Who wins when festival season comes to Durham?

Pete Rock at Art of Cool in Durham, North Carolina. Photo by Justin Laidlaw.

In late May, Moogfest came to Durham, North Carolina for its inaugural year there, and national press fawned. The New York Times called the music-and-futurism festival “a demonstration of what human and machine can accomplish,” Rolling Stone praised it as a “nexus of adventurous sounds and accessible ideas” while doling kudos to the performers. It was something of a crown jewel in Durham’s renaissance, converting nearly all the city’s center into a machine du fete, sucking churches and theaters and industrial parks into its maw of drug-addled electronic music and tech-heavy prognostication. A downtown parking lot became a grand eighty-foot mainstage, hosting Grimes and GZA and Blood Orange; a long block adjoining was cordoned into an endless block party.

Scenesters flocked. Never had the populace been so bedecked in all black. Friends of mine shot down from New York, from DC, from Asheville; others came from London, from Tokyo. “So this is Durham,” they nodded. “It seems cool.” It was cool. But wandering the familiar, now uncanny streets, Durhamites were also struck by the novelty, and I heard repeated as if by refrain: “I just can’t believe this is Durham.”

Neither could I. At millennium’s turn, to imagine such a festival in my hometown would have been nigh impossible. The murder rate in the city was among the highest in North Carolina, documentaries were being made about the vibrant gang culture, and downtown was nearly empty. Tobacco had left some forty years hence, leaving behind its redbrick exoskeleton; nothing had taken its place. My teenage experience was colored by being a teenager, naturally, but going out basically meant smoking pot with some buddies.

Now, the cultural cup runneth over, especially in springtime. In early April, Full Frame Documentary Festival kicked off festival season, which continued through Art of Cool Festival and Moogfest to the six-week American Dance Festival. The bookend festivals have been here for decades (Full Frame 19 years, ADF 38), and have carved themselves comfortable niches in the city’s artistic landscape; each sports major cachet in its respective corner of the art world. The newer music festivals, though, became a referendum on the city’s soul-search, begging the question of just who Durham is for.


The first round of Durham’s renaissance, around the turn of the millennium, was largely bloodless, as businesses and residents moved into spaces that had lain dormant for years. But as the elixir of rejuvenation kept flowing, the specter of gentrification has emerged, pricing longtime residents out of their homes and worrying some by turning downtown into a haven of well-heeled and largely White young professionals. In March, Gillian B. White wrote in the Atlantic detailing rent hikes in Durham and the city’s seeming lack of a coherent plan to deal with the fallout. In June, the chair of the Durham Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners wrote in the Raleigh News & Observer of landlords refusing to rent units to low-income tenants with housing vouchers and instead renting at market value to the plentiful newcomers, neutering one of the plans that does exist to help fight marginalization. Local weekly Indy Week has described retailers, witnesses and drivers of Durham’s revitalization, themselves being forced out by rising rents.

The potential cost of gentrification is meted in concrete terms of human lives affected—who can live (and work) where? When interviewed, Mayor Bill Bell and City Councilman Steve Schewel both returned repeatedly to these issues as the ones the city must urgently confront. To that end, they say, Durham’s city government has been working to create an affordable housing plan to meet the needs of its citizens not riding the cresting wave of change but waiting in its trough. The mechanics are tricky, as North Carolina state law prevents municipalities from regulating rent of private property—so private developers cannot be made to set aside units for low and middle-income tenants, nor can cities institute rent control. Durhamites’ tribulations bump uncomfortably into the city’s recent thrills. Black Lives Matter shut down a central intersection on the first day of Moogfest, demanding that those who built this city be recognized.

“Culturally, you see Durham getting more and more interesting, for those people who can afford access to it. And that’s most people in Durham,” councilman Schewel told me. “But there are twenty percent of people who are not sharing in that, many living in poverty, most of them Black and brown, and they are being adversely affected by gentrification, priced out of neighborhoods they’ve lived in for a long time, and in many cases unable to access the good jobs that are being created.”

These points are obverse, as gentrification is too a question of culture, both who is producing a place’s cultural goods and who is able to consume them. Amid creeping worry about the city’s ebbing quintessence, festival season crystallized the fears of the area’s literati.


In 2016, cultural spectacle comes (happily) with attendant commentary about its social context. There can be no Rio Olympics without a discussion of Brazil’s inequality, no San Francisco Super Bowl without examination of weaponized police forces. So as Durham prepared for festival season, funding disparities between Moogfest—a festival attended mostly by affluent young White folks—and Art of Cool—a majority Black festival, homegrown, half the price—came to the fore.

Writing in Bull City Rising, a city blog, Lisa Sorg decried in April that the City of Durham had funded Moogfest more generously and earlier than Art of Cool. With caveats noted—principally, that Moogfest was estimated to have four times the economic impact on Durham’s economy—Sorg chalked this up to the city’s favoritism for the young, White creative class, many of whom would be visiting from across the nation and indeed globe, over the more regional and Blacker audience of AOC. A rejoinder in Bull City Rising soon thereafter took the position that the caveat is here the point: Moogfest, as a bigger festival, merits more city investment. The author, Kevin Davis, was “not convinced that it makes sense to attribute to inequity what may be better explained as organizations reacting to opportunity, not always in a perfect way.” Still skeptical, Indy Week warned that the funding disparity “says a lot about [the city’s] future.” “Despite talk of economic development,” the author Grayson Haver Currin wrote, “it's hard not to see the disproportionate math and the open-and-closed doors as an attempt to whitewash Durham's events.”

Nick Wallhauser at a Dial-Tones event in Durham. Photo by Justin Laidlaw.

Nick Wallhauser at a Dial-Tones event in Durham. Photo by Justin Laidlaw.

It is actually easy to interpret the disparity less sinisterly. Moogfest is indeed a bigger festival, and it came to Durham with the backing of a powerful contingent of business interests. It is far from outlandish that it would be well funded by the city. But the pursuit of profits, left unchecked, has a tendency to reward those who already have money; gentrification is often a process of individual actors taking eminently reasonable actions, adding up to those with fiscal clout overpowering those without. And the colorlines of the storylines here add a weight to these complaints that is not easily brushed aside. Moog became a boogeyman, an avatar for Those Who Are Coming, while AOC stood in for Durham’s sizable and deeply rooted Black community.

Art of Cool festival director Cicely Mitchell described how, as the announcement of Moogfest’s Durham digs approached, she found it difficult to get information from anybody about its arrival. “It’s like if you have a sister, and your sister is dating a guy, and you keep hearing about this guy, but you ain’t never met him. And then you finally meet him, but it’s under weird circumstances. That’s exactly what it felt like. It’s not that you don’t like the guy. You just haven’t had your chance to really get to know what’s going on. You’re just being kind of hurried along. And that’s from our standpoint what’s happened from day one. Which makes it hard to hold hands and sing kumbaya.”


Councilman Schewel takes pains to point out that he finds the controversy overblown: the focus on this narrow, if symbolic, tiff elides consideration of city funding for Bimbe Festival—an African and African-American music and culture festival now the same weekend as Moog—and the Latino Festival, both of which are completely free and “huge and very well-attended” in Schewel’s estimation. (Both are also non-profit festivals, like all of the Festival Season line-up save for Moog.)

Still, the big-name festivals define Durham for visitors flocking from their respective orbits (Mayor Bell noted their impact on spinning Durham’s “brand” in a positive light). And locally, they inform the conversation that the city is having with itself, its cultural self-concept. “There’s a kind of imprimatur and a civic pride,” Deirdre Haj, executive director of Full Frame, told me. “People can say ‘hey, that fifteen-year-old girl was just in the New York Times, and she came through the School of Doc at Full Frame. Hey, that film won the Oscar, I saw it a year ago at Full Frame. The American Dance Festival is one of the premier dance festivals in the United States! People get that, and I think people own it.”

The festivals further influence visibly who inhabits Durham’s public spaces. Moogfest included a thematic focus on LGBTQ and especially trans issues, accentuating Durham’s openness in a state that recently passed the transphobic H.B. 2 bathroom law. Art of Cool showcased headliner The Internet, fronted by Syd the Kyd, who is Black and queer. “Syd was very important at the time,” AOC’s Mitchell said. “We courted them last summer. HB2 hadn’t happened yet. But there’s a very strong LGBTQ community here, especially in the black female community… I thought it fit Durham.”

The festivals navigate a fit between their artistic dictates and the culture of the place they inhabit. Moog, for its part, “kept Durham in mind,” according to last year’s festival coordinator Rachel Hirschey, by including “a bigger hip-hop program, for example, because that would work better in Durham than in Asheville,” the festival’s old home. Moog honored local performers, putting on rappers Professor Toon and Well$, beatmakers Trandle and Made of Oak, and giving festival passes to a bundle of other artists from the area; hip-hop writer Ryan Cocca, in his blog Super Empty, read this as counter to the “lazy gentrification narrative” being bandied about. Still, Hirschey granted, as many of the higher-ups at Moogfest are not from the area, “moving forward, getting people from Durham more involved in Moogfest, whether that’s the festival itself, or the planning of the festival, or working on the street team, would be the ideal way to finally solidify it.” Accessibility is at stake—while Moog’s body politick was indeed many-hued, it skewed heavily toward the paler-skinned. As I stood in a retail store downtown that weekend, a young Black man walked in asking, “Can I come in if I don’t have a wristband?”

Art of Cool’s challenge, from its jazz-focused conception, was to strike a more youthful chord; this year, its expanded programming included elements of hip-hop, with Angelino jazz-rap fusionists and multiple deejay sets. The festival filled downtown with Black folks, not as common a sight in Durham as demographics suggest. American Dance Festival also showcased and was patronized by a diverse crowd, but is made up of discrete events; Full Frame included free seminars on diversity in the documentary film industry; Moog programmed to emphasize artists and speakers of color—but Art of Cool still stood out in this regard. While its crowd, too, was generally comprised of those with some extra scratch to burn—and not necessarily those most put-upon by Durham’s changes—it did give the sense of a city open and responsive to its black population.


The questions of justice floating through Durham’s atmosphere are also given voice within festivals’ works themselves. Documentarians, especially, flock to injustice and pain like koi to breadcrumbs; Full Frame thus becomes a yearly prodding of the conscience. This year’s Raising Bertie, following the lives of three young men growing up poor and black in rural Bertie County in eastern North Carolina, caused a local stir, bringing questions of poverty and hopelessness closer to home. The audience for Full Frame undoubtedly is not a microcosm of Durham, and, cynically, showings felt sometimes like comfortable liberals congratulating themselves on their empathy, then going and eating twenty-dollar tapas. But the yearly self-reflection provoked by such work is key to stoking a conversation that mustn’t abate if Durham is in fact to remember those at its margins.

Tony C. Johnson, dancer and choreographer and programming assistant at American Dance Festival, worries that some choreographers “spend more time in the studios.” But “to be a true artist, you have to be in the community, experiencing the community, looking into what’s happening in the community. You address those things in the work that you do.” He told the story of how, in years past, he worked on Duke’s East Campus. He decided to rehearse outside; rehearsals became performance. Duke staff began taking breaks to coincide with rehearsals, and would sit under the oaks during lunch to watch the dance that was soon to be shown, very much not for free, in a world-class showcase.


Pierce Freelon, frontman of local jazz-rap group The Beast, credits Art of Cool with reestablishing the local jazz scene after its inception in 2010. To his mind, the arts allow for “expression in deep ways, and connection, to facilitate dialogue and build bridges.” The festivals specifically, as artistic hubs, connect local artists with national and international networks.

By way of example, Freelon mentioned seeing James Brown live at the Bull Durham Blues Festival decades ago; his bandmate’s father performed harmonica onstage with the Hardest Working Man in Showbiz. Later, when Art of Cool was not yet a festival, it began hosting monthly concerts in art galleries and other small venues. “So by the time the festival came around,” Freelon reminisced, “it was kind of a culmination of two, three years worth of this kind of grassroots show at the art gallery, show at the Casbah, Motorco, wherever. Then, at that first Art of Cool, there were cats in from out of town. Folks came all the way from DC and Philly and New York, and were talking about how crazy the bill is. It was just kind of like opening the world up to this really great thing that we started with straight local talent.” Now, Art of Cool festival artists come to play shows throughout the year.

During an early Bilal show, drums were needed, which The Beast’s drummer provided; the connection eventually led the group to Philadelphia to record an album with Steve McKie, Bilal’s drummer and a noted Philly producer. “It’s been huge for us. An artist like Steve would’ve been out of reach for us, had the festival not provided the opportunity for us to get to know him,” Freelon said.

Dusk in downtown Durham. Photo by Justin Laidlaw.

The trickle-down effect of the festivals flows past professional artists, too. Freelon has founded Blackspace, an “afro-futurism themed digital maker space,” where kids (particularly kids of color) can learn about beat-making and –editing and computer graphics, free of charge. He cites the example of Baba Chuck (“this elder statesman, 80 years old, 6’7”, still jumping around like a gazelle in his dashiki”), head of the ADF staple African-American Dance Ensemble, educating students in the area for over five decades, taking local students to Senegal each summer. Full Frame runs the free summer School of Doc program; as Haj alluded to, Destini Riley, a local high school student, just had her work featured on the front page of the digital New York Times.

Nick Wallhauser, co-founder (along with Moogfest performer Trandle) of monthly experimental beat-making session Raundhaus, believes the quality of the artistry at these events inspires local artists, updates sound systems at host venues, and cultivates a crowd willing to pay for arts. He does, though, point out a central contradiction of Durham’s cultural boom: in order to support a more robust arts scene, Durham simply “needs more people.” But more people is exactly what is driving up the cost of living.


Durham’s rising tide has lifted many boats, but not all, and the work of ensuring that the net of plenty is cast as widely as possible must be vigilant and tireless. Cities are complicated; Durham’s recent changes are not, say, Portland’s, and painting gentrification in too-broad strokes misses the nuance. To be sure, in questions of “brand,” Durham leans heavily on its Black population, and its diversity generally, to label itself as progressive and hip. Without proactive support, though, the lip service means little. That means funding from city council for accessible arts; it may mean robust private sponsorship for Art of Cool, a singular player in the city’s current artistic landscape.

Perhaps the most important point of all, stepping back, is that Durham’s outlook is overwhelmingly sunny. “There’s a new player on the block, as far as the scene is concerned,” in Freelon’s estimation. “Durham is the creative nucleus of the state, of the region even.” The issue of how best to apportion prosperity is a thorny one, but is very much preferable to navigating stagnation. Referencing a Brooklyn neighborhood’s changing face and subsequent pushback, Kelefa Sanneh reminds us in a recent New Yorker article, “the opposite of gentrification is not a quirky and charming enclave that stays affordable forever; the opposite of gentrification is a decline in prices” and a regression toward undesirability and blight.

I came away from festival season this year with a head full of hope and half-cooked oddities. I saw historians from San Francisco’s Chinatown consort with ponytailed documentary filmmakers from Brooklyn over juicy Carolinian pulled pork. Anderson Paak, one of American music’s rising stars, played my favorite show I’ve yet seen in Durham, after munching foodtruck chicken and waffles with the crowd outside. An old friend came home to photograph Moogfest for a magazine, did one drug too many, harassed a middle-aged couple in the elevators of one of Durham’s finest hotels, and passed out in the floor of his hotel room before going back out to keep shooting. I watched a man in a generalissimo’s overcoat and gasmask dance to a Donald Rumsfeld monologue. Noted choreographer Bill T. Jones publically berated an audience member for an airheaded question in the largest theater between Atlanta and Washington, DC.

I met high school modern dance students from across the nation at the bluegrass-heavy Festival for the Eno, and recently entranced New Yorkers at Moog. Local skateboarders put to use festival passes that seemed to emerge from thin air. I chitchatted with Durham hip-hop superproducer 9th Wonder in a club at Art of Cool. This was the city I grew up in, but I had to squint hard to recognize it.

On the last night of Moogfest, leaving a party in a warehouse on the outskirts of downtown, I took a look back at the concrete hulk. Inside, the music thumped on, an Angelina DJ playing into the wee hours, soon to leave town with a Durhamite friend’s heart in hand. Onto the roof walked Professor Toon, sporting a Duke Starting 5 haircut, still high off his vibrant show and guest performance that weekend, making hay off his years of musical hustle. He looked out over the city, back toward the Lucky Strike water tower and brick chimneys, bushy oaks and wraparound porches, the scenes of our public pride and buried shame, and breathed it all in. The moon shone brightly down on Durham.