Harlem: Where Talent is Born

By: Michele Wolfson

New York is famously known as the Empire State, and within that is Harlem, a neighborhood just as famous for breeding talented human beings. If one wanted to see well-crafted talent, Harlem was the place to go and the spirit of refreshingly creative talent continues to derive from this area. It's part of what makes Harlem so amazing.

Musicians, actors, artists, athletes and writers that were born in Harlem are particularly well remembered and the community has also hosted numerous theater companies, including the New Heritage Repertory Theater, National Black Theater, Lafayette Players, Harlem Suitcase Theater, The Negro Playwrights, American Negro Theater, The Original Red Rooster, and the Rose McClendon Players. Harlem is also the birthplace of popular Hip Hop dances such as the Harlem shake, toe wop, and Chicken Noodle Soup.

Often I wish that I could go back in time to the jazz capital of the world during the Harlem Renaissance and watch a legend like the amazing Sammy Davis Jr. perform right before my eyes. A jack-of-all-trades, Sammy could sing, dance, act, and play instruments. He helped break down racial barriers in show business in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in Las Vegas, where he often performed. When he started there in the early 1950s, he was not allowed to stay in the hotels he played in, as they refused to take blacks as customers. He also stirred up a large amount of controversy in the 1960s by openly dating, and ultimately marrying, blonde, blue-eyed, Swedish-born actress May Britt.

The first time I saw Sammy was on an episode of The Cosby Show, where his immense talent and sense of humor had me instantly infatuated with him. He was known for his self-deprecating sense of humor; he once heard someone complaining about discrimination, and he said, "You got it easy. I'm a short, ugly, one-eyed, black Jew. What do you think it's like for me?"

Another renowned actor, Milton Berle was born to a Jewish family in a five-story walkup at 68 west 118th street in Harlem. It was in Harlem where he began his career in show business when he won an amateur talent contest at the age of 5. This Harlemite appeared for the first time on television in an experimental TV broadcast in 1929, and is credited with being the first person to appear on television. He had the same sentiment as other superstars that came from Harlem when he stated, "If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door."

Amazingly, Harlem is still the breeding ground for current talent and notable figures as well. Manhattan's contribution to hip-hop and R&B stems largely from artists with Harlem roots such as Kurtis Blow, and P. Diddy. Harlem born Alicia Keys began taking piano lessons at age seven and proved to be such a prodigy that she was later accepted into he prestigious Professional Performance Arts School of Manhattan, where she majored in choir. Her musical talent and her grades proved to be so exceptional that she graduated as valedictorian at age 16.

It's fascinating to read just how many famous celebrities and notables are from Harlem and some may surprise you. Many of them have attributed their hometown for making them the success that they eventually became. They have traveled all over the world, but likely none of them have forgotten where they got their start.

Here is the list of some other "greats" that were born in Harlem:

Adam Clayton Powell IV

Al Pacino

Alex Rodriquez

Allen Payne

Biz Markie

Basil Paterson

Big L


Carmen McRae


Charles B. Rangel

Charles David Brooks, III

Cicely Tyson

Colin Powell

Damon Dash

Doug E. Fresh

Ed Sullivan

Errol Louis

Erick Estrada

Faith Ringgold

Freddie Jackson

Frankie Lymon

George Jackson

Harry Belafonte

Jacob Lawrence

James Baldwin

Jim Jones

Joan Hackett

Joe Budden

Juelz Santana

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Keith David

Keith Sweat


Kool Moe Dee

Langston Hughes

Lou Gehrig

Lil Mama


Marc Anthony

Mekhi Phifer

Melba Moore

Michael Coppola

Moby (aka Richard Melville Hall)

Norman Rockwell

Piri Thomas (Juan Pedro Thomas)

Ralph McDaniels

Ralph MacDonald

Ray Barretto

Rob Base

Rob Brown

Ronnie Spector

Roy DeCarava

Ryan Leslie

Teddy Riley

Teyanna Taylor

Tito Puente

Tupac Shakur

Vanessa del Rio

Vicki Sue Robinson

Ving Rhames

Yaya DaCosta

Photo: Rasmin 

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