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Executive Producer of the Apollo Theater
Episode 82

Executive Producer of the Apollo Theater

CI to Eye with Kamilah Forbes

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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In This Episode

Kamilah and Erik speak about the Apollo's historic and current foundational role in American culture and the global Black community. They also discuss the Apollo's planned physical expansion, their evolution from a presenting house to a curatorial and residency non-profit venue working to develop a broader American canon, and the importance of getting comfortable with discomfort in this moment of historic change for cultural institutions.

Erik Gensler: We last met in (laughs) my office on March 10th and gosh, how the world exploded in the days following that. I’m really excited to have you back for another conversation.

Kamilah Forbes: That’s right. Well, thank you so much for having me back. It’s so funny because you’re right. March 10th … It was literally, maybe, five days later, we were leaving our offices. That was probably the last week that I was in the city in the office in the theater. So, yeah, but my, how the world has changed.

Erik Gensler: There’s so much to discuss and, I mean, I think I want to start the conversation around\social justice-

Kamilah Forbes: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: … and I’d love for you to talk about how the Apollo organization sees its role in the fight for social justice.

Kamilah Forbes: Yeah, I think we’ve always been in the center of it. I think our place in the community—and by the community, I don’t just mean Harlem. I don’t just mean New York. I do mean, sort of, the national African American community, but more importantly, also the global Black community. So. we even struggled internally, as all the cultural arts institutions were issuing statements around racial justice and equity and #BlackLivesMatter, where you can pick any point of programming that we’ve done over the history of our institution or even the last five years that speaks directly to this issue because our focus has always been around centering Blackness, Black culture, and social justice has a big part of that and plays a big part of that. I think about … And even historically, the institution has always been a town hall for artists and activists to gather, artists and activists to use it as a place where ideas are shared … from athletes and activists, where we had, you know, during late 1960s, Muhammad Ali, famously, was also at the Apollo around several activist rallies around, you know, the civil rights movement. During that time, we had rallies held for MLK at the Apollo, artists speaking out at the Apollo, to today, in which our work that we produce and present speaks directly to that. So, we see ourselves as a core responsibility, 365 days out of the year around this, I would say, fight for racial justice, but more importantly … but also and equally, a celebration of Black culture and centering Black identity within our institution and within our culture at large, as our responsibility.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I think you said when we last spoke, “The Apollo is an intersection of art and culture and the capital of Black America and a symbol of global Black excellence.”

Kamilah Forbes: That’s right, that’s right. Yeah. That’s … yeah, and that too (laughs)! Yeah, exactly.

Erik Gensler: (laughs) When we last spoke, you asked our audience to consider, where are you taking risks as an organization? And you talked about artistic risks and strategic risks and structural risks and you said, “Transformation happens in the space of the unknown,” and I think, obviously, we will only see change through risk-taking, even at the smallest level. I just wondering how has, you know, the last few months hearing that, like, how you think about organizational risk taking in the context of where we are now?

Kamilah Forbes: I mean, it hasn’t, it’s … it’s interesting … We set that on March 10th, right? Because I think that the last three months has been all about that conversation of really risk-taking, really being, what are your boundaries and what is the line and how do you challenge that line? And, in some ways, it’s practical, right? So, we found ourselves, as the Apollo, immediately having to do an about face about how do we continue to serve mission even when we can’t do what our core responsibility, you know … you know, our core mission is bringing people together. And how do we really launch into the digital landscape? Which I think for some of our team members was a very scary thing because these institutions were built with a very specific kind of model. And we got a lot of questions about, will we still be the Apollo? The Apollo is built around this physical space, right? Around this historic building. And, really, we started to, you know, think about ourselves differently, about, “Actually, no, it’s about the core idea of centering Blackness.” It’s, “We are the core idea of black excellence that doesn’t have to exist within the confines of the building and allowing, sort of, this idea, radical idea to push us into new stratosphere, which is having us rethink our business model, which is having us rethink who we are and how we serve, which is a scary place because we have 200 pages of strategic plan that isn’t built around that idea. So, what does that mean and who do we become? But I think that one of the practices right now as an institution is getting real comfortable in that uncomfortable place. You know?

Erik Gensler: Yeah (laughs). It’s like, “Oh, you want a budget?” It’s like, “I can barely predict the next two months, like, now we’re going to budget for the year, yeah.”

Kamilah Forbes: Exactly, exactly, exactly. And yet, we do, we make plans, only knowing that in a month, those plans may completely explode in our faces and we have to be ready to make a new one.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, like your virtual gala.

Kamilah Forbes: Like the virtual gala, oh, yeah, yeah, exactly. We were … It’s funny that the gala is one of those events in New York, as many galas are, right, like, it’s time to be … put on the fancy dresses, gets a little glitzy, and people really look forward to that event. And it’s also a celebratory time that we can celebrate our institution and celebrate our Apollo community and also those communities that support us. But to have to do an about face and do a virtual benefit in, truly, a matter of weeks was a real exercise in flexibility but it also allowed us to reach … we had over 55,000 views of the gala-

Erik Gensler: Wow.

Kamilah Forbes: … where, generally, for our gala, because we have a tent and we feed people, there’s 600 people who take part in that event (laughs) versus 55,000. It’s now having us think about, “Well, how do we incorporate this moving forward? Right?

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Kamilah Forbes: How do we think about galas or benefits differently moving forward?

Erik Gensler: Well, and you’re bringing up some really important questions. I think we’re thinking about it and our arts organization, our nonprofit arts organization model, I would say, you know, four months ago was so centered in people gathering in a space with a mission. And now, it’s forced to be centered on distributing programming and connection digitally. And then, how do we go back and what does that hybrid look like in the future?

Kamilah Forbes: I think this is forcing us to think about our institutions in a very hybrid way almost as, yes, a hybrid, live performing arts center, but almost as a media entity, as well. Almost like a media company as well. And I think this time is teaching us to really reevaluate and really do some bold, really bold and radical thinking about who we are and who we want to be.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. I’ve been listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates recently. In February, you announced he was going to be your artists in residence and this was sort of repositioning the Apollo … not even repositioning, but building on a vision of the Apollo as continuing voices of telling important stories and developing a diverse American canon . How did something like that adapt in the last few months and into the future?

Kamilah Forbes: Historically, the Apollo has always been a place where, as a “home for artists,” in which artists were centered or central and considered it a home, a breeding ground, just a place to really grow and develop craft. So, I think where we are now, we really started to evaluate, “Well, how are we doing that beyond just a one-time presentation of an artist’s work, which, at best, could be a three-night engagement? How was that truly a home? How were we really, truly, you know, using our resources to really, truly help make significant impact in this artist who we will ultimately be defining our cultural landscape in generations to come. And that’s really where that artist residency really came out of. And it’s an opportunity to build deeper, longer, sustained relationships with artists, where they are centered and where the institution is making a commitment to a specific artist and their voice and their visions and vice versa. And an artist is making a commitment to the, not only institution, but also the surrounding community. So, that was where it was born. We had already been sort of developing this pathway with Ta-Nehisi because he had moderated a conversation around, because he wrote the Black Panther comics, we brought him in with Chadwick Boseman, and Lupita Nyongo to have a moderated conversation around the Black Panther. He launched one of his book, Eight Years, We Were in Power [sic] and we had a conversation with him and Nikole Hannah-Jones. We hosted that there, as well as launching his most recent novel, The Water Dancer, with him in conversation with Oprah at the Apollo. So, there was already, sort of, this momentum building with him and also, the Apollo, we adapted his previous book, Between the World and Me, into alive theatrical event. So, we were definitely making investment in him and his voice as an artist and wanted to find ways and opportunities to really continue to expand that. And that’s where the residency came and, honestly, you couldn’t, you know, thinking about now our conversations with Ta-Nehisi, and now, we’ve been talking internally about what those future activities—cause his residency is over three years—what the future activities and response to the world now is. So, we’re, we’re being very, sort of, thoughtful, but quite excited about what we can create in that world.

Erik Gensler: And his voice is, I mean, it’s always been so important, but I feel like even more people are listening now.

Kamilah Forbes: Absolutely! And it’s interesting because, I think, when people think the Apollo, they may not think of immediately … I think when I say, “When people …” and I’m meaning sort of the broad, general scope, you think of artists like Stevie Wonder, right? But I think what’s important and what’s interesting, I think, about Ta-Nehisi is that he is a poet. He is a writer. He is a novelist. He is a cultural critic because music influences all of his writing, and also a journalist and a thinker. Right? And, and a real critical thinker. So, it’s interesting having an artist that does multihyphenate as his, to represent, sort of, our inaugural artist-in-residency program because I think, as the Apollo, that’s who we … Also, he represents how we see ourselves, right?

Erik Gensler: Mm (affirmative)

Kamilah Forbes: As, sort of, that multihyphenate institution.

Erik Gensler: The intersection of art and culture.

Kamilah Forbes: There it is.

Erik Gensler: The capital of Black America, like, what a, what a person to have as part of that. I’ve seen your name a lot in the news. I’ve seen the Apollo a lot in the news. A few weeks ago, I saw the petition to make the Apollo Theater a Broadway theater, which got some traction online. I’m just curious, I know that’s not necessarily what you do or, perhaps, how you see yourself, but I’m curious how that came about and what you think about that.

Kamilah Forbes: So, that petition actually was not started by us. We had no involvement in it at all but I also think it’s … but yes, we have been … earlier this year, we had announced that we were working with a commercial producer that was, we were having a long extended run of Blue in our house, that was to open in April and run through the summer. We’ve had commercial productions sit in the theater before. We are a Local One house. We are 1,500 seats. So, yes, there is a comparative, I think, when it comes to, sort of, Broadway, just given our house size, just given the fact that commercial productions have sat—whether it was Dream Girls before or Harlem Song—have sat at the Apollo previously. So, I think we, we’ve definitely been in conversations with other commercial producers about longer runs during our dark time at the theater. So, I think, where do we see ourselves in that conversation? Is that we are a venue that, we’re a cultural institution that presents many different kinds of work and strikes with many different kinds of partnerships and I think commercial producers are definitely one of them. So, that’s where, I think we, where we stand right now.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and the equity in that and in this conversation that is happening about Broadway of … this really big conversation around the shift in equity in Broadway and our relationship with Black artists and theater workers and the symbolism of the Apollo becoming a Broadway theater, I thought, was really powerful. Although, it was very clear, it was not that you were calling for it, but it, I think it opened up a lot of interesting questions. And I saw that you were one of the original signers of the, “We See You, White American Theater,” and this incredible momentum around Broadway, Black Live Matters [sic] and their livestreams. I’d just love for you to talk about how that came to be, being I was very happy to see your name as one of the original signers when that first came out.

Kamilah Forbes: Well, I think this is a moment in time that we’re seeing, when we talk about racial justice and racial equity, really being called to task. And I think it’s happening across every industry, from the cultural arts, from theater, from music, there was just a letter being issued in Hollywood, right? In the film industry, from television to corporate America to banking. The list goes on and on. And so, right, our industry is no different, right? Our theater industry is no different. And so, I do think that, yes, when we see, sort of, and look at the staggering numbers on what representation looks like at the other side of the table, it’s kind of alarming, like, “Oh, wait a second. You know, we might not be, as … We’d like to think of ourselves in the community as artistic and as liberal and as equitable as possible, but that’s not … but it doesn’t show up in the numbers and it doesn’t show up in representation. So, how do we continue to push forward there? But on the other side of it, I’m also very clear and as, where are we putting our support in our Black art institutions?

Erik Gensler: Hm.

Kamilah Forbes: That, where those numbers are represented, right? Because when I look at my board and who’s sitting at that table, it’s probably the most diverse board that most cultural arts institutions have seen across the country, as well as our artistic leadership, as well as our executive leadership at our institution. So, I think what’s also an equally important in that conversation is not just pushing existing institutions, but also celebrating and funneling support, resources, and funding to those institutions of color that have been doing the work. Sarah Bellamy said something that has, was really transformative. And she said that, she talked about how our traditional funding mechanisms is that we give the bigger dollars to the bigger institutions and she wants to challenge that, right? And a big part of her challenging was, how do we give the larger dollars to those institutions that have suffered from historical inequities of the past? And it was a very interesting and radical way of thinking that I thought was, quite frankly, spot-on. Sarah Bellamy runs the Penumbra Theatre in Minnesota, but I definitely thought was, was quite spot on, particularly for the world that we’re living in today because there are institutions that are supporting Blackness, right? That are supporting Black art, supporting Black artists, ie. the Apollo, along with other institutions across the country. And we’ve got to make sure that equally so, as we’re signing those letters, that we’re supporting those institutions in the same breath.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely, yeah. And the … just the systems that concentrate wealth to certain organizations have not, I don’t think, enough of … and, you know, the Apollo is among many who have been really successful but there are so many Black and Latinx theaters and institutions that are just not getting the kind of capital they need to be sustainable.

Kamilah Forbes: Agreed.

Erik Gensler: And just, like, every … so many problems, just go back to the systemic inequity. You co-founded the Hip-Hop Theater Festival and hip-hop has been so culturally influential of bringing forward Black voices and highlighting Black culture and part of the Black experience. I’m curious on your thoughts around hip-hop and its influence on culture and politics, culminating in what we’re witnessing.

Kamilah Forbes: It’s interesting, I just got sent a link, Public Enemy just released a new single, 25 years after one of, you know, their earlier … I don’t know if I can curse on your podcast.

Erik Gensler: Yes, you can, please.

Kamilah Forbes: Oh, okay, (laughs) for their “Fuck the Police,” right? So, it’s, it’s really interesting, right? Hip-hop has always been the, I think, the political and voice of … I’m not even gonna just say Black generations and community, but also, but more importantly, I think generationally, right? It has been that … it has, it has been that voice, at least, and also for me, the culture has been that voice. The artists have been that voice. When I think about artists right now, like, that are extremely vocal amongst this realm, like artists like Killer Mike out of Atlanta, I always reminded of that has been a consistent tradition of social justice activism and hip-hop culture and that intersection. And I think it is only continuing. And now, we are seeing it also reflected in the next generation within hip-hop, right? With, not only through artists, but how artists and, more importantly, though, the generation itself is mobilizing itself. I mean, you know, when I think about, sort of, the marchers and what’s happening in the streets and how the culture then is catapulting that forward and, and I’m, and I’m talking about a very specific, you know, social justice-minded sect of the culture, right? There’s many different aspects of culture and I think when people think hip-hop, they think of the highly consumerism, they think the Beyoncé, Jay-Z, but again, there’s many different aspects and myriads of aspects that make up culture, that make up community, and hip-hop is no different in that.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and, I mean, the contributions of Black culture to American culture and global culture, that impact, the economic impact

Kamilah Forbes: Hip-hop, I think, is, at least for this generation, is one of our largest American exports. It’s one of our largest cultural exports. And that’s something to recognize. To recognize and, quite frankly, and also to celebrate, you know, when we think about, sort of, even the global social movements that have been influenced by this culture … I remember when the Arab Spring moment was happening or that movement was happening and how it was fueled and truly, and a lot of the young people … Number one, there was a song and a moment of music that was really fueling that movement. And they talked about influence of American hip-hop culture and the resistance and the cultural resistance that lied within the music, but that lied within the people in the generation that really influenced that moment. And, and that’s really pivotal. And I don’t think we talk about nor recognize it as much as we should.

Erik Gensler: One of the things that I think is so remarkable about the last few weeks is, it feels like so many people are just listening to Black stories in a way that, I imagine, I mean, Charles M. Blow wrote about this, like, the frustration of that, of like, we … Those stories have been out there a really long time.

Kamilah Forbes: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: It’s great that people are listening now but also, they were there for a long time.

Kamilah Forbes: That’s right. That’s right, that’s right. But there’s a different, yeah, sense of … not even awareness. Awareness isn’t even the right word. I mean, it is responsibility, the different sense of responsibility

Erik Gensler: I think that’s right. I think that’s right, and just undeniable, responsibility.

Kamilah Forbes: Undeniable responsibility that we are all culpable. It’s not your problem.

Erik Gensler: And, I mean, which brings me to a question I’ve been thinking a lot about and asking a lot of people and it’s like, what are the gifts of this crisis? I’m curious, you’re free to reflect on that.

Kamilah Forbes: Yeah. Well, you know, I think we’re sitting in the crux of so many crisises [sic], but I think one would be gifts is … and we’ve always, as an institution, sat in this space, but the unapologetic Blackness, right? Like, not having to … We have always sat in this space, but it’s, it’s almost affirming to see other spaces and individuals and individual artists sitting in that space even more proudly when, before, that might not have been the case. When, before, there might’ve been slight apologeticness towards it, right? When, before, you know, there might’ve been, “Well, I feel like I need to kind of fit in. That’s, that’s probably, I’m not going to go as hard in that direction,” but now, it’s like, “Well, no, all bets are off. This is it. This is, this is the time. This is the time to center your identity. This is the time to celebrate and take up space.” And so, that’s where I think one of the gifts, because I think that for so long, artists, and particularly Black artists, you know, have, have always, you know … and especially when I think about the last 30 years, “How do I just fit in? I just want a seat at the table,” versus, “Actually, do I even need to be at the table?”Now, I think that’s the question that’s being asked (laughs).

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Kamilah Forbes: Like, a real boldness around that, right? Versus, like, trying to fit in and squeeze in and be thankful for that, where understanding that there has been such a long history of cultural amassed power and cultural amassed stories for so long that we need to sit in, celebrate, and galvanize.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I mean, it’s like the lights are up. We see it.

Kamilah Forbes: Yep, yep.

Erik Gensler: And I love the …I thought the … In the Broadway Black Lives event of, like, valuing, like, “Maybe we’re not going to come back to you,” like, we’re going to … It just, it felt like a real shift in power and it was really kind of amazing to witness.

Kamilah Forbes: That’s right, that’s right.

Erik Gensler: I want to go back to a lot of the news that we talked about when we were talking back in March and the Apollo was getting ready for its first physical expansion that was going to turn the theater into a performing arts center. Curious for you to talk about that and what are the plans and have they changed?

Kamilah Forbes: Yeah, we are, we are still forging ahead with our expansion to the Victoria Theater and we see that really taking place right around fiscal … obviously not next year, but 2021-2022 season. This will allow us to have two additional theaters a 199 and a 99, as well as additional office spaces. I think it’s a, it’s, it’s still a very exciting opportunity for the Apollo, even amongst, you know, this time of rethinking who we are because I think what the … what those theaters, not only symbolically, but also physically allow us to do is think differently about ourselves, think differently about the work that we do. It allows us to, you know, with the smaller spaces, to really think about generative work, right? Like, think of ourselves as a commissioner, as a generator of new ideas as a … yeah, as a generator of new ideas, right? Like, in this space, these ideas and works are being cultivated as a cultivator of new work. So, we’re, we’re, we’re still really excited by that. Earlier this year, we announced a commissioning initiative in which there … in total, there’ll be close to 40 artists that will have been permissioned by the Apollo, so over the next few years, we will begin to see and be on that journey with the myriad of artists, from musicians to scholars to choreographers to … and who have some really exciting, radical projects that we think will really define the future of the Apollo, but also the future of, just, Black art in general. So, and I think that this space has a lot to do with that because it’s in that space where these works will really live and grow.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative) and also the possibility or the plans to house other Harlem arts organizations. Correct?

Kamilah Forbes: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. You know, and it really allows us, again, we will have several ultra-arts partners in that space. Other Harlem arts organizations will be in residence in that space, as well as anchor tenants have office space and also access to the theaters. And then, we’ve also been contemplating, “And, and how do we, how do we continue to be a generative space, not just with generative, specifically, with our institution and artists, but to other organizations through partnerships, allyships right?” And so, yeah, we’re, we’re, we’re really still very excited about the Victoria Theater project for that.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and just making the Apollo and even larger anchor in Harlem and in New York city.

Kamilah Forbes: That’s exactly right, exactly right. As a cultural institution anchor, what’s really going to be exciting, I think, about, not only with the Victoria, is having several organizations and residents there, but we’ll also have Studio Museum right across the street, right?

Erik Gensler: Mm (affirmative)

Kamilah Forbes: Harlem Stage, the Schomburg … National Black Theatre is doing, a reno, also ,of their space, as well. So, really, you know, thinking of this real cultural corridor up and down 125th, stretching all the way up to 135th, 140th, in Harlem, uptown, is, I think, that’s something that’s very exciting. And we see that as a real asset. I know there’s some times people will say, “Oh, but there’s … don’t you feel that’s competition?” and I think, “Absolutely not!” I think that’s a real sort of asset to be building with these other cultural arts organizations that do things slightly different but yet, we still, again, we are a part of the same ecosystem. Right? But we all play different roles. So, we’re excited by that, for sure.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I totally agree with you that the scarcity mindset, I don’t, I don’t agree with, with the arts. I think there’s so much opportunity for collaboration and I also think, after this crisis where we’re still going to be in a deep recession, we’re still going to … our money is going to be tight, I think we have to be more creative in having creative partners and having partnerships with organizations and sharing space. I just think we’re going to see a lot more of that.

Kamilah Forbes: I absolutely agree. Absolutely agree. And especially now, right? Because, I think, as I’m also starting to see, this moment of all of these art collectives that have been formed, from the lists that are being signed … really, what’s happening is that, you know, these alternative organizations or our artistic collectives are forming and forming themselves, right? They’re forming themselves around several central ideas and I think what we’re seeing is what has happened, actually, during the Black arts movement. During the Black arts movement, there was close to … I think there was almost like seven …. Nationally, 700 black theaters across the country, right? Now we think about the regional Black theaters, that number has drastically reduced. And when you talk about LORT theaters, it’s even less. But it was around these … the moment that … in which those theaters were born was around a moment of celebration of identity of stories. What we’re seeing now is these other artistic collectives that are in that same spirit, right? In that same spirit that, “Well, I haven’t had the opportunities that I thought I would have at some of these other mainstream white institutions, so I’m just going to go out and build my own.” The exciting thing, I think, about the idea of the proliferation of all those, these art collectives is that, how can we physically be instrumental as a physical space for these collectives to exist through partnership, through umbrella, you know, umbrella-ing in some way, or just opening our doors? I think it’s bringing up a lot of different ideas, I think, to think about.

Erik Gensler: It’s kind of amazing how you were, I think, ahead of the times in so many things of what you’re talking about of, you know, what we talked about with Ta-Nehisi Coates and reframing the American canon. It’s like, you were … all the things that I think a lot of people are now rushing to do, given the moment in the, and the environment. I also think you bring up something really interesting, which is the power of the institution, which, with this shift of people not going to physical spaces and all the changes we’ve seen in the last few months and the way we communicate through social media and decentralization of power, I think we’re just … it’s going to look very different on the other side and the role of the institution and the power of the institution. I don’t know. I see, it’s shifting.

Kamilah Forbes: It really is, and I think those institutions that are able to be as nimble and may not be as nimble in their thinking, I believe are the ones that will truly be able to survive and outlast and really maintain and deepen their relevancy, you know, in the future. Because without that, I don’t quite know how you continue to serve in the same way that we were serving pre-March 9th.

Erik Gensler: Right (laughs).

Kamilah Forbes: You know, the world has changed and has changed in a very radical way. And I don’t think … we’re we’re not going back to that moment. So, how do you respond? How do you show up? How do you shift, you know, from how you fundraise, who you fundraise to? I don’t think it’s just a programmatic shift. I think it’s a shift all around organism, institutionally.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, It’s this, it’s like a, it’s finally pushing us into the 21st century of, there’s just, like, a decentralization of, of power of resources of … I don’t know. I feel socially. I feel it in terms of our communication. Yeah, it was already happening, in a way, but I think it’s-

Kamilah Forbes: Right.

Erik Gensler: This has cemented it and really forced us into a new place. It’s interesting that you … This is your first time serving in a role at an institution, right? You’ve, you’ve always been independent.

Kamilah Forbes: Always been independent and worked with institutions but …and an institution this large. I mean, my organization was far smaller, so it’s a very different scope. And back to that idea of decentralizing power, it makes me think about D-Nice, who was the, you know, he’s an amazing DJ, right? Really led a cultural revolution on IG during this quarantine time. It wasn’t an institution. It wasn’t a brand. He didn’t have a million dollars-worth of sponsorship,right? He kept going live every day on his IG, to a point where he was getting hundreds of thousands of people tuning in to his IG Live, you know, overnight because of his consistency. And, you know, when I think about decentralizing and power, so right … And right now, he became, actually, one of the most important artist during this time. And it wasn’t because he had 10 million followers before. He didn’t, but he was consistent. He offered people, something that they wanted, which was an opportunity and a venue to gather, which became IG, which became in his comment section, around music. And you know, what, GQ, I think named him, like, I don’t know, “Man of the Year,” or “Artist of the Year,” or something like that because of that. And, yeah, exactly. And this was because he used instinct, as well as technology, to serve a real need and a real, you know … before anyone asked him, before anyone paid him. There was no major marketing initiative that was driving this force. So, I just think it’s a model and something that we should, we’ve gotta keep our eye on because I think the world is moving very fast and how people are receiving work or receiving that thing that they need is also changing very rapidly.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and if you think about that, the number of people that the Apollo has at your gala, which is a huge number, versus the number of people that one person can gather through touching someone in a, you know, meaningful way, it really is fascinating. And then, the dynamics of that because it used to, you know, you used to have to be picked. You used to have to be selected to be on David Letterman or selected by Oprah to be on her book club. And now, it doesn’t necessarily work that way anymore.

Kamilah Forbes: Right. That’s right. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Kamilah Forbes: It doesn’t. And so, now, who has the power (laughs), right? It’s not always now. And I think more and more, it may not always be the very big institutions, so, I think, as institutions, how do we make sure that we are making sure that we don’t become too big that we’re irrelevant?

Erik Gensler: And you’re doing this, but I think we have to get ahead of the culture or at least catch up to it.

Kamilah Forbes: That’s right.

Erik Gensler: And pay attention to what all of this work is about, which is about shifts in equity, shifts in power, shifts in making systemic changes and making policy that, you know … cause people are flawed and it’s really, change is about changing policy. That’s the only way we’re going to really make change. And I really, I think that’s just something I’ve been sitting with so much recently is, like, “Okay, like, if organizations don’t catch up to this, they’re going to become irrelevant.”

Kamilah Forbes: I think you’re absolutely right. You are spot on with that, for sure. And we’re seeing that happen, you know, very, very quickly. And I think people, I definitely think there’s some organizations that are very nervous, that are very nervous because that’s not the work that they were necessarily doing before.

Erik Gensler: No, and the work is hard and takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of mistake-making. It takes a lot of admitting. It takes a lot of ego-swallowing. It’s a journey and it never ends (laughs).

Kamilah Forbes: Right. That’s right, that’s right. And you’ve gotta be ready and have a staff, a team, an exec, and a board who’s ready to do that work.

Erik Gensler: It’s fascinating. I mean, I think one of the most meaningful posts I saw … I mean, I’ve seen so many meaningful posts but one that really stuck with me is, like, people are mourning. Like, this is like an ending and are we going to go back to normal? But I think if you reframe that and be like, “What an exciting new beginning!”

Kamilah Forbes: Yeah, that’s exciting. I mean, and I really feel that way. I really do. You know, I’m definitely one who, I like to live in the moment and the being of possibility always, and maybe it’s the director in me, it’s the theater-maker, it’s the storyteller in me, right? But possibility is what excites me. Possibility is what reminds us that we’re alive, right? Like, and possibility, quite frankly, is what moves culture forward. Otherwise, we stay stagnant and we would be doing and acting in the same, behaving in the same way that we did 86 years ago. And that’s not the way of the world. So, we have to stay … To your point, we have to stay ahead of it. We have to live in that realm of possibility so that we can be pioneers, that we see the future ahead, and that we can also support that journey towards a future ahead, versus always lagging behind.

Erik Gensler: And then we’ve gotta mourn in the past. Like, that is just human nature. Acknowledge your mourning, mourn it, get it over with, and get to work (laughs).

Kamilah Forbes: Yep. Get to work. That’s it, that’s it exactly it.

Erik Gensler: So, we’ve come to your “CI to Eye moment”. It’s come so quickly. The question is, if you can broadcast to the executive directors, leadership team, staff, and board of thousands of arts leaders, what would you say to them right now?

Kamilah Forbes: I think it is, get comfortable in the space of uncomfortability [sic]. Get very comfortable in that space. Live it, breathe it, don’t try to move too quickly out of it because I think it’s in that space that growth and true future institutional possibility will really happen.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely, couldn’t agree more. Kamilah, thank you so much.

Kamilah Forbes:: Thank you.

About Our Guests
Kamilah Forbes
Kamilah Forbes
Executive Producer, Apollo Theater

Kamilah Forbes is an award-winning director and producer and serves as the Executive Producer of the World Famous Apollo Theater.

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