RECAP: Okayplayer Experiences America's Best-Kept-Secret, The Art Of Cool Fest!
The 2016 Art of Cool Festival in Durham, North Carolina blends the best of jazz, hip-hop, alternative and cutting-edge dopeness with panel discussions that explore blackness in entertainment and America. Yours truly was invited on behalf of Okayplayer to attend its third annual gathering in the Bull City, as I learned first-hand that the Art of Cool Fest is more than just an opportunity for devotees of black music to get down. For those unaware, the Art of Cool Fest was the brainchild of the nonprofit collective, The Art of Cool Project, and its co-founder and president, Cicely Mitchell. Amidst the backdrop of rapid gentrification and the attempted erasure of black culture in North Carolina, Mitchell and her AOC cohorts are engaged in a battle to “keep Durham funky.”
Upon our arrival, we already knew the stakes were high for the Art of Cool Fest, as much of the jazz-and-soul upstart’s events have been Durham’s only thing moving for the past two years. Now, in year three, the Art of Cool Fest have earned its ticket dollars and attention spans in a novel way. With a lineup that proved to be a who’s who within black music, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat and The Internet were just a few acts who offered an unprecedented look at their life + sound. The lineup on Friday alone promised to give those in attendance their dollars worth.
Whether it was jazz greats like Terence Blanchard and Terrace Martin or rising stars like Anderson .Paak and Heather Victoria, the Art of Cool Fest exhibited high-quality action throughout our time there. Before even seeing anyone hit the stage, we went to center of town to get all the inside scoops during the festival’s press conferences. There was a lot of hype and buzz to get time with certain personnel that were in the “Durty Durham,” but everyone played it cool. First up was Inglewood’s own, Kamasi Washington, who talked about the first song that he wrote before ever turning pro. “I remember that it was hard,” he told us. “It had a lot of chord changes [laughs].” The looming jazz titan was one of many who were scheduled at this year’s festival who all had something awesome in common: they appeared on Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp A Butterfly.
And while there were some whose focus was solely on the acclaimed Grammy-winning album, there were those who wanted to get into the nooks and crannies of the project. Thankfully, the AOC had an event that actually dug into the liner notes, as they curated a roundtable discussion on the making of To Pimp A Butterfly at American Underground. Players such as Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, Rapsody and Thundercat talked and performed for those who all felt the spirit of that magnum opus. As an on-the-rise festival in an on-the-rise city, it was during those down moments where I witnessed how impactful the AOC truly was. Speaking with Khrysis after his presser, we discussed the area’s historical context within the four block district on Parrish Street nicknamed “Black Wall Street.” The Jamla beatsmith, whose favorite producers were listed as Preemo, RZA (“I always wanted to be The RZA.”), Pete Rock and Dilla, pointed out a pivotal landmark from the “Capital of the Black Middle Class,” Mechanics and Farmers Bank.
It was an eye opening experience that opened up just how much growth there was in the city. From Dame’s Chicken and Waffles to Blue Coffee Café — black businesses were the supportive backbone to strengthening the music scene in Durham. “If I need to go anywhere outside of Bright Lady Studios, I’ll go to Blue Coffee, pull out my laptop and make beats right there,” The Away Team producer declared during his conference chat. The environment in Durham was friendly, but one could witness the underlining tension between the creative community + those wanting to give the area a facelift. New buildings, businesses and blocks were being erected, seemingly overnight and with it a new set of challenges. How does one put on for the city when the city is looking elsewhere for inspiration? A: The Art of Cool Festival doubled down on making Durham the epicenter of excitement and excelled at creating memorable moments.
Later that evening, we headed over to the Armory to see Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals perform.
The hotly anticipated progressive performer was in rare form after his set at the Broccoli City Festival. .Paak, who made sure to keep the energy high, filled out the room and held everyone in baited breath as they waited for that right groove to drop. An engaging entertainer, the Aftermath signee showed why he was worth the ink on the contract by putting on a show that would be talked about from Brightleaf to Oak Grove. From the summertime feel good sounds of “Am I Wrong” to his Malibu standout cut, “The Bird,” .Paak captivated those in attendance of all ages and gave them an enjoyable time. To end his set, The Free Nationals went into “Lite Weight,” which made the crowd absolutely euphoric. The Oxnard native felt the spirit, jumped into the crowd and danced it up with the fine ladies who were ready to boogie to the rhythm. It showed why Durham was winning and at that moment proved that Art of Cool knew the temperature of its citizens.
Elsewhere in town, DJs Pete Rock, Maseo (from De La Soul) and Rich Medina were cut-and-scratching the hits for the people at “The Art of Turntables” event. As they made faces melt during the all-night dance party at Motorco, the trio also paid tribute to Prince and A Tribe Called Quest‘s Phife Dawg. I was enthralled by the experiences while realizing that the Art of Cool was putting on for Durham in a major way. Seeing 9th Wonder and Terrace Martin walk down the street one moment, then going to a freestyle cypher set during the Innovate Your Cool conference the next, showcased how far ahead of the curve The Art of Cool Project really is. Fast forward to Saturday, where the hype was sincerely real for The Internet, J*DaVeY and Thundercat and you can only imagine how electric the city was at that time.
Everyone came out in their best outfits, dressed to the nines and ready to hear the headlining act at the Carolina Theatre. With local groups such as The Hot at Night, The Chit Nasty Band and The Beast all getting an opportunity to kick a riff in front of their families, friends and audiophiles — the Art of Cool Fest gave eager entertainers a chance to showcase their skills to a national audience. “I think, over the course of five years, we’ve really become the go-to organization that is being an advocate, connecting progressive jazz and soul and even a few hip-hop artists with the audience that is looking for that sort of thing,” said Cicely Mitchell in an interview with The News & Observer.
No matter what you might like or even what part of state you’re in, this year’s Art of Cool Fest is an unforgettable, down-to-earth extravaganza. That sort of energy attracted the right frequency of relatable performers who were already hometown heroes (Rapsody, Khrysis, 9th Wonder) and superstar talent (Brandee Younger, Tennyson, Moonchild). With an ever-expanding audience, the AOC Fest has done its due diligence in not expanding beyond its purview. I had an amazing time meeting Cypher University during the Innovate Your Cool conference, politicking with Khrysis, jamming at Pinhook while Rapsody and Anderson .Paak shared a stage and would recommend any festival freaks to get your ticket for next year now.
The Art of Cool’s choice to mix jazz music with the hip-hop movement proves that originality is the central tenet of the nonprofit’s mission. And the players who came out to support, threaded funk into all of it, as the kinship between the cultures were put full display. Compared to the other festivals like Hopscotch or even Moogfest, the Art of Cool Festival is substance-over-style, quality-above-quantity that is worth an annual trip. The AOC Project, plus the acts that come to perform for the 919 and 984 use their music to challenge conventionality, making it one of the most thoughtful + engaging events during the festival season.