He’s wearing one red shoe, one blue, his wild curly hair pushed back from his face by a sweat band. His dance moves are crisp in that hip robotic way.
Mama Nola is not impressed.
“You hit the steps, but there was no connection with the audience. There’s nothing unique,” she tells 17-year-old Fabian Ayala, who lives in Hialeah. “Dance less in the mirror. Feel more. Go more into yourself,” she advises. “I say this with love: Be more authentic in your art.”
Fabian, determined, leaves the room. Recalibrates. Tries again.
Mama Nola nods. “A major difference,” says Tamika J, a local vocalist and audition judge. But neither she nor Mama Nola is ready to give the green light. Before he is accepted into the Entourage, Fabian will need to pass yet another audition.
Six months later, Fabian and 17 other performers are sharpening their moves and smoothing out their solos for the opening number of “The Underground.” The live, open-to-the-public show on the theater stage of Florida Memorial University is the culmination of the African Cultural Heritage Art Center’s 2018 Entourage performance apprenticeship program. Along with bragging rights, the top finalists in the Saturday night finale receive professional recording sessions. This year’s class is the largest in Entourage’s three-year history.
Program producer Zipporah Hayes, herself a recording artist, and choreographer Mama Nola — she rarely uses her given name, Nolwen Lalanne — expect professional-level performances. “Let’s try that again,” says Mama Nola, snapping her fingers like a metronome. “Start again with the soldiers” — pointing to a guard of four dancers who lead off the number. The performers — this year ages 13 to 33 — are all in.
They’ve been working toward this moment since October. After weeks of open-call tryouts, in December the 33 finalists auditioned for a panel of professional judges including a surprise: producer-songwriter-rapper Cainon Lamb, who has collaborated with Keyshia Cole, Missy Elliott and Beyonce, to name a few. The finalists were awed; auditions were less vibrant than Hayes had hoped. “The artists did not give what I know they could give,” she says. “I know why: They were super nervous.”
Still, 26 made the cut, making them eligible for the demanding, twice-weekly, four-month training program. Eight dropped out early on.
But 18 motivated vocalists and dancers have stuck it out. Since early January, they’ve hopped buses, grabbed Ubers and hoofed to weekly Saturday group rehearsals and private coaching sessions held at night and on weekends at the Liberty City center. Instruction reaches far beyond vocals and choreography. Jogging and jumping jacks build stamina for onstage performance. Image consultants work with each artist on wardrobe, hairstyle, makeup. Websites and social media presentation are reviewed and reformatted. Professional head shots are offered at a discount.
For all this, the artists pay a $12 registration fee plus $28 per month for four months. In an industry where a pro head shot routinely costs $150, the Entourage apprenticeship is a bargain. But for many in the program, finances are a challenge. So are transportation, school bullying and isolation. “There are different situations at home,” Hayes says. No need to say more.
For the weekly individual coaching sessions, Hayes keeps a flexible schedule that can work for the various performers — adding up to some 100 sessions over the four-month program. Some are used for honing skills:
The mic is here— Hayes shows Kristin Olarte during a private practice session. You’re moving. The mic needs to comewithyou.
But the more critical work, say participants, is exploring the artist within, then building the self-confidence to share their talents from the stage.
Kristin agrees. When she was younger, her mom signed her up for a school dance program. Kristin claims she was awful and sneaked behind her mother’s back to audition for a singing program instead. It fit. But somewhere along the way, her confidence ebbed; a vocal teacher suggested Kristin check out the Entourage program.
On this particular day, the West Broward High ninth grader is working to regain her poise after a practice with the live band threw her off-stride. The Ariana Grande hit “Dangerous Woman” leads Kristin’s three-song medley. Hayes helps her phrase her vocals and pace her stage moves. She starts, stops to polish, starts again.
“You’re doing it,” encourages Hayes. “Now you just need to convey it to the audience.” Mama Nola joins the conversation, suggests a subtle but dramatic move for Kristin’s stage exit.
Kristin nails it.
“The first rehearsal, she was shaking like she was in an icebox,” says Hayes. “Now, look at you,” she gestures to Kristin. “As of today, you’re Lady Gaga.”
That confidence thing again. The common dilemma.
In one obvious way, though, Kristin is different from the rest. While the other faces vary from light brown to black, the blond girl in ripped black jeans and a “Future American Music Entertainer” T-shirt is white. It doesn’t seem to matter. In the beginning, Kristin says, “I thought the vibe might be different. But when I met everybody I realized [my color] didn’t make any difference.”
In fact, most Entourage members start out as strangers or casual acquaintances. Group challenges are designed to lower defenses. For one exercise, every performer was asked to declare a personal statement through dance, movement and music. For another, everyone had to sing the National Anthem — even the dancers and rappers.
“Internally, expressing themselves in front of the group helps them find out who they are as artists,” Hayes explains. And, it turned out, some of the dancers could really sing. “We’re pulling out hidden talents they didn’t know they had.”
Those group challenges — plus rehearsals, long hours, mini-concerts at events like the Miami Youth Fair — help the entourage bond. Participants past and present use the word “family” a lot.
Sometimes they mean it literally. “Family Matters” star Jo Marie Payton, who grew up in Opa-locka, stops by one audition day with her granddaughter, Cameron, who attends another center program. Hayes’ sister pitches in. Mentors and well-wishers often bring their children to rehearsals; on one recent Saturday, rapper/comedian Reese Fletcher bounced his baby daughter on his knee, feeding her from a bottle. Last year’s first-place winner with a show-stopping voice, Wesley Wray, now 14, stops by whenever he can; he’s been busy this year with parts in two films.
Along with the camaraderie, there’s always respect. Elders are addressed as “Mr.” and the title-bridging “Miz.” Just like at grandma’s house.
“In the beginning I hated it here,” says Nate Athis, a 19-year-old better known as Nathan Brent who was a Most Valuable Performer in 2017. Now he stops by to help out. “This brought out a different side of me. We became a family. Naturally, I’m emotionally hardcore. This made me think about what I really wanted to say with my music.
Aniye Strachan, 15, echoes the sentiment. “Entourage has helped me with developing who I am as an artist.” Though she studies chorus at Miami Art Charter School, she lacked stage presence, she says. Entourage changed that.
For Fabian, the dancer, “it’s been hard, because I really have to have strength in myself. I have to have confidence.
“Before all of this, I was a very bad kid,” he says. “Now I consider everyone here family. When people stress me out, I know how to be calm. I have a way to relate to people.”
The African Cultural Heritage Art Center suffers from graceless architecture, the result of a functional but awkward renovation of two bunker-like 1970s buildings. But for the culturally inclined, it’s an oasis from the violence that occasionally punctures the area, like the recent deadly shootings in nearby Liberty Square.
Since 1983, director Marshall Davis has led arts training programs here that few outside Liberty City even realize exist. Throughout the year, the county-run center hosts a jazz celebration, blues-and-barbecue fest, films, art exhibitions and performances of dance, theater and music. After school and during breaks, the center offers academy programs in visual arts, instrumental music and theater.
Its public recognition has grown since center alumnus Tarrel Alvin McCraney and fellow Liberty City native Barry Jenkins landed two 2017 Oscars for “Moonlight.” And McCraney isn’t the only luminary who started at the center. Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, studied here. So did the late jazz musician Melton Mustafa, tap dancer Marshall Davis Jr., Grammy-nominated trumpeter Shareef Clayton and rapper Brianna Perry. Alumni Fergie Philippe Auguste and Keenan D. Washington are now touring as part of the “Hamilton” cast.
The Entourage apprenticeship grew out of a summer program on performance techniques led by Hayes, who also studied here. “I talked with her about how to bring her back into the program here,” says Davis. “She developed the idea.”
In three short years, Entourage has grown from less than a dozen participants to this year’s 18. Davis sees Entourage as a new riff in the center’s repertoire. Its core mission: using arts to transform lives. “We’re making the best use of the kids’ time, inviting them to new experiences. Talent gets recognized that wouldn’t have a platform otherwise. We’re making them comfortable, so whenever they get opportunity they can say, ‘I'm ready for this.’”
Michael Spring, director of the county’s cultural affairs department and senior adviser to the mayor, calls it “a model for what a neighborhood cultural center should be in a community. It is addressing needs of children and families in the community and opening new windows into what their lives can be … the work [the staff does] is even more heroic in the light of recent [neighborhood] shootings.”
Later this year, construction should begin of a similar center in Westchester’s Tropical Park. Says Spring, “We hope to have them all over the county some day.”
For today, Hayes, Mama Nola, the artists and mentors are getting ready for their parade up the red carpet and onto the stage. Last year’s show in the center’s own auditorium was packed to SRO levels; this year it will be held in a larger theater at Florida Memorial University.
When the band strikes Justin Timberlake’s “Filthy,” all 18 artists will take the stage for the opening act. Before the intermission, five soloists -- Asher Joseph, Queen K, Memori Peeples, Kayla O and Chelsea Royal -- will belt out covers of well-known songs or original works, accompanied by dancers Kayla, Intense and Seven — Fabian’s stage name. After the break, Eveul Exit, Kristin, Odaysha Goodman, Dominique Rivers, Alex Andre and Aniya Strachan will perform.
They’ll all return for the finale, led by the 2017 Most Valuable Performers — singers Wray, Athis and 15-year-old Maya Missoudan. A new group of MVPs will be named, ready to lead the Entourage in 2019.
Some members plan to continue performing. After his final year at Mavericks High, Fabian hopes to study dance in New York. Kristin wants to become a recording artist. Athis plans to study music engineering and production at Davie’s McFatter Technical College.
Others see performance as a sidelight to other professional careers. Maya, 15, a MAST Academy student, hopes to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, though she also is interested in psychology. Aniye plans to get degrees in both business and music.
Despite his growing success as a performer, Wesley has set his heart on another course. He hopes first to hone his crafts at New York University’s Institute of Performing Arts, then attend medical school at Johns Hopkins to become a cardiologist. “I want to help other people.”
Whatever their future, the members of the Entourage will likely take it in confident stride. Says Maya, “I’ve learned not to be afraid. You just have to let it happen.”
If you go
The African Heritage Culture Arts Center presents “The Underground,” featuring the 2018 cast of its Entourage apprenticeship program, April 28 at the Lou Rawls Theater of Florida Memorial University, 15800 NW 42nd Ave., Miami Gardens. Red Carpet 5:30, show 7 p.m. Tickets $25, $15 for students with ID, at Entourage2018.eventbrite.com.
2016-2017 Entourage Most Valuable Performers
First MVP: Wesley Wray, singer, dancer and actor: Since winning first place in Entourage’s 2016-2017 competition, Wesley has appeared on stages through Miami-Dade, including at the Mayor’s State of the County address. He received superior ratings in solo and large-group musical at the recent Junior Thespian Competition in Orlando and has appeared in film in the Borscht Film Festival. He starred in two independent films, “Mr. Wrong” and “The Reflection of the Son,” now in production. He is home schooled and attends the arts magnet program at Norland. He hope to become a cardiologist. View his work on YouTube; search Wesleywwray.
Second MVP: Nathan Brent, rapper and dancer: Nathan has been recoring since age 15. In 2017, he took second place in the Coast 2 Coast competition in Atlanta. He plans to study music engineering and production. See his official music video on YouTube; hear more tracks at soundcloud.com/nathanbrent.
Third MVP: Maya Missoudan, singer and guitarist: The daughter of a professional music family, Maya’s own interest in music was launched by her father’s gift of a guitar at age 9. She attends MAST Academy, where she is engaged in the Black Student Association, Women of Tomorrow, No Place for Hate Committee and Rock Ensemble. She hopes to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston.
2017-2018 cast members
Samuel Alexander (Alex Andre), rapper, singer and producer: Samuel began rapping at age 9. In 2006, “Take a Look at My Swag” became his first underground hit. His mixtapes “I’m Done Waiting” and “My Gift to You” were released in 2015 and 2016, repspectively. He continues to make songs, perform at venues and open mics and assist aspiring artists with their projects while working to provide for his child.
Fabian Ayala (S3V3N), singer and dancer: A self-taught dancer, Fabian has performed at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and has also opened for artists including Wyclef Jean and Flo-Rida. He is an executive member of the locally known group “Fly Tension.” He attends Mavericks High.
Elijah El (Intense), dancer: A self-taught hip hop dancer, Intense has before at the Miami Dade County Fair, New World Symphony and Seminole Hard Rock; he has also opened for artists including Wyclef Jean, and Flo-Rida. He also leads the locally known group named “Fly Tension.”
Eveul Exil, rapper and poet: Eveul plans to go to college to study the music business, start a business service for designing jackets with graffiti art with promotions during Art Basel, and releasing an extended-play recording.
Odaysha Goodman, dancer: Odaysha has studied ballet, modern, jazz, liturgical, West African and contemporary dance. Her performances include a media event with Alvin Ailey Company Artistic Director Robert Battle. She attends Coral Reef Senior High.
Kalayah Grant (35 Keys), singer and musician: Kalayah "believes age ain't nothing but a number" and all things can be done through hard work, dedication, faith and God. She has performed at Sunrise Civic Center, Hollywood Live, Ali Cultural Center, Gigi's Music Cafe, Blue Jeans Cafe, Mocha Cafe, Hardrock Piano Bar, among others. A student at William Turner Tech, Kalayah took first place in the high school division of the School Daze Matter Talent Show.
Asher Joseph, singer: Asher received vocal training from renowned singer Betty Wright. She has performed at the Miami Youth Fair and at her school.
Kristin Olarte, singer: Kristin attends West Broward High School. Her music career plans include becoming an independent recording artist, starting a YouTube channel for music and personal videos, creating and selling merchandise and pursuing acting.
Kayla Olivio (Kayla O.), singer and dancer: Her early studio experience playing keyboards and singing background vocals for local artists inspired her to begin writing songs; she recorded four before she was 13. Kayla is currently writing and working on collaborations with other local artists.
Memori Peoples, singer and dancer: A Long Beach, CA native, Memori was introduced to gospel and R&B by her parents. She has trained at OC Music Factory, John Casablancas and EDGE PAC Dance Studio. She has opened shows for high-profile performers including JLS and Romeo Miller.
Chelsea Royal, singer: Chelsea began singing publicly at her grandparents’ church at age 3. She continues to perform R&B, pop, gospel, jazz, and inspirational music.
Dominique Rivers (KG Rivers), rapper and producer: Known best in Miami as an actor, Dominique has appeared in stage plays and local movies produced by his younger brother Elijah Wells. Dominique, also known as KG Rivers, has been grinding as a rapper for a few years. After graduating from college in audio engineering in 2016, KG Rivers produced\ an artist mixtape last year titled “Young King.” His debut album, “Prophecy,” was a released early this year. His motto: “I’m here to help you sound better.”
Aniye Strachan,singer: Inspired by classical jazz singers including Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, Aniye seeks to touch and inspire through her music. She attends Wynwood’s Miami Arts Charter School and would like to persue careers in music and psychology.
Ta’Keria Tanner(Queen K), rapper and dancer: Ta’Keria is captain of the cheer leader team at Northwest Boys and Girls Club and was voted Ms. Northwest of the park in 2017. Ta’Keria participates in the dance magnet program at Norland Middle School and performed alongside Jody Hill and the Deep Fried Funk band when it opened for International hip-hop rap artist Flo-Rida at the 2018 Florida Aids Walk in Fort Lauderdale Beach. She wants to become a professional international rapper and a doctor of obstetrics and gynocology.
Darrian Whitehead(Surreal the Slim Kid TSK),singer: A self-taught pianist and producer, Darrian now sings, writes and produces music. He aspires to add professonal screen acting and playwriting to his repertoire.
Producer/founder: Zipporah Hayes
Choreographer: Nolwen “Mama Nola” Lalanne