Harlem’s Apollo Theater has been recognized worldwide as a landmark institution exemplifying the best in black music and culture for eight decades now.

The theater celebrated it’s 80th anniversary on Sunday, marking yet another major milestone for an establishment that has set the stage for many black performers to become major stars, including James Brown and the Jackson 5.

The Apollo is still considered an integral part of American culture and the African-American experience – but as the community surrounding it is constantly changing, the theater has launched a new initiative that will keep the brand relevant through a new chapter in history.

The 21st Century Apollo Campaign 

On Wednesday, the theater’s president and CEO Jonelle Procope announced the 21st Century Apollo Campaign, the theater’s new multi-million dollar initiative to expand programming and education initiatives, support new digital technologies and ensure continued enhancement of its facilities.

“As we look toward the Apollo’s future, we are continuing to build on our unparalleled legacy of discovering new talent and providing platforms for emerging artists to continue to evolving so many of the genres that have been nurtured on our stages,” said Procope.

The Apollo is already synonymous with many aspects of the black experience, however with this new campaign, the theater hopes to refresh its image with hopes that it will carry the already established brand through a more contemporary world.

Thus far, the Apollo has raised more than $10 million of it’s $20 million goal to aid it through its ongoing expansion. It has earned the support of mega corporations including the Coca Cola, the Ford Foundation and Time Inc., among others.

“The funds from the 21st Century campaign will be used to sustain and expand the Theater’s programming and also its education and community offerings,” reads a release.

A rich history and expanding future

Since it first opened its doors in 1934, the Apollo theater has welcomed emerging performers and launched the careers of some of America’s biggest entertainers. The distinguished marquee located above its double doors has highlighted the names of some of the world’s most notable performers who have traveled to the Harlem stage and made history.

For the last 80 years, its signature Amateur Night, a weekly program, has been a defining experience for new artists and a great platform for discovering new talent.

“The Apollo Theater’s signature program has played a major role in the cultivation of artists and in the emergence of innovative musical genres including jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues, soul and hip-hop,” said the release.

Among the first winners of Amateur Night was Ella Fitzgerald, a singer commonly known as the “Queen of Jazz.” The weekly Wednesday-night show also helped to launch the careers of artists like Stevie Wonder, Lauryn Hill, Billie Holiday and Gladys Knight.

“Harlem is a part of my culture. I spent a lot of time performing in the Apollo when I was younger…I know how the building is backstage. I know how it works, I can go up and down the stairs and remember everything,” Wonder once told the New York Daily News.  

Amateur Night revamped 

As part of his new campaign, the theater announced the launch of the Amateur Night Song Competition, a new challenge allowing musician nationwide to compose and perform a song that could potentially become the theme song of the weekly show.

The competition is open through Feb. 27, 2014 and from there, the final two winners will compete on Amateur Night Night on April 30, 2014. In Amateur Night tradition, the winner will be determined by the audience’s reaction.

In addition to these new initiatives, a new app has also been built and is available to all Android and iPhone holders.

The Amateur Night Mobile app allows users to share their thoughts on performances and make their “cheers and boos heard around the world.” Users who download the free app win points and rewards, plus get access to exclusive content.

Among the other updates to Amateur Night is the introduction of “The Executioner,” a suave and well-dressed tap dancer who is a modern incarnation of  the infamous “Sandman” – who escorted artists offstage when audiences disliked their performances.

What’s next for the Apollo Theater? 

The Apollo Theater has built and sustained a legacy that has enriched the cultural experience of millions worldwide. It has adapted to constant changes for nearly a century and has grown to become an enduring rite of passage  for artists and audiences alike.

“As we ask ourselves the question ‘What’s next?’ we are so proud to continue expanding the work on our stages beyond the music we’re best known for – to dance, theater, comedy, spoken word, and cultural debate – and to bring this work from our home in Harlem to audiences around the nation and the world,” said Mikki Shepard, the theater’s executive producer.

Now, with its new campaign, the theater proves that it can continue to learn, grow and adapt – all the while fulfilling its mission of honoring the influence and advancing the contributions of African-American artists.

Procope said: “On behalf of the thousands of artists, audience and community members the Apollo serves every day of every year, I’d like to thank everyone who has supported our 21st Century campaign to-date, helping to ensure a bright and exciting future for the Apollo Theater.”

Follow Lilly Workneh on Twitter @Lilly_Works