Kitab Rollins is a proud native of Newark, NJ, and a performing arts and event producer. He currently works as the Director of Performance and Broadcast Rentals at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). For the past six years, I have had the pleasure of experiencing Kitab’s stellar producing skills. I am inspired by his devotion to his hometown; his dedication to promoting and supporting African American culture; his support of women, and his determination to create opportunities for access to great arts experiences to people with diverse backgrounds. Last week at the taping of “Black Girls Rock,” I was reminded of the myriad skills Kitab brings to the arts and that the vast array of shows he has produced at NJPAC represents a very diverse body of work. I decided to talk further with Kitab for this week’s Arts & Culture Connection blog.
Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work in the arts?
It was really by happenstance. When I was in college I wanted to work in the entertainment industry as a publicist for a record label. I abandoned my track as an engineer and decided to double major in Communications and Africana Studies so that I would be a publicist with an Afrocentric perspective. After college in 2003, I took a year off, then interned at a boutique ad agency that, specialized in LGBTQ marketing and publicity. I still loved the nature of PR but realized that’s not who I am, and I left the internship while realizing I needed a job. A local temp agency in Newark sent me to NJPAC to interview for a position as Assistant to the Ticket Services Director. But the HR Director at NJPAC saw my experience at the internship and suggested I apply for an Assistant position in the Programming Department. In 2005, I interviewed with Baraka Sele, who was the head of programming at the time. She became my boss and mentor. I never knew this kind of position existed and it was the best thing ever as I am perfectly suited for this work. All of my previous experience led me to Baraka and also supported my natural sensibilities. At 25 years-old, I was supporting programming at one of the country’s leading arts center. The blessing was working as an assistant to Baraka, who is one of the best Producers in the field. She also gave me the tools to be a producer, which empowered me to do my own programming.
Donna: What was it like at that time in Newark in the arts community?
Newark has always had a thriving arts culture, but in 2005 there were not many outlets for the performing arts. There were some galleries and cafes with people performing, but not an organized performing arts scene. At that time, NJPAC was programming more towards high art—i.e., similar programs to Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, which did not necessarily reflect the art scene in Newark at that time. And it certainly is different than how NJPAC programs now. But the work Baraka and I did spoke to the local culture and created a place where local artists had a place to be seen on a major stage. Among the programs we produced was a poetry series; we produced a LGBT festival; and we produced a Hip Hop Festival. The Hip Hop Festival combined arts and activism and we hired local producers who knew the players on the scene. It felt good to empower them to put people on the stage in a major facility. This was meaningful work to me.
Baraka and I were a force. I feel proud that I added something to the table as we bounced ideas around. We did some cool things. Although I am from Newark, before I started my career at NJPAC, I wasn’t plugged in to the local artist scene. But through my work, I became one with the artists’ community.
Donna: Where did you see you could have impact in programming?
After developing my craft as a producer under Baraka Sele and Stephanie Hughley, founding VP Programming at NJPAC, I put my mark on programming with a DJ series called Sonic Superstars. At the time, I was 30 or so, and I was getting tired of outsourcing my fun to NYC. I was hanging out around town and felt I wanted to curate something in Newark instead of always going to NYC. NJPAC gave me a budget and our summer programming was expanded to include the DJ series, which I co-created and co-produced. I had top-notch DJ’s, including Pete Rock, D-Nice, Samantha Ronson, and Beverly Bond, who founded “Black Girls Rock.”
Donna: How did you approach thinking about your work, what were the influences?
I like to focus on the “why” behind the “what.” Meaning, I focus on the reason and intention of something which will then guide the process of getting to the end-product.
I try to tune in to the undercurrent of the work. I zero in on “why,” because that will inform “what.” So, in the back of my mind I’m always thinking and asking myself, “Who am I trying to reach?” “What is the intended result of this project?” “Why are we doing this” “How do I resonate with this work?” In fact, this is how I approach life—not just my work.
And during this process, whatever event I produce, I am very much me. I don’t want to lose myself. I am unapologetically myself.
My title at NJPAC is Director of Performance and Broadcast rentals. I work with a broad range of promoters and organizations who want to rent our facility and produce their own concerts/events. I might book opera, hip hop, K-Pop, Bollywood and comedy, all in the same season. As producer, I make sure the rental events seamlessly fit into our system and processes. The public doesn’t know the difference between a rental concert and a NJPAC-produced concert. I also manage projects that film at NJPAC, such as commercials, films. That includes rental TV specials, such as “Black Girls Rock.” I am the hub between all the services for the client and NJPAC.
Through all these various interactions, I deal with clients from all walks of life and I can only relate to them if I am authentic. People quickly see through inauthentic interactions. So, whomever I’m dealing with, whether they be Black, White, Korean, Indian, Jewish, Gay, I am still me—full of personality
Donna: How did you become connected to “Black Girls Rock,” and what does that mean?
“Black Girls Rock,” the TV show, was taping in the Bronx. A couple of years after I began working with Beverly Bond on Sonic Superstars, BET needed a new venue to tape the show because the building they were using was sold. They reached out to NJPAC because one of the producers is from New Jersey. At the time, I was the Manager of Performance and Broadcast rentals, so it was my responsibility to try to land that booking. I really stewarded the relationship and nurtured those contacts. Along with my boss, David Rodriguez, Executive Vice President, a proposal was pitched about what NJPAC had to offer and all the conveniences they would have by bringing the show to NJPAC.
Donna: What makes “Black Girls Rock: so distinctive and stellar?
Any program intended to celebrate and honor Black women is monumental. The show strikes a chord of pride in me—professionally and personally—because I had some small role in a program that brings joy to so many people. Every year I see my name in the credits – I can look at the show and can remember I helped them figure it out, or when it was just an idea and now it’s here. I feel an immense sense of accomplishment that I am doing the kind of work I know I’m supposed to do.
Donna: What are you most proud of experiencing Black Girls Rock in Newark?
This year the Community Change Award went to Tarana Burke who founded the #METOO movement. I never knew the founder of this movement was black and through BET she was being honored, I learned something; I learned about an important Black woman who created a necessary movement in our world. We love the famous celebrities like Naomi Campbell, Michelle Obama or Janet Jackson, who have been a part of Black Girls Rock. But this year, I was especially moved by the tribute to Judith Jamison, Artistic Director Emerita, dancer and choreographer for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I am a huge fan of Ailey and I am also personally invested in the arts. There are a lot of people who have no idea who Ms. Jamison is or her impact on the company and the world of dance. Because I love dance so much, I was especially moved that there will be millions of people who learn about this icon and hopefully go see a performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Donna: What do you think you will be doing 10 years from now, given your your tremendous producing experience?
This is always a difficult question for me. What I declare should happen in my future is not always in alignment with what the Universe has in store for me. So, I’m not sure if I will stay behind the scenes or move to the front of the camera. However, if I stay behind the scenes, I see myself as a producer of festivals and major live events. But if I move to the front of the camera, I see myself as television host and personality. I recently finished the first season of my podcast, “The Heathen’s Guide To Life,” which is my unfiltered platform to discuss the various principles I live by in the pursuit of a good life. I have a really good feeling about it.
Donna: Thank you for your time and the great work you’re doing to provide a platform for the community and diverse artists and audiences to have access to culture and the arts at NJPAC.