Voices of Live: Apollo Theater Executive Producer Kamilah Forbes

– Voices of Live
Apollo Theater executive producer Kamilah Forbes.

With the tragic events of the last few weeks, Pollstar is committed to promoting diversity and inclusivity in our industry and beyond. Toward that goal, in this issue we are launching a new editorial franchise titled “Voices of Live” which has the goal of putting a spotlight on people of diverse backgrounds from across the business toward increasing the inclusivity in our industry.

Pollstar: This is probably the hardest question to ask these days for many reasons, but how are you doing?
Kamilah Forbes: It is a tough time for sure. We’re all taking it moment by moment, but I also think this is our moment to rise up. This is the moment our voices must be heard the loudest. Personally and institutionally, because  the Apollo has always served as an amplifier of voices and of the black community and around social justice and equity. This is the time, and if we don’t show up now, then when? And also for my generation and for our country. I mean that for our institutions, so that energizes me, because it’s a real tipping point.

Which generation are you a part of?
I’m a part of the Hip-Hop Generation. That’s when I came up. I was born in the seventies, but that is the culture that groomed me, that gave me voice. So not quite millennial. When I say our generation, I do mean that loosely as well, because it’s not just one generation’s responsibility. It is a multitude of generations’ responsibility.

This moment feels different and transformative, but sadly it’s happened many, many times before and not been adequately remedied. What gives you hope now?
I grew up in Chicago and I remember the walkouts that happened around Rodney King. I remember how polarizing that was even among my very mixed community and around that moment of filmed violence, because that’s ultimately what we’ve been seeing because of technology, violence and public lynchings, which now have a much broader platform. Even with Tamir Rice who was a young boy, then became a conversation, “Well, why was he playing with a toy gun?” Almost as if his killing was justified. The fact that a section of our community still has these opinions that, “Well, what else did that person do?” – almost as if to intimate there’s some piece of it that’s justified. I feel the public outcry that we are seeing now is “enough is enough.” We need to do away with trying to find reasons or justification for a killing of another innocent human being and stand up and stand out.

With ‘Voices of Live,’ we want to put a spotlight on people of diverse backgrounds from across the business who have found success and achieved excellence, which you clearly have, and find out how they did it. Opportunity is not easy to come by for anyone, but especially those perhaps facing systemic bias. How did you do it?
I have a personality in which I don’t ever take no for an answer.

Where did you get that from?
Stubborn parents. 

Stubborn parents, stubborn daughter?
Yes. I think that’s what it was. In spite of the fact that there were very few representatives in my field doing what it is that I thought that I wanted to do, I would search and find that glimmer of one person. An article of a black woman director on Broadway in 1972, Vinenette Carol and “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” she was the first in 1972. I think the second black woman director on Broadway came 30 years later. So there weren’t many examples. That moment further fueled my passion for the arts, and that, “Oh, wow. I can do this.” Seeing those kinds of examples and being reaffirmed by that community and the hip-hop community I gravitated to through college and built a community of like-minded artists who were about activism, and pushing boundaries. I did that through college and post-college forming artist’s collectives, because that’s where you get fortified. It’s not just a singular person’s journey, it’s a whole collective and a community that moves one person forward.

The Apollo Theater

Who were some of the people in that community?
Writers like Dominique Morisseau, Katori Hall and other playwrights. These were actors, colleagues, classmates at Howard University, which has a history of activism and that tenor was always in the room, as well as musicians and the entertainment industry. Going to Howard helped to bolster that forward movement. 

I’m from D.C. which has a flourishing African American arts community and integration was better there than a lot of places. I also saw that collaborated with a gentleman by the name of Chadwick Boseman…
Oh, that guy, yeah…

Apparently he’s a superstar, actor, sex symbol or something…
Yeah. Howard was a special time. There were artists like Chad and artists who I collaborate up with today, like Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

Courtesy of the Apollo
– Tip on the Theater Tip
T.I. reads from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” at the Apollo Theater.

Wow, he’s a hero.
We were all classmates and friends and among other artists we still work with. We found collaboration and real community with one another, and continue to build together and on our own, finding our own artistic voice and paths. Ta-Nehisi right now is The Apollo’s artist in residence and he’ll hold that position for the next three years so we’re building programming alongside him. It’s a collaboration and we’ve held conversations. We launched his most recent novel, “The Water Dancer” from the Apollo and also adapted his work “Between The World and Me” for the stage. We took the book and turned it into theater. We brought in Jason Moran who built a live score with three musicians and had really incredible people read it. We’ve refashioned the passages into monologues. We’ve got great actors, actors like Angela Bassett, to Joe Morton, to musicians like Ledisi, Black Thought and Common, T.I. and  Killer Mike. We did performances in New York, and Atlanta.

To distill it, you followed your passion, built community, collaborated with others and it synthesized into your successful career.
That’s it. 

Who was Stan Lathan?
I was introduced to him by Monique Martin, a friend and colleague. Stan was looking for an assistant. He and Russell Simmons were just beginning to conceptualize “The Def Poetry Jam.” I didn’t get the job as his personal assistant but because of the work I was doing in the hip-hop community and spoken word he came back and said, “You know, I have this other job on this TV show that we’re doing.” I started off as a talent producer and moved my way up to co-producer, producer and then executive produced not only that series, but several other spin-off series of Def Poetry Jam. That helped me launch into the world of television.

What was your next big tent pole?
I learned a lot from Stan about leadership and also started doing more directing, directing plays on my own and assisted other directors. I worked with Kenny Leon, another director who allowed me to be in the Broadway space. I worked on “The Mountaintop” with Angela Bassett and Sam Jackson. “Stick Fly” was executive produced by Alicia Keys. I did “The Wiz Live,” which was very exciting because that was on NBC, a convergence of live theater and television.

What challenges did you face?
Especially in the cultural arts, it’s easy to unapologetically get pigeon-holed. As a director, you’re only getting called for the black shows. So when you are learning the craft, it becomes that more difficult because opportunities come few and far between. You’re watching peers get more hands-on training than you simply because of the industry and where those opportunities lie. So, that was challenging. How we overcame them was to instead of looking for those larger theaters to hire me, was just went to start our own. That’s when we started the Hip-Hop Theater Festival and produced and directed each other’s works and learned the craft as we were building. The challenge was lack of opportunities out in the world, but then it opened up an opportunity to create spaces for each other. 

There are great lessons in your career about manifesting your own opportunities. What would you do when you faced bigotry, racism or bias? How do you transcend it or do you transcend it? What are your tips for handling that kind of nonsense?
That’s where community comes into place, because when moments like that of devaluing my humanity, whether it’s direct or indirect, which in the world happens on a daily basis, that’s when we dig deeper into community. Who are those in the community who affirm me? Where are those places where my identity is affirmed? Where are those places in which my voice is valued? And, let me place investment there. Which is why working at the Apollo is a dream come true, because that is what’s at that institution – it is not a fight for my voice to be heard. If you look at cultural arts institutions across the country, we’re a part of a collective of performing arts centers. And number one when we all come together, I’m the only black person in the room of 65 different performing arts centers. And, definitely very few women. And the only black woman for sure as well. So, it is a given that my identity, my voice, my place, my leadership is affirmed, it’s respected. It’s valued in this space, and that’s where I place my investment. And so, when moments like that happen in the world, it’s like, “Okay, well we need to build spaces that do affirm.”

Arnaldo Magnani
– Ready For Star Time
A horse drawn carriage carrying the casket of James Brown to the viewing of his body held inside the Apollo Theater on December 28, 2006 in New York City.

And if you’re ever feeling down, just call Ta-Nehisi Coates or Chadwick Boseman or Alecia Keys or some of the other people you mentioned. It’s like you’re part of a new black arts movement. These are some of the dazzling lights of our time and beyond.
I think that’s with everyone. We get affirmed by our community. We get affirmed by culture, which is why culture and music serve beyond just entertainment. We’re having an online benefit tomorrow and we’re paying very close attention to the messaging and what we want to say. Anytime we’re presenting an artist, I always like to ask the question why? Why this artist? Or if we’re presenting a piece of work, why this play? Why this choreographer, why now? What is it saying? Because culture has that power, so as we’re looking now, back at the work we’re sharing, and having those same conversations, saying, “What do we want to share? How are we in this conversation? What are we adding?” A big thing is affirming blackness right now. Affirming who we are. Affirming our voice. Affirming the fact that, and I love Nikole Hannah-Jones, that the past 400 years we built this country for free. We’re talking about free labor that has built the American economy. When you look at culture, and culture being one of our largest exports, acknowledging that contribution of what we’ve done, and what culture has done to fortify us in times of despair and times of rage, and times of anger, and times of pure joy and jubilation. I mean, our culture is that reflective point back, right? It’s a balm. It’s healing. 

It’s everything.

It’s everything, so yes, it’s those people around you, but also culture, like Ta-Nehisi has this great quote at the end of “Between the World and Me, and he says, “it is Billie they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and the Isleys they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last sound they hear before dying.” But basically, talking about these artists, black music, throughout time, and how literally through a person’s life cycle, over the last 100 years, black art, black voice is inescapable in how it permeates our culture. 

So much music, popular culture doesn’t exist without it, there’s no nothing without blues and jazz and that history. It’s invaluable, much like the the Apollo, which i consider a temple, not just some club. I went to James Brown’s wake there because that’s where he wanted to be when he passed. Live at the Apollo is the greatest album. The Apollo is so much more. What do you tell people when they’re like, “What’s the Apollo?”
It represents so much more than, people say “Oh, well it’s a landmark.” It’s much more than that. It is an energy. When I think about the Apollo, I think about the energy that is indescribable when you walk into the building, which is why, yes, James Brown’s funeral was at the Apollo, because he as the Godfather of Soul could see no other place to be his last resting place, because of what it represents. It is a town hall. It is an intersection of art and culture. It is a capital of Black America. It is a symbol of black excellence, a global symbol of black excellence. It’s a global symbol of artistic excellence all at the same time. It is soul, in every definition of the term. So, it is a hard thing to describe, but that’s what makes it so exciting to work there because it can inhabit authentically all of these conversations, authentically whether it is a conversation in a town hall featuring a Rashad Robinson of Color of Change or Al Sharpton, and Tamika Mallory on one day to a Teddy Riley concert the next, to an opera we produced called “We Shall Not Be Moved” the following week, and all of it makes sense in the building. And the building and the idea of the Apollo is large enough to hold all of it. To hosting U2. All of it.

Especially in these fraught times, the Apollo provides a service for the local community in Harlem, but also on a larger maybe even global scale. What are the ways that you reach these communities and raise up so many boats?
There’s a few ways: Through our community programs, we host a series called Uptown Hall which is really a community town hall we curate several times throughout the year. It’s curated around urgent topics that directly affect our local and city community. We also have a very robust education program serving close to 20,000 students and up to 200,000 families per year in our young people and adult education programs. We have in-school educators in over 50 public and private schools across the city and built a very specific curriculum in and around Apollo themes, black music, black performance, and black culture as well as artistic instruction. Through our in-school programs to our afterschool programs and also through a program called School Day Live, which is basically specifically school aged program, where we’re hosting school performances for K through 12 at the theater throughout the week. 

There’s also the aspect of our training programs, which is very exciting. It’s primarily a high school training program called Apollo Theater Academy. It’s built as an internship program training primarily young people of color from across five boroughs on behind the scenes training. There’s a lot of training programs in New York City, home to Juilliard, La Guardia, and other top performing arts programs, but we have a paid internship program training young people around the craft of producing, sound engineering and tech and theater technology – all the pieces it takes to produce live events so they also can be equipped to not just be in front of the camera, but  behind the scenes, and ultimately to run the centers and be in the Pollstars of tomorrow. That is one of the programs I’m very proud that we do.

Courtesy of the Apollo
– Teach
The Apollo has a robust education program serving close to 20,000 students and up to 200,000 families per year, and the organization as a whole places a strong emphasis on mentorship.

Have you helped mentor some of these interns,  either hired them or helped them along their path?
It’s a core value of who we are as an institution. It’s a core value of who I am. I wouldn’t be here without mentorship, without the Stan Lathans or Kenny Leons of the world saying, “Yeah, you can be my assistant. Yeah, let me give you this entry level job, so that you can really learn the ropes.”  We do the same thing. Out of our 80 staff, I can point to a good 15 of them who are now full-time staff that started out through our internship program over the last 10 years. We see ourselves, not only directly through our internship program, but also through our hiring practice, as not just doing a service for the Apollo. We like to think of ourselves also as a service to the field, making sure that performing arts center venues across the world have staffs as diverse as ours. It’s important we sit on and participate in those field wide conversations, whether it’s with the PACC, IAVM or APAP, so that we are plugged into those leadership conversations when it comes to equity. When it comes to diversity, and particularly diversity around hiring practices and staff.

How is the Apollo doing these days? I remember a time when it was in dire financial straits?
The Apollo has gone through so many life cycles. As you can imagine, as just an institution for the last 86 years. Our documentary talks about a bunch of different life cycles where folks have come to its rescue. I know in the early ’80s, Dionne Warwick was very instrumental. The late  James Brown held three weeks of concerts at one point in the ’80s, then donated dollars that ultimately funded the renovation of what is now our green room.

Isn’t there expansion now with two new theaters?
That’s right. It’s next door. Those theaters are still under construction. Our timeline to move into the theaters, although they’re still under construction, due to COVID has obviously been pushed, but that project is still well underway.

The Apollo at 86-years-old is a treasure trove of history, just looking at the sizzle reel was like, “Oh my God, there’s Cab Callaway, there’s Bill Withers, is there still so much to unearth? .
Absolutely. Our in-house digital archivist who is just amazing. I love dropping by his office because he’s been working on digitizing our archives and catalog, but he always has something new to share. We saw footage the other day of under the reign of Mr. Sutton, who was our last individual owner. He started this TV show, before he started Showtime at the Apollo, but there was another TV network with a talk show hosted format he was also launching. We saw footage of Remake Your Star from the late ’80s that appeared on the show. It was really fantastic. It is a treasure trove that we unearth on a daily basis. We have this incredible footage of Stevie Wonder from our 70th anniversary, I think it was from ’89 or ’90. Anyway, the performance, and what he does on stage is just freaking incredible. There’s stuff like that we see every day. The photographs,  it’s really something.

It really is. What are your closing thoughts on kids trying to make it in this business and having trouble breaking in?
We were pitching a show the other day, and one of the show’s lead producers, who is an extremely powerful woman in media, she said, “Go to where the love is.” She said, “We’re not going anywhere. If we don’t feel the love, we’re not there.” And, I feel that way. Go to where the love is. And sometimes if you can’t find it, you have to build it.