On a Wednesday evening, Durham's West End Wine Bar is buzzing with customers, many of whom are eager to sip a drink and take in the lovely weather from the patio. But Art of Cool Festival director Cicely Mitchell is tucked in a back corner, indoors. Her purpose isn't purely to unwind: she's hosting office hours. In the weeks leading up to her festival, she has found herself daunted by requests for meetings, and to preserve her personal time, she began holding court for three hours, once a week, to accommodate those who want to catch up with her. It's not quite a real break, but it does offer a little bit of downtime for Mitchell as the festival draws near.
Durham's done a fair amount of changing in the years since Mitchell first hosted the Art of Cool Festival. It's a by-Durham, for-Durham affair, and Mitchell and her crew of supporters have hustled to keep up with the moving target of community inclusion. This year, the festival is taking those efforts further than ever: before Common takes the stage Friday night at the Durham Performing Arts Center, the NAACP's Reverend William Barber will take the stage to speak on social justice and what audience members can do to push back against oppression. Over a glass of wine, Mitchell discussed Barber's appearance at Art of Cool and what she's learned as she's grown into her role as a festival director.
INDY: How did you get Reverend Barber to come speak at the festival?
CICELY MITCHELL: Originally, we learned maybe a month ago that the NAACP had put out a statement that they were calling for a national boycott of the state because of HB 2. Of course, as a festival owner, you get concerned. We had already put out a statement against HB 2 last year. [The festival] was right around the time when [HB 2] happened, so we put out a quick statement, thinking it would be over by this time. But when the NAACP decided that they were going to make a national boycott, I got on the phone and wanted more details on what all that entailed, how we could be of assistance as best we can—we're a non-profit—and how we could use our platform to tell more people inside and outside of the state about what's going on.
I met with the local chapter, and they were very excited that it was black female-run, that it was something uplifting for Durham, and that Common was involved. I asked for a representative to go onstage before the Common performance, just to use the platform. They asked Reverend Barber, and I got a chance to speak with him directly. He loved the idea and wanted to meet George Clinton (see p. 28). I want to make sure that people from outside of the state understand that, just because, politically, we look a certain way, that doesn't represent the citizens of the state. As conservative as the state is, we want to show that, at least in Durham, there's a faction of progressive people who don't believe in HB 2. There's no money machine behind what we do. We're just a band of citizens that want to use the platform.
What kind of reaction do you hope his presence at the festival will inspire?
I hope everyone feels welcome. We also partnered with [Grayson Haver Currin's] organization to make "Welcome to Durham, Y'all" stickers that we'll have at wristband city. We want, one, people to feel welcome, and two, feel more empowered on what the ban means, and how they can take part in making a change. We're not really a political platform, but what I do want people to do is be listening to what Reverend Barber has to say, and then, based on what he feels is the action, that people go back to their respective places, be they Atlanta or D.C. or whatever, and let them know what's going on.
I don't believe in HB 2, but I'm not out there like, "Go, Roy Cooper!" or anything like that. But I think that we do have a social responsibility to stand up for what's right. I see it more as artivism. That's what I want to do. Jazz, just by nature of what jazz is about, is social protest, social justice music.
Could you tell me a little more about jazz as social justice music?
I think a lot of jazz comes from the experience of the blues. They say you don't know jazz unless you know the blues. Blues comes from the struggle. One great thing that we're trying to do, in a very authentic way, is have a presentation this year. It hasn't really gotten a lot of attention, but I'm hoping that people will come out. It's called A Journey Through the Legacy of Black Culture. We commissioned the Revive Big Band, a twenty-piece big band, to come down from New York. They will walk it down from blues in the 1800s all the way to post-Dilla music. There are features that go in it—three features are the current NEA jazz master Dr. Lonnie Smith, there's Pharoahe Monch, and there's Goapele. Just imagine like, the Grammys, with a house band, but it's a huge house band. These people come out, and it's almost like edutainment. It really shows how black American music has progressed over the years, but the through line is the struggle. A lot of that sound is the struggle sound.
You're in year four of the festival now—what do you feel like you've learned since you first started?
I'm not surprised anymore, but in the beginning I was very surprised at how this town is a walk-up town. I don't know if we have a lot of sell-out, big, mega-events in this town. I feel like DPAC does a good job of that, but there's a culture of people who wait to buy their tickets until the last minute. Over time, we've gone through the cycle of being a local festival and having a chip on our shoulder, to where I think we're on the other side of that this year. I'm very excited that people really rallied to support us.
Your day job is working as a biostatistician, a field that seems really disparate from the world of running a music festival. But is there anything from the biostatistics job that you've been able to apply to Art of Cool?
I think one thing that my day job gives me is a level of comfort and stability. When we can create what we want to do, there's this fearlessness of, I'm not going to lose my house over this, or not going to be able to eat because of this. That, in itself, gives this base of stability to be able to think way outside of the box on what we can accomplish. And the other thing is, I'm very organized. Templates, line sheets—I'm a "check the box" kind of person. That spills over into structure and formatting things. There's a time where I'm super creative, and there's a time were I'm very lined up. You have the receipts. I read every contract—our attorneys do that, but I read every contract. Even the booklets. Everyone's like, "Oh, it looks great!" But I'm like, "This needs fixing, and this, and this." Those kinds of skills and paying attention to detail and being organized—because I'm a mathematician, there are certain ways and steps to get to something, certain problem-solving skills and looking for alternate solutions.
When you find yourself getting overwhelmed, what do you do to pull yourself back from it?
I work on other things. Even though it's related to music, when I don't feel like working on Art of Cool that day, I do stuff for Beyu. That's fun, because it's me helping someone else. It's still music-related. I'm looking forward to that. I have two new projects this summer to work on that I'm excited about. I've focused a lot of my attention to getting the foundation for Start of Cool [AOC's music education program] and bringing it into more schools.
Durham's been changing a lot in the four years that AOC fest has been running. Where do you feel the festival fits in?
We've managed to see the direction Durham is going, so the [Innovate Your Cool] conference within the festival has been a good look. That's us trying to remain Art of Cool and fit in with the landscape, but the twist is, it's not exclusive just to the tech community. We want to make it accessible to everybody. It's free, so you do not have to pay or have a badge to partake—I think that's where you get into trouble. It opens up those experiences.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Struggle Sound."