For a minute there last year, there was a little concern about whether Durham could hold not one, but two music festivals, both pretty close together on the calendar. In one corner, there was Moogfest, which decided to move its music-and-technology festival from Asheville to Durham. In the other, there was the Art of Cool Festival, the soul, jazz and hip-hop festival that already had made downtown Durham its home for two years.
Well, both fests happened, and many people were relieved that both events not only could co-exist but also would be heavily attended. Art of Cool founder/president Cicely Mitchell was one of those people. She said 8,000 people were in attendance, checking out such buzzworthy artists as Kamasi Washington, Anderson .Paak and Thundercat.
“I’m very excited that we did well,” Mitchell said. “And I guess it’s a testament to the scene in Durham that both Art of Cool and Moogfest could, you know, put on such a well-attended event, back-to-back almost.”
So, with Moogfest once again just a few weekends away, the fourth annual Art of Cool Festival is continuing its tradition of making downtown Durham funky and soulful for three days, starting Friday. (The fest did move from the first weekend in May to the last weekend in April, so that the city could regroup.)
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As always, they have some straight-up legends headlining this year’s fest. The one-and-only funk god George Clinton will get his groove on at the Carolina Theatre on Saturday night. The same night, A-list MC Common will be at the Durham Performing Arts Center, while hip-hop icon Rakim will do a late-night set at the Durham Armory. There also will be an eclectic set of visiting artists: Pharoahe Monch, Goapele, Dr. Lonnie Smith, GoldLink, Kindred the Family Soul, Christian Scott, Revive Big Band, and so on.
There also will be a substantial number of N.C.-based acts playing this year, more so than in previous years: rappers (Kooley High, Ace Henderson, Joshua Gunn, SkyBlew), musicians (Will Wildfire, William Darity), jazz bands (Zoocru) and DJs (DJ Complex, Wade Banner).
“I think it’s always good to go in the direction of making sure regional and local players can plug in for a couple of reasons: Getting more regional and local people to attend the festival and, then, also just to make sure that they get a chance to perform in front of out-of-town people, and collaborate with national touring acts,” Mitchell says.
Whether they are regional or touring acts, artists are always ready to play the fest again when they get the call. Grammy-nominated N.C. rapper Rapsody will return to the fest after performing last year, where she was part of Durham producer 9th Wonder’s sold-out Jamla Records showcase at the Pinhook. She performed with her band, the Storm Troopers, and did a song with special guest .Paak off her 2016 “Crown” mixtape.
“It was a good, high-energy show,” Rapsody says. “I just think it was a really good time last year. So, I’m excited to build from that and go back again this year.”
Since Kooley High is also scheduled to perform, will Rapsody reunite with the Raleigh rap crew she started with?
“We haven’t talked about it,” she says. “I wanna say I think we both perform on the same night. So, you know, if our schedules permit. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. But, you know, they’re always family. So, when we can get together, we do.” (Actually, Kooley High’s set is Friday, while Rapsody will open for Common Saturday night. So let’s make this happen!)
And there are those newbies who are psyched to see how they’ll do at the fest. Detroit blue-eyed soulster JMSN (pronounced Jameson) will be making his debut, and he’s pleased to learn that the festival is just as unique and distinctive as he is. “It’s its own thing and, you know, it’s cool to be a part of stuff like that,” says JMSN (real name: Christian Berishaj), whose newest album, “Whatever Makes U Happy,” drops Friday. “Because that’s kind of like me as a musician. I’m kinda not part of the pack all the time, you know? So, it’s cool to be part of these types of festivals that are different from your normal type of festival.”
An intimate experience
So, the Art of Cool Festival is once again shaping up be yet another exclusive, well-curated, only-in-Durham musical experience, which is exactly how Mitchell wants it.
“I want people to know that when they come to Art of Cool, they will be presented in a very unique and carefully curated way, to where that experience is one that you just cannot get at any other time, at any other place,” she says. “Seeing Anderson .Paak for the first time at the Armory and then hopping onstage with Rapsody at the Pinhook is far different from him coming back into the market a couple of months later and being out on the Fayetteville Mall at Hopscotch. That’s two totally different experiences.”
Well, that sounds like shade?
“It’s no shade,” she says. “But we just wanna make sure that Art of Cool’s brand is one that – we’re trying to make sure that music lovers get an intimate experience with the artist.”
Art of Cool Fest
Art of Cool Festival runs April 28-30 and features nearly 60 acts performing at the Carolina Theatre, Motorco Music Hall and other downtown Durham venues.
Visit aocfestival.org for schedules and the latest on ticket availability.