If you only knew Joshua Gunn as the rapper J. Gunn or through the BET reality series Music Moguls, it would be easy to write off his bid for the Durham City Council as a novelty—a way to burnish his brand as an artist, self-described creative, and co-founder of the annual Black August in the Park festival. 

But his connections to the community run deep: He serves on the boards of the Durham Public Schools Foundation, the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits, and the Museum of Durham History. He’s also vice president of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce. 

And the thirty-five-year-old has notched key endorsements, including from the political action committees of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Friends of Durham, the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, former city council member Cora Cole-McFadden, and, notably,  current council member Mark-Anthony Middleton. 

He’s an underdog, to be sure. The three incumbents in the at-large race—Charlie Reece, Jillian Johnson, and Javiera Caballero, who are campaigning as a slate—are backed by Mayor Steve Schewel and the People’s Alliance PAC, which in recent elections has acted as a kingmaker. (Middleton is the only council member who wasn’t endorsed by the PA.) 

But of the seven challengers who’ve filed for the October 8 primary, Gunn appears best positioned to score an upset. 

Gunn exudes confidence, something he says he’s carried with him since he won his first freestyle battle at age thirteen. He was a skinny, mixed-race kid who felt like he didn’t belong anywhere. 

All of that changed. 

“I beat several twenty-five-year-olds in a battle, and it gave me the confidence and self-esteem that’s carried over through every other aspect of my life,” he says. “I think the battle, for all of us, is finding out who we are and our place in this world.”

He says he wants to address what he sees as glaring disparities in the city’s economic development strategy and focus on “equitable and inclusive economic policies to generate jobs and ensure that Durham’s growth can benefit all of its residents.”

The son of a mailman whose forefather arrived in North Carolina a generation after slavery and a stay-at-home mom who fled East Germany as a child, Gunn argues that poverty lies at the heart of many of the issues that have plagued Durham for years. 

“The root of all of our challenges is economics and the ability to provide for our families,” says Gunn, who earlier this year co-founded Provident1898, a co-working collective housed in the NC Mutual Insurance building. That includes violent crime and affordable housing, he says, which can be addressed by providing better jobs and business opportunities, particularly for black and brown residents.

“I think violence is most often a function of poverty,” Gunn says. “Folks aren’t out here breaking the law because they’re bad people. They’re breaking the law because they’re making an economic decision. When scarcity exists, people are fighting over food.”

In the short-term, Gunn says, he supports Chief C.J. Davis’s request for additional police officers, which the council rejected in this year’s budget. 

But the longer-term problem, he says, is “current elected officials’ lack of engagement with the business community.” 

Gunn, who graduated from Jordan High and studied psychology at North Carolina A&T, says he’d be the council’s only Durham native—this isn’t entirely accurate: Vernetta Alston was born in Durham, though her family moved to Cary when she was small—and points out that he has family members who live in Durham public housing. 

He says he has “serious concerns” about the city’s $95 million affordable housing bond, which will be on the ballot in November, though he stops short of opposing it. 

“For the first five years, it only addresses the construction of new buildings downtown and the renovation of downtown property,” Gunn says. “So our neighbors who currently reside in public housing that is crumbling around them will continue to live in those conditions for five years without any relief.”

And, he adds, there’s no “real economic development plan attached to the bond.” 

Gunn says he’s running for office “to re-engage the business community. And it’s not about being pro-business or anti-business. It’s about being pro-people of Durham.”

This is especially the case for people of color, Gunn says. 

“Jobs are our mechanism, and starting businesses are our way out of poverty,” he says. “We don’t have the privilege to be anti-business. Black folk and brown folk, we need businesses to work for us.”

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com. This story has been updated to note that council member Vernetta Alston was born in Durham. 

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