Luminaries packed the world-famous Apollo Theater for its annual Spring Benefit, honoring Sean “Diddy” Combs and Monday evening.
Songstress Stout opened the evening with an electric tribute to Tina Turner.
She performed a phenomenal rendition of the icon’s “Proud Mary,” wearing a jeweled encrusted bra and slim bank suit.
Deborah Cox, Leon Robinson, Pulitzer-Prize winner Nikole Hannah- Jones, Bevy Smith, Maurice DuBois, Andrea Dubois, Danielle Wright, Amirah Vann, Christian King, Charlyn Willis, and Emmy-Nominated musician Kofi B. were in attendance.
D-Nice hosted and deejayed. Gladys Knight, former Apollo Theater musical director Ray Chew, and MC Lyte gave beautiful performances.
Wyclef celebrated hip-hop by playing some of his biggest hits, jumping into the crowd and singing with the audience, and playing the guitar backward.
The evening honored basketball legend and philanthropist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the organization’s Impact Award. Spike Lee passionately presented the award to Abdul-Jabbar. “Cap, you’re a shining example of what it means to be an exceptional human being,” the director said behind the acrylic podium.
He instructed the audience to leap to their feet to celebrate Abdul-Jabbar’s efforts to uplift children and fight cancer. Abdul-Jabbar joked that Lee would probably rather be watching the Denver Nuggets face the Heat in the NBA finals, but Lee protested that he was exactly where he needed to be.
The child of a musician, Abdul-Jabbar, recalled first encountering the Apollo Theater as a four-year-old accompanying his dad to work. He described meeting Sarah Vaughan sitting at a lighted vanity mirror backstage. “There’s not much conversation you can have with a four-year-old,” he said as the audience roared with laughter. “She dealt with me, she bore with me for those few minutes, and it’s something I’ve never forgotten.”
“There’s always special things happening here,” he continued. “The Apollo has been a showcase for so many acts that couldn’t get a showcase any other place, and then they go on and show the whole world what their talent and capabilities are, so as a launching pad for Black talent, the Apollo is unequal.”
He attended the theater’s mentoring program in 1964 and said it helped him understand his culture and what Harlem meant to Black Americans.
Sean “Diddy” Combs accepted the Icon Award from a grounded plane after the first flight he was scheduled to take had to be swapped out for mechanical issues. His presence was still felt through the graduating class of 2023 of his Capital Prep charter school and president of Combs Enterprises Tarik Brooks.
“He’s heartbroken,” said Brooks.
Combs filmed an impromptu acceptance speech from the tarmac, still determined to get to New York. “As you can see, I’ve been sitting on the ground at the airport,” he said, shifting in his seat so the audience could see the plane’s interior. “I’ve been here since like 9 AM.”
“I’m still trying to get there, but it was important for me to make this video and say thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m one of your Harlem sons. The Apollo has meant so much to me. It was a beacon of hope to me,” he continued.
Brooks announced that the Sean Combs Foundation is pouring into that beacon by pledging a commitment of $250,000 to the Apollo “to further the mission and make sure the work continues.”
The evening marked an era of transition for the historic arts organization. Its long-term president Jonelle Procope is stepping down after twenty years of dedicated service.
Procope grew the Apollo Theater’s operating budget from four million dollars to twenty million dollars, allowing their staff to go from twelve employees to ninety. She also led the historic theater through the harrowing challenge of weathering a global pandemic that decimated many arts organizations.
Her legacy will be cemented in the Victoria Theater, another theater the Apollo is opening in another historic building just steps away from the original location that was originally a vaudeville house. The original location will be undergoing an extensive renovation to expand its programming efforts and partnerships with local artisans and craft makers.
The next leader of the Apollo is former ESSENCE president Michelle Ebanks. “I’m thrilled to be joining the iconic Apollo at such an important time in its trajectory. The Apollo continues to have such a profound impact on Black culture—and American culture—locally, nationally, and internationally,” said Ebanks in a statement.
“It is such an exciting time as it expands its physical footprint, doubles down on supporting artists at every stage in their careers, collaborates with partners across Harlem and the world, and offers a platform for the voices of African American artists across the diaspora.”
Her era was ushered in by a New Orleans-style second line that led the crowd out onto the rainy street towards the after-party, where guests celebrated the next phase of the theater’s history.