The Apollo Theater is a church.
Opened in 1914 as a burlesque theater, for the first 20 years of its existence, Black people were banned from performing at the venue or even attending a production. After changing its name to the Apollo Theater and opening its doors to African Americans in 1934, the Harlem monument has become one of the most sacred cultural institutions in Black America.
Kiki Shepherd was the congregation’s First Lady, Sandman Sim was the head of the Deacon Board and, instead of waiting for someone with the requisite Holy Ghost credentials to dab you with anointing oil, the blessings came from rubbing has the “Tree of Hope.” The Apollo is a sanctuary where we can gather together to make our unique joyful noise.
And, if the Apollo Theater is a place of worship, its unique version of Sunday service actually takes place on Wednesday evenings.
On November 21, 1934, a 17-year-old singer decided to enter the Apollo’s new “Amateur Night.” The teenage girl was too nervous to dance and decided to sing instead, winning the $25 first prize. That woman would become the first of many who would taste their first nibble of stardom on the Apollo stage.
Her name was Ella Fitzgerald.
Since then, the list of names who launched their careers at Amateur Night at The Apollo includes Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Diana Ross, Parliament-Funkadelic, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill and a 1964 guitarist who leveraged his win at the Apollo into a tour with the Isley Brothers.
Some guy named Jimi Hendrix.
This year, for the first time in its 86-year history, auditions for Amateur Night’s 2020-2021 season were conducted exclusively through online submissions. Contestants were invited to send in a 5-minute audition video to be selected to compete for the $20,000 grand prize.
And you know who else is online?
That’s right, I’m very talented. I could have been an internationally known singer if my voice could hit actual notes. As a dancer, I was once a member of an award-winning dance troupe (I caught the garter at my homeboy’s wedding immediately after we did the electric slide, so I count that as an award). Plus, during my youth, I learned to play three instruments—the kazoo, the paint bucket drumset and the TI-84. (Yes, a Texas Instruments calculator is technically an “instrument.” It’s right there in the name!)
But, instead of shaming all the other less-skilled musicians with my musical genius, I decided to audition for the Amateur Night at the Apollo by performing spoken word poetry, which is the only talent for which I have actually been internationally recognized (until Janet Jackson calls me back for my backup dancer audition.) After contemplating the perfect choice, I submitted my audition for the heralded competition and waited for a response. And guess what?
They liked me! They actually liked me!
So I’m just writing this to say that if you see my Disney+ visual album Hamilton II: Mike is King (It’s a love story about Founding Father Anthony Hamilton featuring the hit song “I am Not Throwing Away My Shot at Charlene”), don’t wonder how I got there.
And the point of it all is:
It started at the Apollo.