This is New York: Mikki Shepard, Reviving the Soul of Harlem

February 20, 2013 5:35 am Last Updated: April 8, 2013 8:40 pm

NEW YORK—As a child, Mikki Shepard’s father used to sneak her into Harlem’s Lenox Lounge, a historic bar where legendary musician Billie Holiday performed and Harlem renaissance writer James Baldwin once shared his work.

Although reprimanded by her mother when they got home, Shepard knew the chance to catch the fleeting magic of Harlem before its economic downturn was an invaluable experience.

She recalled seeing Aretha Franklin at the Apollo Theater in the 1960s.

“She was wearing a beautiful white fur coat, took it off, and said, ‘Do you see how much weight I lost, don’t I look good?’”

“The crowd went crazy. It didn’t sound like she was performing at a theater, it sounded like she was coming home,” Shepard said.

A glimmer of historic Harlem can still be found at the Apollo on 125th Street, the only venue that hired black performers in New York for many years. Many music icons such as Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown have made their debuts there.

“Fortunately I was old enough to have seen some of the renaissance ballrooms that were on their last legs,” Shepard said. “I remember these places, it was a different world.”

Yet in the 21st century, the Apollo is far from the culture powerhouse it was in the 1920s, and after several phases of financial despair, in 1991 it was transitioned into a nonprofit organization.

As the current executive director of the theater, Shepard is striving to preserve the essence of Harlem during its prime, as well as carry it through its next phase.

At a time when the Internet, television, and shopping malls compete to entertain, grabbing the interest of the modern generation is a daunting task, Shepard said.

“I came into an organization that was in transition, it’s very challenging,” she said. “But it is also very creative.”

Shepard’s goal is to celebrate the stars of the past as well as the present. She came up with the idea of Apollo Club Harlem, an event that will transform the theater into a classic Harlem nightclub from Feb. 18 to 23.

The stage will be extended, and its 600 orchestra seats on the main floor will be taken out to create a club setting.

Famed performer Maurice Hines will be the choreographer as well as host for the evening. The 90-minute performance includes a mix of legendary artists such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, and the young street dancer Storyboard P.

“Working with someone like Storyboard P… in the context of this kind of a show is a little bit of a twist,” Shepard said. “But younger artists are carrying on the tradition, maybe it’s called something different, but the movements come from traditional African dance.”

Consulting in the Arts

Shepard grew up in Brooklyn. As a young girl she dreamed of becoming a dancer; albeit the idea was frowned upon by her father, a former jazz musician.

“To be a black artist at that time wasn’t necessarily a great life,” she said. Her father had to chauffeur on the side to make ends meet.

Shepard ended up working at the Department of Cultural Affairs at age 18, when she realized that there was a whole other world in performing arts—management.

Prior coming to the Apollo in 2006, Shepard served various roles over the years, such as the senior adviser to Arts International, director for Arts and Humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation, and a presenter for the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the ’70s, where she directed programs such as “100 years of jazz and blues.”

“I was told: ‘All the programs you do should be performed in Harlem,’” she said. “Brooklyn is my heart, but Harlem is my soul.” 

Shepard’s family had always called Harlem “the city.” “There wasn’t a downtown, the city was Harlem to us,” she said.

“There are pockets of that excitement still here, the Apollo still has that magic,” she said. “The authenticity doesn’t come with just the building, but the people who are in that building.”

“A lot of my work has been about presenting African-American and African artists,” she said. “What’s important is that our children have a connection to their culture because it gives them a sense of self-esteem and identity.”

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