In honor of National Poetry Month, ARTS ATL is publishing three stories that offer different perspectives on the state of the city’s spoken word community, including a personal essay by poet Amena Brown on finding her poetic voice, an oral history of spoken word institution, Apache Cafe and a long-form feature on how gentrification impacts literary communities. Lean in and learn about Apache Cafe below.
As Atlanta evolves, there are few relics of “Old Atlanta” that remain. (In general, locals use the term “Old Atlanta” to nostalgically and idealistically refer to a time period that includes events and establishments ranging from Freaknik to Yin Yang Cafe. This bygone era was crucial for black culture, effectively laying the foundation for the city to become what it’s known as today.) At the end of March, another hub for local black artists shuttered — although, this one has plans to reopen in a new location (880 Woodrow St. SW).
Apache Cafe opened its doors in 2001, delivering delectable jerk chicken wings, visual art, spoken word, live music and more. Apache owner Asa Fain said he and his wife, Karen, were inspired by the 1900s creative collective Les Apaches in Paris when naming the venue. “It refers to the idea of freedom, emancipation from the norms,” Fain says.
Apache opened less than a year after its equally noteworthy predecessor Yin Yang Cafe closed. Artists ranging from India.Arie to Bone Crusher (who worked as a cook) had performed inside the venue — a former laundromat, according to NPR — since 2004. Despite being owned and operated as two different venues, in many ways, the two cafes at 64 3rd Street are intertwined. A 2000 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called Yin Yang “the kind of place Atlanta needed to become the black music center many think it already is.” This is where Apache co-owners Asa and Karen Fain made the connections that would allow them to open Apache and usher in a new wave of local talent.
After nearly two decades on 3rd Street — a lengthy run by Atlanta nightlife standards — Apache posted a letter to patrons earlier this year announcing that it would be leaving 3rd Street, blaming rent increase and frustration with a building that has been dilapidated. Many of the local mainstays within the arts community saw this coming. Both artists and former hosts of Yin Yang and Apache say the building that housed the two had issues with rodents, plumbing and more. They say their love for the culture and family fostered in the space is what pushed them to return throughout the years.
As Apache attempts to rebuild in a new space, we spoke with some of the artists who called the venue home.
Chapter 1: Yin Yang Cafe closes, making way for Apache
Jon Goode, Emmy-nominated author and poet: When it was Yin Yang, India.Arie and Donnie [a singer/songwriter who performed with Arie as a part of the Earthseed collective] would be in there. You might run into OutKast. It was just magical. Yin Yang was before anyone had the idea that you can get rich or make money or get on TV doing poetry.
Asa Fain, owner of Apache Cafe: My relationship with Yin Yang was first as a customer. I would go there to participate in the jazz jam session, and I would go on occasion to listen to The Chronicle, which was the seminal funk, soul, jazz [group] that was there every Thursday. That was where I ended up performing and getting behind the drums.
D.R.E.S. tha BEATnik, host of The World Famous Mic Club: I’ve known Asa Fain from his days of actually being the drummer at the Yin Yang Cafe. We already had a rapport by the time he and [his wife] Karen bought 64 3rd Street and decided to open it up as Apache Cafe. [They said,] “We’re opening up a spot. We don’t want it to be like the Yin Yang Cafe. It just happens to have the same address, and we need some help getting it off the ground.”
Fain: I was just kind of bopping around, not really doing anything especially great. I was doing some freelance street-level marketing. I was vegetarian at the time, and it’s hard to find good vegetarian food. So [my wife and I] had designs to start a vegetarian restaurant. I wanted us to be able to spend time together. I thought it would be a fun adventure.
We didn’t have a door on our office. We just had like a black fabric, so [it] was essentially open to anybody who wanted to sneak back there. And we got robbed in that first six months that we were there. That first year was tough. We almost didn’t make it.
D.R.E.S.: We had the privilege of surviving as long as we did because of love — those 29 [initial attendees who] had a great enough of an experience to go and tell the next person and tell the next person and so forth and so on.
Yin Yang didn’t really embrace hip-hop the way that Apache Cafe did. When you think of Yin Yang, you think of house music, soul jam band music, spoken word poetry [and] the birth of the neo-soul movement in Atlanta. When you think of Apache, you think of visual art, you think of hip-hop. Apache afforded me the space to provide a platform for counterculture artists to express themselves.
Anthony David, singer and musician: I saw Janelle [Monae] and all those type of artists [at Apache]. It was definitely representative of the next wave.
Georgia ME, spoken word artist: When you walk in, there’s original artwork everywhere. That exposed brick is a raw feel. You feel the dreams. You feel the accomplishment. You feel all of people’s fears being overcome.
Goode: I don’t know if that building is on some sort of latitudinal, longitudinal, magical mythical crossing of lines of some sort. But there is magic in the bricks of that building. You feel it when you walk in there. It’s a conduit, man.
Chapter 2: Apache Cafe becomes Cheers for local black artists
D.R.E.S.: When we set out to create The World Famous Mic Club, my job [and] my crew’s job was to literally just write down everything that we’d seen at your typical emcee battle and work to remove all of those things. Whatever we had left, that was going to be our event.
It got to a point where you couldn’t come to Mic Club as an artist and not get on the stage and spit a freestyle. Q-Tip or A Tribe Called Quest came in and had to deal with that. Nick Cannon came to Mic Club trying to promote a single of some rapper who was signed to his production company. He had to spit. You’re not coming in to this house claiming that you do hip-hop and not be asked.
Fain: Obviously the Sunday night spoken word was a legendary night, not only in Atlanta but across the country and even beyond. If you were a poet, that was one of the places that you had to play.
We were doing art shows every week for like eight years. We did that because we loved it and because it was important to us. We weren’t making any money on that night.
David: Fahamou [Pecou] and Kimbo were doing a poetry night and [Floetry] showed up. It was so funny because I remember they were wearing like these Adidas tracksuits and they looked like Atlanta girls, like they were from Decatur or something. Then they got on the mic and they were British, and I was like “whoa.”
Ashlee Haze, spoken word artist and former coach for SlamATL: I started going [to Apache] because I was hanging out with poets like Abyss and Georgia ME, Sphinx and John Goode. They were like, “You should come to Apache” and I’m like, “I can’t go in there.” I was like 16 [or] 17 at the time. It started there where I would just like sit in the back and watch open mics. Then, I started getting on the mic.
Queen Sheba, spoken word artist, former Apache host and booking manager: I was there 11 and a half years, and half of the audience was always new every month. Any traveling poet would have to go to Apache. If you were just on a layover or you intentionally stop through, you have to perform at the southern Mecca of poetry.
Georgia: My favorite moment at Apache was Tamika Festival Six [in 2014] when we gave a tribute to King Malachi. It was just awesome. It was Abyss, Ms. Dia, Cory Whitehead, Sphinx. We were all singing and giving homage to somebody who dedicates himself to being there every Sunday [and] who takes care of his family off of being a working artist.
Haze: Just imagine 20 massively amazingly talented poets on one microphone and wall-to-wall people. It’s something about being in there. It’s almost like a movie. [It’s] that Love Jones kind of feeling.
Georgia: I’m still extremely nervous when I do Apache. This is my home. When I was on tour with Def Poetry, this was always the most nerve-racking show.
Sheba: It definitely felt like the elite place to be in Atlanta. It felt like if you’re a real artist, you go here. It wasn’t about pay. The pay was shitty. It was just the place that you knew that you could build your career. You could work on your craft. It was definitely a family of sorts.
Fain: We had a lot of great relationships with a lot of people. And then we’ve had some that have been stinkers. When people say they’re underpaid, you don’t have to work with us.
Our legacy is that we created a platform for a lot of different Atlanta artists to do their thing on a level that allowed them to experiment, bring some visibility [and] hone their craft.
Chapter 3: Apache leaves 3rd Street
ABYSS, spoken word artist and musician: When it was Yin Yang, they had shit coming out the damn toilet, rolled out there on the floor. This ain’t no hyperbole. We used to smoke back there with them big ass rats.
Sheba: When I was working as a booking manager, there were water bugs and roaches in there [that were] so fucking big. There were rats that would crawl across [the ceiling beams].
Fain: The last five years, [Karen] went back to corporate. We have a family, and there was a certain kind of thing that we needed to change. We knew our long-term limits on the space [were] governed by leases. We had made plans long ago to kind of look ahead and diversify what we are doing. And part of that was that somebody needed to go get a job.
ABYSS: I walked down there one day, and they had the fucking available sign up. This was back in the summer months. This is like June or July. And I was like, do you mind telling me what the fuck going on?
Haze: I kind of knew. I had asked. I was like, “So there’s a rumor that you’re closing,” and they were like, “You’ll know when we know.” I just took a deep breath. I was sad. And I’m still sad.
Fain: People wanted to know. There were whispers. There was gossip. I didn’t want there to be any miscommunications or bad info out there. I was super surprised at the replies. I didn’t think it was going to be that kind of a thing at all. But it was heartwarming.
ABYSS: It feels like a funeral.
D.R.E.S.: Apache Cafe could be a glorious tale, or it could be a cautionary tale on how business owners need to own the land under your feet. I’m proud of what has happened, but I’ve also gotten to a space where I’m okay to let it go. That was one of the most exhilarating, beautifully fucked up times of my life. And I have no regrets about any of it. And I’m very humbled and grateful that I had the opportunity to head that up.
Sheba: It really became my home. It became a place where I can say, “You can find me fourth Sundays at Apache,” and it would just roll off my tongue. I no longer have that for now. I probably missed three in 11 and a half years left. I built my schedule around it.
ABYSS: At the end of the day, I’m so thankful that it’s there because of the friendships that I made. I met my wife there. A lot of us met our wives and spouses, one-night stands and shit from there.
Haze: It’s like a mecca. If you go to other cities and you say you’re from Atlanta, people always say, “Have you been to Apache?” I think it is as prestigious as we make it out to be. It’s my home.
Fain: I have some experience [now]. It’s a lot of work, and I have a little bit of an idealistic vision of how this should be [in the new location]. I think you’re gonna have a lot more freedom to do some things, and we’ll have a lot more space — our gallery space will be bigger. You can have different breakout rooms. You know, I just think we can really do a lot more things in general.