Art and activism are as entrenched in the atmosphere and community of Durham as Cameron Crazies are in Duke Blue. Durham is notable for its fierce commitment to public and private art initiatives as well as its fascinating historic and contemporary involvement in politics. However, we hear less about the intersection of these two central aspects of the Durham community.
This weekend, Durham residents will be able to celebrate both aspects of Durham by attending the Art + Activism Festival, organized by Pierce Freelon and Stephen Levitin of ARTVSM and Cicely Mitchell of The Art of Cool Project. The festival will feature a jam session at Cocoa Cinnamon, a night of intergalactic music and spoken word at the UNC Morehead Planetarium, as well as a global dance party for Durham Pride at the Motorco Music Hall.
“Music is a great tool for building community; it connects people,” said Freelon of ARTVSM. “It is not your typical festival where you pick a bunch of bands that are popping. Instead, we looked for a particular type of artist—a type of musician who not only puts in the work in the studio, but also in the community.”
The line-up of community-oriented artists and activists includes 1Beat, Sacrificial Poets, LiLa, Shirlette Ammons, Big Beat Dance, KidZNotes, the Durham Arts Council and the Carrboro Arts Center. Each of these groups consists not only of artists, but also of community leaders who run educational programs, volunteer at arts programming events and collaborate on grassroots initiatives.
One particular program that is special to both Freelon and Levitin is 1Beat, an organization that brings together young musicians from across the world to engage in a collaborative creative process and work within communities to host youth workshops. However, 1Beat is not only a meaningful music organization, but also a home to a former student, a young woman named Toussa whom they met in Senegal for PBS’s Beat Making Lab.
“We had a very intense creative session with her over the course of two weeks, and we were astounded by her talent,” said Freelon. “We saw an opportunity to get her to come to the states through 1Beat, so we helped her with her application and we tried to put her in the best position possible to be accepted, and she was!”
The global dance party on Saturday will showcase international collaboration as Toussa will share the stage with her Beat Making Lab mentors and her 1Beat fellows.
“Part of our intention is to provide support and opportunities to musicians, so to have one of our students, one of our small success stories, be a part of this festival is just phenomenal for us,” remarked Levitin. “We are grateful that 1Beat’s tour and our reunion with Toussa all converges with this festival.”
Their outreach and special relationship with Toussa is just one of the many ways in which this festival is oriented around the community developed, sustained and enriched through music. For their part, ARTVSM and The Art of Cool are also organizing daytime programming that includes art outreach in schools and community centers. In addition, all the proceeds from the festival will go directly to the performers and local non-profit community groups. The festival will coincide with the release of a Beat Making Lab album titled Good For The World. The album features students from UNC Chapel Hill and the local public school system, alongside sampled sounds from local non-profits, Moral Monday protests and Negro spirituals.
“I believe that music and art have always been great mediums to reach and teach people about social issues,” said Mitchell of The Art of Cool Project in an email. “There have been a number of Moral Monday protests that have used the common bond of music to shed light on political issues in the Triangle as well as in the country.”
It seems fitting that this festival should happen after a summer of protests in response to recent changes in legislation, ranging from the restriction of voting rights to the repeal of the Racial Justice Act. The Arts + Activism Festival embraces these timely issues and will hopefully spark conversations about other sociopolitical issues around Durham. In fact, the festival culminates with the Pride Global Dance Party, celebrating and recognizing the Pride Parade also happening this weekend.
“Musicians have a lot to say about what is happening politically and socially, and that has always been the case,” related Freelon. “A lot of our musicians—teachers and students alike—are engaged in this political moment, so all we had to do was look beyond the studio to tap into the energy of what was already happening around us.”
The environment of the festival epitomizes the theme of developing community around the arts and activism. Cocoa Cinnamon was funded through a Kickstarter campaign and boasts local and sustainable resources. Similarly, the UNC Morehead Planetarium and Motorco Music Halls are familiar to the community as centers for education and music, respectively. The space of the festival is consciously built to motivate Durham residents to step outside their comfort zones into a new creative space in order to see how that space can inform their own perception of arts and activism. The environment should be creative, collaborative and communal in order to inspire active participation.
“I think having a special impact later in whatever you do is really important,” said Levitin. “I hope collaboration in art and activism is constant and everyday, not just a special festival. I hope every weekend you can find some artivism happening, because it is a way to bring art into the conversation, to make sure that every voice can speak and be heard.”
The North Carolina Art + Activism Festival features three main events: the jam session at Cocoa Cinnamon Thurs. at 7 p.m.; the spoken word poetry and intergalactic music at the UNC Morehead Planetarium on Fri. at 8 p.m.; and the Pride Global Dance Party at Motorco Music Hall on Sat. at 7 p.m. More information at http://theartofcoolproject.com/event/north-carolina-art-activism-festival/.