In 2014, Cicely Mitchell—a biostatistician at Pharm-Olam by day, a lover of jazz and all things music by night—introduced The Art of Cool Project to Durham with trumpeter Al Strong. The project began as a unique collaboration between Durham’s music and art scene. It eventually grew into a homegrown, multi-venue music festival that hosted a slew of legendary jazz and hip-hop acts, including George Clinton, Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, Rakim, and Nas.
One of the first Art of Cool concert series took place at LabourLove Gallery at Golden Belt. Five years later, much has changed. Art of Cool’s founders sold the festival to The DOME Group last year, and Mitchell is currently the artistic director of the SummerStage event series at Golden Belt. But in a way, there’s a divine order leading from then to now: The office of LRC Properties, which bought Golden Belt from Scientific Properties in 2017, is where LabourLove once stood.
“It’s coming around full circle for me to be presenting on the campus, because that’s where I got my start,” Mitchell says. “That’s where I cut my chops.”
LRC Properties sought out Mitchell to direct its arts, music, and community event stage because of the curatorial expertise she demonstrated via Art of Cool and her management of Beyú Caffè’s more intimate jazz offerings. Taking place on an outdoor stage next to Hi-Wire Brewing’s patio, the series is free; after launching in April, it runs through October, giving Durham and surrounding areas thirty weeks of awe-inspiring, art-infused cultural experiences.
Golden Belt is located in the heart of East Durham, an area of downtown that has traditionally been neglected by the city, and Mitchell is trying to disrupt negative narratives of gentrification by centering on the needs of Black and Brown residents in East Durham and inviting the rest of the city to come along, rather than the much more common opposite scenario.
Her hope is for “all of Durham to see this as a community stage” and to “reframe what the downtown map looks like, to get people to come across the tracks.”
Mitchell’s choices—from the musicians to the thematically connected film screenings, from having bilingual storytelling on the lawn to making the programming free—highlight her commitment to inclusivity. Attendees have access to genre-bending artists like Orquesta GarDel, a multinational salsa group; Jennah Bell, an African-American folk singer from Oakland, California; and Naughty Professor, a New Orleans brass band with a rock aesthetic, just to name a few.
“Golden Belt is not just music focused—there is a holistic approach to visual art, family fun, film, and health initiatives,” Mitchell says, explaining ways in which it differs from Art of Cool. Most important, without the pressure to sell tickets, attention can shift to programming family-focused events. This is more important than ever in light of Durham’s fight for liveable wages. Music-festival tickets in the Triangle typically began at $100, excluding the city’s low-wage workforce. At Golden Belt, Mitchell hires locally whenever possible and collaborates with community partners like Go Triangle, Downtown Durham Inc., and Alliance Architecture to make SummerStage accessible to all.
In September, SummerStage will pay tribute to Nigerian musician and Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti. The tribute will include an Afrobeat performance by jazz artist Butcher Brown (September 20), accompanied by a screening of Finding Fela during September’s Fourth Fridays film series (September 27).
This week, on June 21, Oakland folk artist Jennah Bell will perform, followed by an energetic Orquesta Gardel performance on June 27 and a film screening of Sprinter on June 28. It’s the story of Jamaican track star Akeem Sharp and his undocumented mother, who separates from her family to support her son’s dreams. July and August’s featured films, House of Flying Daggers and Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., are a fantastical look at resistance during China’s Tang Dynasty and an intimate portrait of a Sri Lankan artist who found acceptance in America’s pop-culture arena, respectively.
There’s much to look forward to besides concerts and screenings, from monthly fitness classes to weekly weekend brunches and genre-free open-mic jam sessions—no registration required, just show up and plug in. Sundays are dedicated to Brunches Brew, jazz sessions facilitated by Alan Thompson of ZOOCRÜ. To assure the brunch aesthetic, mimosas, fancy brunch cocktails and breakfast centered food trucks will always be in attendance.
“We want musicians to see Golden Belt as a space to create,” says Mitchell, adding, “I feel like there is a hole in the ecosystem for something like that, and I’m hoping that people take advantage.”
Mitchell is also opening doors for other curators: SummerStage is available for private renting. Thus far, curators of color have benefited directly from Mitchell’s partnership with Golden Belt. The goal is for curators, event planners, concert promoters, and artists to have access to an affordable space that also happens to be functional and aesthetically pleasing. It’s easy to wonder how a director and biostatistician manages to juggle all of this. Mitchell credits her beginnings at Art of Cool, where the workload was high but so were the rewards.
“There’s no balance at all, but when you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work,” she says.
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