Legends have been born and celebrated within the storied walls the Apollo Theater, a cultural institution built on the shoulders of Black soul. Everything from music to dance to spoken word has contributed to historic safe haven as it withstood the tides of change.
Now Kamilah Forbes turn to help preserve that heritage as she takes the position of executive producer at the legendary Harlem venue.
“Anywhere you go in the world, everyone knows the Apollo Theater. They know it as the epicenter of our folks,” said Forbes, 39, in an interview with EBONY.com. “What I loved about the idea of the Apollo is that it was broader than just a theater. I’ve worked at a lot of regional theaters, commercial theaters, broadway theaters, television, all that, but there’s something about the Apollo – everyone talks about the magic to be at the Apollo. It’s more than just a theater, it’s a church, a sanctuary. It’s sacred grounds.”
Forbes spent the last 15 years as a part of the Hi-ARTS/Hip Hop Theater Festival which she co-founded and served as producing artistic director. But her background with the stage is even broader, having been associate director of the Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun; and as several years as producer for HBO‘s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, and Def Poetry Jam on Broadway as well as the recently broadcast The Wiz Live!
Forbes’ love for the arts was ignited while watching the musical Once on the Island as a young girl. Seeing herself reflected in the Caribbean girl on stage set the foundation for her eventual study of theater at Howard University.
Channeling that reflection of seeing herself on stage, she honed the skills of creating dynamic programming that spoke to her community by infusing hip-hop and spoken word into productions.
“It wasn’t just the aesthetic that inspired me, but this idea that I could create, that my voice and aesthetic could be represented on the stage,” she said.
Succeeding Mikki Shephard, who devoted 10 years to growing and expanding the reach of the Apollo through programming and philanthropy, Forbes said that she welcomes the chance to fill those shoes, but will also remain in constant contact with Shephard.
“To be able to come in and step into her role at an institution that she’s laid some amazing groundwork for is an honor,” Forbes said.
Safeguarding the mission of the Apollo while welcoming new innovative ways to push the envelope, Forbes feels called to serve the institution.
“How do we continue to not only be what we were before but be even more on the cutting edge of innovation of innovative artistry?” said Forbes. “When Ella Fitzgerald was here back in the day, she was that contemporary Andra Day. How do we constantly stay ahead and ensure that the legends of today continue to see the Apollo as a home and a haven – a place for creation, not just as a venue but to take a risk. This is a home. We want to be able to create that safe haven but also expand our aesthetic reach and scope.”
With so much under her belt, now Forbes’ focus is to stay true to the historic cultural job the Apollo has been tasked with. In the continued pursuit to cement the Apollo as an epicenter for Black cultural arts, she says the next step is pushing a new wave of innovation by forging new legends and welcoming present artists to return to the venue to take risks.
“People around the globe know the Apollo to be the soul of American culture, but it’s the soul of Black folks. That’s our duty and that’s our mission, said Forbes. “Yes, the world around us in constantly changing but that doesn’t affect our core mission.”