“Some seek stardom/Then they forget Harlem.” —The Fugees, 1994
At best, fame is transitory; at worst, it’s illusory. But that didn’t stop over 300 hopefuls from descending on the Kimmel Center last month in the hopes of landing a spot on “Apollo Amateur Night,” the renowned talent contest based in Harlem, N.Y.’s historic Apollo Theater that has given the world luminaries like Philadelphia’s own Jazmine Sullivan, who performed there as a teenager, and R&B artist Lyfe Jennings, who was discovered through the competition.
Those seeking the validation—internal or external—that fame (or even infamy) can bring are a varying bunch, from singers and dancers to child acts promoted by stage mothers and fathers seeking to revive their own dashed dreams through their children.
That’s not the case with the father-and son-act the Farmer Boyz, they maintain. Robert Farmer, Jr., 22, and his father, Robert, Sr., 51, traveled from Pennsauken, N.J. to try for their chance to rub the famed Tree of Hope, the trunk of a fallen Harlem tree that has luck-generating properties for Apollo performers—or so the legend goes.
The duo performs motivational hip-hop without profanity, which both Farmers agree is necessary given the violent, misogynistic excesses of their mainstream peers. Their reasons for heading down to the Kimmel were simple: more exposure.
“We wanted to expand our territory,” Farmer, Jr., who works as a lot attendant at a car dealership, tells PW. “Philadelphia is a good place to start, but opportunity here, to us, doesn’t seem like it has a real growth aspect. Since the Apollo is in New York, we think we could start doing things up there, once we got up there.”
Sadly for the duo, their audition was cut painfully short, with a dismissive “thank you” from Apollo judges before both performers could even get out a verse.
For Farmer, Sr., a special education teacher in Camden, the Farmer Boyz offers more than just a shot at fame. The longtime deejay, who was involved in the entertainment industry before he started a family, which now includes two sons and a daughter, sees the group as a way to keep his sons (Halston, 20, occasionally performs with his father and brother too) close.
“If [fame] happens, that’s great. If not, we’re going to keep moving on. Everybody wants that. I want it,” he says. “But that’s not the end of the Farmer Boyz if it doesn’t happen. I’m really in it for my sons. I’ll do whatever I have to do to get their name in lights, and if my name goes in lights with them, cool.” That won’t include changing their act, though; the senior Farmer says that as long as he’s in the group, they will keep their music clean.
Nicole Lockley, 24, has already made concessions to gain notoriety. She hopes that her success can put her small town, Morton, PA, a teeny locale in Delaware County near Springfield, on the map, as well as help her realize her acting dreams. So far, her comedy routine—which consists of dressing up as an older woman and playing it for laughs a la Tyler Perry’s Madea—has been her avenue to local recognition.
Hannah Mae, as her character is called, must have impressed the audition judges, as Lockley got the most stone-faced among them to do more than crack a smile; he actually laughed.
“I made it into the talent show when I was 13 doing standup comedy, wearing my brother’s Two Face Halloween costume. But by the time I was in 8th grade, I couldn’t fit in the Halloween costume,” Lockley says, “so I needed to find something else to give myself a little bit of character. That was the year my great-grandmother passed, and I was very close to her, so I put on her walker and her wig. People seem to get a kick out of seeing this old lady tell jokes and dance and tell some of the things that I say.”
Lockley says that becoming a working actress is her primary motivation, and that’s what she hopes Hannah Mae will allow her to become.
“For a lot of people, fame is the only avenue they have to fulfill their passion. Hannah Mae is not what I want to do with my life at all, but Nicole didn’t get any spotlight as an actress. I’m now realizing—and that’s why I went to the Apollo audition—that that’s what people like, and that’s what’s going to get me attention. Let me do what I gotta do just to get my name out there and my foot in the door to make it big. And then I can do what I really want to do.”