Chrisette Michele channels Nat King Cole.
In the dim but perfectly lit basement of Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster, the room is buzzing with energy. Patrons scurry for seats while DJ Kiss spins the type of songs that make girls sing loudly to each other across the table and giggle in delight. Bartenders are busy pouring drinks for the standing room only crowd and guests bounce from table to table giving hugs and kisses to friends and colleagues. This is Ginny’s Supper Club, Samuelsson’s latest addition to his thriving Harlem restaurant. Grammy award winning artists Ne-Yo enters the room. The crowd notices but acknowledges in an appropriately Harlem-esque fashion, by observing and then carrying on with their conversations. It is expected that Ne-Yo would be in attendance, he is, of course, the host for the evening. Tonight is “Motown Mondays,” a throwback to the original event created by Berry Gordy back in the days when Motown still referred to Detroit. Tonight’s scheduled performers are newcomers Kevin Ross and Elijah Kelly, but they certainly won’t be the only people to grace the mic.
Across the room Tichina Arnold has snuck in to booth and Universal Def Jam artist Chrisette Michele has quietly taken a seat with her date with whom she cuddles, whispers and laughs. Surrounding Ne-Yo is a bevy of other relatively unknown artists amongst his entourage. RaVaugn Brown will later rise to give an impromptu performance of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” impressive both because she sounds incredible and ironic because she doesn’t know the words to Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait A While,” and chooses Houston instead. Not knowing the words is thematic this evening, later on Tichina Arnold admits she doesn’t know the words to Mary J Blige, so and so forth. But all who take the mic sing with ease and a palpable joy. Chrisette opts for Nat King Cole’s “When I fall in love,” and skats the room in to a dream of the jazz era. On this Monday Night at Samuelsson’s 125th street joint, calling this the “new” Harlem Renaissance doesn’t feel like an overreaching cliche.
This isn’t just another music industry showcase in the city, but instead a sort of family occasion. It’s what anyone who has read of Harlem’s best days has imagined the neighborhood once was. This is a mix of celebrities and nobodies gathered together to peer pressure Ne-Yo into singing Mint Condition’s classic, “Pretty Brown Eyes.” Throughout the night he never actually sings any of his own music despite having a new album on the way. Instead he declares, “tonight is not about me, let me prepare, I’ll come back next week.”
Elijah Kelley wows the crowd with his orignal music.
Whether he was just not in the mood or realized that there was really no purpose in trying to steal the show from Elijah Kelly, who has just finished doing a back flip and jumping on top of the booths running through the crowd to the delight of his parents (who have flown in just for the occasion), Ne-Yo seems truly content to enjoy the moment. The crowd is as much a part of the night as the performers, shouting requests, cheering loudly and cracking jokes. Marcus Samuelsson has settled in to the front booth appearing much more like a groupie than the savvy Master Chef who is taking the world (and Harlem) by storm. He twitpics and laughs in delight like his patrons, and all in the room feel at home.
As the night draws to a close, Antonique Smith (who played Faith Evans in “Notorious”) takes the mic. She also opts for Whitney Houston, belting “I Believe in You & Me,” and knocks it out the park. Everyone in here can sang including the night’s unlikely closing act. A girl from the crowd pulls Ne-Yo to the side and whispers in his ear. He then calls up a relatively unknown, unsigned artist (Belinda Munro) who approaches the mic to the cheer of a few people scattered about the room. She’s performed locally in Harlem and even has an Apollo Amatuer Night win under her belt, but in comparisons to tonight’s performers, she is just “local”. Without a flinch of nervousness she brings forward her keyboardist and mentor, Grammy Award Winning Gordon Chambers to accompany her as she blows the room away with her rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” — the Queen of Soul is, after all, from Motown. The crowd is amazed and she finishes to roaring applause. And with that, the unknown talent has now identified herself as a future peer and threat to the singers in the room. But this is what we’ve always believed Harlem was about. A place where talent nurtures talent, where celebrities are just family and the neighborhood dresses up to see the neighborhood. Suddenly it seems so very clear this is truly the Renaissance of the Renaissance.
This is Harlem Reborn.