Has the Iconic Apollo Theater Become Victim to Gentrification?
While Paul McCartney plays the Apollo, indie lovers flock to the Café
Harlem is changing. Longtime residents’ complaints of gentrification have festered strongly since the turn of the century, as the undisputed capital of black America brandishes higher rents, expensive new condos and trendy wine bars. Can an organic Whole Foods supermarket be far behind?
And as Harlem changes, so, too, does the storied Apollo Theater, its stalwart music hall. Paul McCartney headlined a sold-out show there last December. Yet in a move that says more about the evolving tastes of the community than the steady influx of white residents, the club launched its ambitious Apollo Music Café series last spring, showcasing an eclectic roster of independent black music acts.
Stepping inside the doors at 253 West 125th Street (to the right of the actual Apollo Theater) and climbing two flights of stairs, patrons walk into an intimate space filled with round tables and mood lighting. Retrofitted as the Apollo Music Café back in February 2011, the Apollo’s third-floor sound stage—with a capacity of 150—recalls shuttered Greenwich Village venues like The Bottom Line and The Village Gate. Grilled shrimp sliders and BBQ ribs whet the appetite; wine and spirits wash the appetizers down. On ambiance alone, it’s clear the Apollo Music Café serves a different purpose than its big brother next door.
In 2003, director James Spooner’s Afro-Punk documentary shed light on the modern-day black-rock tradition. African-Americans who make up the afro-punk community feel largely alienated from the hip hop and R&B stylings, which comprimise the vast majority of the customary Apollo Theater lineup. Singer Tamar-Kali—a Brooklynite rock guitarist full of body piercings, tattoos and sex appeal—closed out the spring season of the Apollo Music Café with a sold-out audience. That season began with Joi, the Atlanta-based songstress who once fronted female musicians named Heroine (double-entendre) and recorded with the infamous black rock band Fishbone. The Music Café is not your parents’ Apollo.
Except when it is. On December 2, R&B singer Avery*Sunshine recently turned in a comical, sanctified set that drew as heavily on tropes of the Christian church as neo-soul covers like D’Angelo’s “Lady” and Jill Scott’s “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat).” One day later, soul singer-songwriter Kenny Wesley stepped from behind his keyboard and completely slayed a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’.” (His too-brief opener for crooner Carmen Rodgers eclipsed that Dallas native’s later performance. Their roles should’ve been reversed.) What makes the difference between headbanging indie rockers and contemporary soul singers? The curators.
Hostess Lisa Yancey—lithe figure, wide smile—has been responsible for programming R&B lodestars like Donnie and Avery*Sunshine at the Apollo Music Café. Performance curator of the Restoration Rocks! series at Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, Yancey is also a law-degree wielding professional dancer and choreographer. Curator Leatrice Ellzy, who scored Joi as the inaugural Apollo Music Café performance, is acting director of artistic programming for Atlanta’s annual National Black Arts Festival. Other curators have included poet Tai Allen, singer Manchildblack, promoter Marko Nobles and jazz pianist Geri Allen.
With the changing fates of the music industry in recent years, Apollo Music Café performers could fast find themselves across the way at the Apollo proper. Whatever their musical genre, the main commonality among Music Café acts is their collective position outside of the so-called Big Three corporate record companies.
Social media in the last decade has largely democratized the playing field for singers and musicians. Through Facebook fan groups, real-time Twitter interactions, professional quality music videos posted straight to YouTube and the instant distribution of music-file downloading, today’s acts don’t actually need much from major labels. The tech revolution has drastically shortened the path from the Apollo Music Café to the Apollo.
And yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. A cursory list of diverse entertainers gracing the Apollo stage over the years includes Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Sting. The existence of the Apollo Music Café might indicate a widening palette in the black community, but one could argue that blacks were never that limited in their tastes to begin with. African-American fans of Apollo legend Lauryn Hill could just as likely program Santigold, Miles Davis, Bad Brains and the Jackson 5 into their iPhones too. As musical tastes keep conflating, the Apollo Music Café might just find its greatest competition in eclectic programming coming from the Apollo Theater itself.