The end of September wraps up a big month for North Carolina music festivals, concluding with the five-year-old Art of Cool Festival’s first-ever early-fall iteration. Before the luxury condos, the multitude of ethnic restaurants, rooftop pool parties, and the urban trend of dockless bikes, the Art of Cool festival put the cool (mixed with a little bit of soul) in downtown Durham.
But this year, the Art of Cool has amped up its cool factor by partnering with the annual Black Wall Street Homecoming, which honors the legacy of black entrepreneurship in the city. Together, they’ll present a vision of black excellence to inspire present and future artists and achievers.
The Art of Cool Festival began after a series of Third Friday concerts that featured local Jazz musicians at LabourLove Gallery, curated by Cicely Mitchell and Al Strong. After generating a following of dedicated lovers of music and culture, in 2013 Mitchell and Strong founded the Art of Cool, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Since then, the two have used their platform to deliver local and national award–winning jazz-roots musicians to Durham, from Maceo Parker to Christian Scott to Kamasi Washington and George Clinton, ultimately establishing themselves as leaders in music presentation in the Triangle area. For Mitchell, year five is not only a huge milestone but also a celebration that the festival has “made it.”
Earlier this year, Mitchell and Strong announced that the festival had been sold to the DOME Group, led by husband-and-wife duo Sulaiman and Lesleigh Mausi, who have more than two decades of concert production experience together. Though the company is headquartered in Detroit (with a Durham office), the DOME Group has been responsible for bringing acts like Anita Baker, Patti LaBelle, and Smokey Robinson to the Durham Performing Arts Center.
But another new feature of the Art of Cool Festival this year is its partnership with Black Wall Street Homecoming, an annual networking conference for early-stage entrepreneurs of color. In the early twentieth century, as Durham built its reputation for the presence of black entrepreneurship, Parrish Street became nationally known as Black Wall Street. The area was a hub for black-owned businesses such as Mechanics and Farmers Banks and N.C. Mutual Life Insurance.
Since 2014, the Back Wall Street Homecoming has honored that legacy by helping the next generation of innovators of color acquire investors and gain recognition. The leadership teams of Black Wall Street Homecoming and Art of Cool spent the past year working together to highlight all that is cool in Durham: art, culture, music, and entrepreneurship.
“[The] partnership is a direct reflection of what [Black Wall Street] organization is about, placing value in black founders,” says Tobias Rose, who cofounded the Black Wall Street Homecoming with Jessica Averhart and Talib Manns-Grave. After a successful first year, Dee McDougal joined the trio.
Attendees will have the opportunity to start their week off with talks and panels centered on entrepreneurship, agriculture economics, community and social impact, and real estate and creativity. This year’s lineup of speakers includes a balance of nationally recognized leaders and local influencers including Arlan Hamilton, founder and managing partner at the venture capitalist firm Backstage Capital; Ben Young, CEO of the fitness app Sworkit; Phiderika Foust, an investor and startup advisor; visual artist Candy Carver; and Angel Dozier, founder of Be Connected and Dope Together. The goal is for attendees to leave with an expansion of their professional and personal network, and an increased understanding of the Black Wall Street legacy while simultaneously engaging with Art of Cool’s music programming.
The collaborative effort between the two organizations demonstrates “the Black Wall Street Dream,” says Lesleigh Mausi.
“It just made sense for two black-owned organizations to come together and join forces to make seamless programming that focuses on black economics, culture, and entrepreneurship. It sends a message out to the youth that anything is possible,” she adds.
The Mausis have their own personal ancestral connection to Black Wall Street, too, as Sulaiman’s great-grandfather and grandfather were instrumental in contributing to Black Wall Street’s historic narrative. In 1933, his great-grandfather, York Garrett, owned and managed Garrett’s Biltmore Drugstore on Pettigrew Street. In 1953, he expanded the business by opening a second location on Fayetteville Street in Hayti, a predominantly African American section of Durham. By the 1960s, the city’s urban renewal plan had destroyed both locations, so Garrett opened a third location on Fayetteville Street, which he managed until his retirement in 1995 at one hundred years old. Sulaiman’s grandfather, Nathan Garrett, started his own accounting firm in Durham in 1962, making him the first African American in North Carolina to do so.
It appears the key ingredient in this partnership is the respect and admiration the organizational leaders have for one another, with a shared goal for the impact they want to make in Durham.
“People have the tendency to think that if you’re black and doing something dope, and there’s another person that’s black and doing something dope, the two always have to be in competition,” says Rose. “What we want to happen is for this to be able to be pulled off again.”
Their vision is to bring a SXSW feeling mixed with the sensibilities of Essence Music festival sprinkled with New Orleans Jazz Fest. According to Sulaiman Mausi, they want to put Durham on the map as a destination for live music, for locals as well as visitors from all over the country.
Festivalgoers can expect an abundance of knowledge presented by Black Wall Street Homecoming and AOC’s free Innovate Your Cool Conference, curated by Michael English That portion of the programming aims “to leverage popular culture and STEAM-based curriculum to expose traditionally disengaged communities to opportunities within entrepreneurship and tech,” according to English. There are workshops to introduce young people to coding, beatmaking, and financial literacy on Friday, while Saturday’s programming connects entrepreneurship with music.
The combined forces of Art of Cool and the Black Wall Street Homecoming are a perfect pairing; the music festival is an uplifting, high-energy celebration of black American music produced by communal descendants of Durham’s Black Wall Street legacy.
“With all that’s going on in the world, to be able to take a break from [it] and come together to experience joy is what we aim to offer,” says Lesleigh Mausi.
The Art of Cool’s crossover with the Black Wall Street Homecoming isn’t just the end result of decades of hustle from current organizers and their ancestors—it solidifies the importance of black-owned businesses in Durham and provides a blueprint of excellence for a new generation of black youth.