Earlier this year, Discover Durham, the publicly funded tourism-development authority that’s coproducing the city’s sesquicentennial celebration with the Museum of Durham History, hired local hip-hop artist J. Gunn to assemble a group of musicians and create a Durham 150 song. But Discover Durham ultimately declined to release the track unless Gunn made changes to the song’s hip-hop format and a lyric about the city being “black and proud.”
According to Discover Durham, the idea originated when Durham Mayor Steve Schewel saw a video of twelve thousand people singing “Al Kol Eleh (For All These Things)” in a stadium in Tel Aviv. The song is a rumination on taking the good with the bad, thanking God “for all these things, for the honey and for the sting,” and was being used to celebrate Israel’s seventieth anniversary. Schewel urged Discover Durham to commission something similar for Durham’s 150th birthday—an anthem to represent all Durhamites and uplift the city’s history.
Meanwhile, J. Gunn was having a moment. A year earlier, he’d had a blistering feature on G Yamazawa’s “North Cack,” which garnered more than a million views on YouTube and became the de facto North Carolina hip-hop anthem. In January, as Discover Durham considered artists for the song, Gunn met with CEO Shelly Green and CMO Susan Amey, who showed him the “Al Kol Eleh” video and explained their vision.
“I thought it was a great idea,” Gunn told the INDY. “But my response was, ‘Yeah, we should do it, but we can’t try to mimic this Israel anthem. We can’t make it a jingle. It needs to be soulful, it needs to be real, it needs to be for Durham, by Durham.’”
Discover Durham asked for a song that would incorporate Durham-based artists from multiple genres to create a “timeless” piece of music that reflected the city’s values and was easy to sing along with—a Bull City “We are the World.” There were no stipulations about lyrical content, though Discover Durham reserved the right to make minor changes to the song. Gunn gathered a roster of ringers from different walks of life and musical genres—Phil Cook, Mavis Swan Poole, and LoverBoy Vo—and got to work.
Poole recalls the in-studio process as nothing short of spiritual, likening it to the African-American church experience. She says she called friends and family and told them, “‘I’ve never experienced this, this is crazy.’ It was one of those things where, when I left, it didn’t leave me. For a few weeks, it played in my head, it played in my heart.” They finished the bulk of the track in a few nights, and they all felt it included a wide range of perspectives about what it means to live in Durham in an era of drastic change and possibility. They called the song “I Choose Durham.”
Gunn was so excited that he sent the track to Green in the middle of the night. The next day, she wrote back, saying she liked it but had some feedback. At a subsequent meeting, she said she felt like the hip-hop focus precluded the song from reaching a broad range of people.
“I wanted something that could be sung and performed by all walks of life in Durham,” Green says. “And I’m not sure rap fits that category. I’m coming at this from embracing as many people in Durham as we can. Multi-genre, multi-age. A jazz song or a country song or any song that was one specific genre would have been just as problematic as hip-hop.”
Gunn said he’d consider it, but ultimately, he told Green he didn’t see how it being rap affected sing-ability. Green replied that it wasn’t just the genre, but a certain lyric that didn’t feel inclusive to her.
In the opening verse, Gunn rhymes: “Beautiful Durham, black and proud and glorious / Gritty and grime, still we shine so notorious.” Green asked Gunn to change the lyric “black and proud,” which, at first, he refused to do.
“I want to be as inclusive as possible,” Green says. “Let’s talk about all Durham people, so everyone can participate in this song. ‘Black and proud’ without mention of any other ethnic groups was too limiting. The phrase could have stayed in if there were mentions of other groups of people in Durham elsewhere in the song.”
For his part, Gunn saw the lyric as a crucial facet of Durham, not something exclusive.
“When I say ‘black and proud and glorious,’ it’s not as much about me as a person or the black community, it’s about one of the most unique things about Durham, our rich black history,” Gunn says. “Durham’s a town that would explicitly say that and wouldn’t beat around the bush and give you this rainbow narrative.”
Though Green says she thought she made the proposal clear from the start, she got even more specific in early May, after Gunn added some choral music that she didn’t think mitigated the issue of the song being too complicated for amateur performers. Discover Durham wanted a song with eight to sixteen bars that church and school groups could memorize in an afternoon. In the interest of getting his team paid the remaining balance on the job, Gunn capitulated and recorded a new version, with the majority of his rhymes omitted, including the lyrics “black and proud and glorious,” and an extended sing-along verse added. This is likely the version that Discover Durham will release to be performed by pop-up choirs this summer, culminating in a performance at DPAC in November. Green says that Discover Durham owns the rights to the song but plans to put it in the public domain as soon as it’s unveiled. Gunn will then be free to release his version as well.
“My main issue is, it’s not that they don’t like the song,” Gunn says. “To me, that’s a much more productive conversation. But if you’re saying you love it, it makes you feel good, but you’re concerned white people may be offended by a line that says ‘black’ in it, I have an issue with that. Who is this song really for? Is it for you? For these three people in this office? And the mayor? Or is it for Durhamites?”
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