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Blackspace and FTMF Talent celebrate Durham's black history in MLK Day show

The Afronauts, which features students from the Durham digital makerspace Blackspace, will perform alongside ThejonDoe and Africa Unplugged at Motorco Music Hall on Sunday.
The Afronauts, which features students from the Durham digital makerspace Blackspace, will perform alongside ThejonDoe and Africa Unplugged at Motorco Music Hall on Sunday.

On Feb. 16, 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr., visited Durham’s White Rock Baptist Church — one of five trips he would ultimately make to the city. The speech, delivered to a standing-room-only crowd of an estimated 1,200 people, came just days after four students had initiated a sit-in at Greensboro, N.C.’s Woolworth department store, in what would become one of the most influential protests of the civil rights movement.

Nearly 60 years after King’s visit, the legacy of the civil rights leader will be celebrated in the form of a concert at Motorco Music Hall Sunday, one day before the federal holiday commemorating his birthday. Organized by Durham organizations Blackspace and FTMF Talent, the show begins at 8 p.m. and features three local music groups. Following the theme of “Past:Present:Future,” the night aims to look back at King’s legacy, celebrate the vibrant culture of Durham today and look forward to the city’s future.

For Pierce Freelon, the founder of Blackspace, and Will Darity, the director of FTMF Talent — which stands for “Forging the Musical Future” and represents a number of local musicians — the show began as a one-of-a-kind collaboration between the two organizations. The night highlights two generations of musical talent; While FTMF groups like ThejonDoe and Africa Unplugged (in which Darity is the guitarist) have tended to resonate with older crowds, Blackspace has made as its central mission the development of creativity and technical skills among youth.

“Collaborations like these are great opportunities for us to share what these kids are creating with the world,” Freelon said. “And so we’re looking forward to celebrating the legacy of Dr. King with giving these kids a platform.”

Blackspace, which began in Chapel Hill and opened a Durham location after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2016, trains students in everything from coding and cryptocurrency to beat-making and music production. In the years since its establishment, the organization has only grown thanks to “word-of-mouth and local grassroots support,” according to Freelon, and now offers regular “Wokeshops” on a variety of technical and musical topics. Central to Blackspace’s vision is the concept of Afrofuturism, and it seeks to create a safe space for youth of color to learn and create. The Afronauts, for example, are a hip-hop group whose beats and lyrics are written and performed entirely by students at the center — and who just released a mixtape, “Revenge of the Afronauts.”

To Freelon, Blackspace marks a continuation of Durham’s legacy of black arts and entrepreneurship, a history that spans to before King’s time. Black Wall Street and cultural sites like the now-closed The Know Bookstore on Fayetteville Street once acted as havens of black culture in the city, but new organizations have risen to carry on their legacy.

“It’s our obligation as the next generation to carry the torch,” Freelon said, emphasizing that Durham has always acted as “fertile soil” for art, long before its economic revitalization in the 21st century. “There’s nothing new about this moment. Durham has always been this way. And so we’re lucky to have come up in an area with such a wealth of resources.”

One institution, in particular, stood out as an important incubator of talent for Freelon and Darity: Durham School of the Arts, from which both graduated (when it was still known as the Durham Magnet Center). Between many of the students at Blackspace and the alumni who would go on to form some of the bands represented by FTMF, the high school has proven to be an essential feature of Durham’s local music scene. As a mouthpiece for creative youth — and as a representation of the “future” represented by “Past:Present:Future” — it was clear that Durham School of the Arts, along with the rise of Blackspace, has been indispensable.

“I can’t stress enough how important it is that you’ve got young people involved in the conversation. That’s one of the big changes that has come with Blackspace,” Darity said. “We’re gonna push these kids, but we’re also there to learn from them. Because the minute that we stop learning, our music is dead too. I know there’s something that they know that we don’t know.”

As nearly six decades have past since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s activism — and as the state of racial violence and civil rights remains in the balance even today — the role of the next generation of artists and activists will only increase. The show at Motorco acknowledges King’s role and that of those who succeeded him, while looking ahead to what will follow. Especially in a city like Durham, whose black history was central to the movement King led, such a celebration could not be more fitting.

“We [in Durham] were at the epicenter of this massive, nationwide paradigm shift around power and race in the country,” Freelon said. “Part of celebrating King’s legacy is also celebrating North Carolina’s legacy and Durham’s legacy as important linchpins in the struggle for black freedom and civil rights in the country.”

“Afro-Soul - Past : Present: Future — A tribute to Dr. MLK Jr. at Motorco” starts at 8 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20, at Motorco Music Hall. Tickets begin at $5 and are available at www.motorcomusic.com. 

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