original ballad “It’s OK,” her presence continued to be felt on this week’s AGT Season 18 premiere. At the emotional end of the episode, Soweto’s Mzansi Youth Choir put a triumphant spin on Nightbirde’s anthem — and they made Golden Buzzer history of their own.
Nightbirde (real name: Jane Marczewski) probably would have won AGT Season 16, but sadly, the folk-pop chanteuse, who at the time of her audition had been given her only a 2% chance of survival by doctors, had to drop out of the competition to focus on her cancer treatment. In February 2022, Nightbirde tragically lost her cancer battle at age 31, but shortly after her death, Lebanese dance troupe Mayyas auditioned for AGT Season 17, citing the brave and resilient singer as their chief inspiration. Mayyas also earned a Golden Buzzer (from judge Sofia Vergara), and they went on to win the entire show. Marczewski did never get to see Mayyas perform, but it turns out she did hear a version of Mzansi Youth Choir’s glorious “It’s OK” cover before she died. And now the South African choral group might have the chance to repeat Mayyas’ success as well as keep honoring one of the series’ most beloved contestants.
“When we heard Nightbirde singing this song on this stage, we were very inspired and touched by her story, so we decided to record the song,” one of Mzansi Youth Choir’s members explained on Tuesday’s premiere. “To our surprise, she responded so beautifully. This song that been such a pillar of strength for us as a choir through difficult times. We just want continue 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 chorus’s familiar, hopeful refrain, that’s when it clicked for the judges. Cowell exchanged a knowing glance across the desk with Howie Mandel, who uttered a simple “wow” and placed his head in his hands, while the sad-eyed Vergara and Heidi Klum sighed audibly. A standing ovation from all four judges ensued, as host Terry Crews dabbed his eyes and remarked, “What a wonderful tribute to a beautiful person.”
“My gosh, gosh, gosh,” Cowell stammered, at a rare loss for words as he processed what he had just witnessed.
“For anyone who doesn’t know, we lost a very, very special person from our AGT family,” Klum told the studio audience. “[This song] has a very special meaning in my heart. It was very beautiful. Thank you.”
“I’ll always remember Nightbirde,” said Mandel. “And to see that it touched people on the other side of the globe — unbelievable. You deserved so much more than a yes. You deserve a ‘thank you.’”
“That was the perfect AGT audition,” said a noticeably choked-up Vergara.
It was then that Cowell finally spoke, although he could barely get out the words. “This brought back so many memories for me,” he said, trying not to cry as Vergara supportively rubbed his shoulder. “I know how much this would have meant to her.” Cowell paused again as he finally broke into tears, but he stoically continued after wiping his eyes. “Right 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:
By this point, the live audience was chanting, “Golden Buzzer! Golden Buzzer! Golden Buzzer!” So, Cowell suggested something the show had never done before… and introduced the concept of an audience-selected Golden Buzzer. (Each AGT season’s usual six Golden Buzzers — one individually pushed by each judge, one pushed by Crews, and one unanimously employed by the panel — fast-tracks the recipients directly to the show’s live rounds.)
“This is for you. This for [the audience]. This is for Jane,” Cowell proclaimed. And with that, Crews and the panel hit the Golden Buzzer on behalf of the “fifth judge,” the America’s Got Talent audience. Cowell and his castmates then hopped onstage 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 Cowell telling them they had “no idea” how much this moment had meant to him.
Tuesday’s two-hour AGT Season 18 premiere featured other dramatic moments — particularly when Ukrainian acrobatic trio Three G fell three times during their harrowing routine, yet their perseverance was still rewarded for with four yeses — as well as lighter ones, like the high-energy performance by cult comedy hair-metal band Steel Panther (who really had to tone down their famously raunchy Sunset Strip shtick for this family-friendly show). But while Season 18 is only just underway, it’s difficult to imagine that there will be a moment as moving or memorable as Mzansi Youth Choir’s “It’s OK.”
America’s Got Talent Season 18 returns with more auditions next Tuesday, June 6.
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