By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Most people associate the Apollo Theater with its long-running Amateur Night, where future stars like Jimi Hendrix and Ella Fitzgerald once graced the stage, or for being home to performers such as James Brown and Gladys Knight.
But Friday night, the theater will dip its toe into Harlem's lounge scene, with the launch of the Apollo Music Café. An intimate sound stage on the Apollo's upper levels, the café will feature avant-garde artists such as Ghanaian hip-hop artists and "underground R&B queens," a representative for the theater said.
"These artists are not the big names but they are not amateurs. They are the next generation of artists, spoken word artists, artists who use technology in their performances and international artists," said Apollo Theater Executive Producer Mikki Shepard, who created the cafe. "This is about the Apollo having multiple platforms and venues to support artists at various stages of their career."
It's also about keeping pace with the changes going on in Harlem. Once know for its jazz clubs and nightlife, many say the area is experiencing a second renaissance. Red Rooster, Marcus Samuelsson's new Harlem restaurant, is opening a lounge on the lower level. Harlem's new Aloft Hotel features two bars and several new lounges can be found along the Frederick Douglass Boulevard corridor.
Instead of having younger artists and audiences go to Brooklyn for its lounge scene, Shepard said she'd like to attract those people to the Apollo.
"A lot of it has to do with catering to a younger crowd looking for a different kind of environment and experience. It's a different type of Apollo experience," said Shepard.
The formerly raw space now has black curtains and can hold up to 150 people. A newly-installed catwalk will allow the space for artists to use equipment in their performances.
"It's just a more intimate space that gives itself to people mingling," said Apollo head of stage Joseph Gray, who transformed the space with his crew.
Outside curators will be invited to put together shows at the café in an effort to help a new generation emerge in that area, said Shepard.
Kicking off the café tonight will be Atlanta underground R&B artist Joi who will also perform Saturday. On Monday, Ghananian hip hop artist Blitz the Ambassador will take the stage. Monthly events are scheduled at the cafe through June.
"The Apollo has always serviced its community and the community is more diverse now than 20 years ago," said Shepard.