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Art of Cool Festival returns to Durham with Ari Lennox, Run-DMC and more

Now in its sixth year, The Art of Cool Festival will be held throughout downtown Durham from Sept. 27 to 29.
Now in its sixth year, The Art of Cool Festival will be held throughout downtown Durham from Sept. 27 to 29.

The concept of “cool” is notoriously elusive, but one local festival has spent the better part of the last decade perfecting it.

Now in its sixth year, The Art of Cool Festival will be held throughout downtown Durham from Sept. 27 to 29, with Jill Scott, Ari Lennox and Run-DMC headlining at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and featured performances at local music venues, such as Durham’s Motorco Music Hall. 

“It’s a festival that’s about music and community,” said Sulaiman Mausi, co-founder and president of The DOME Group, the production company behind the festival. “We do a lot of work with the community, whether they buy a ticket or not.” 

Sulaiman Mausi and his wife Lesleigh Mausi, who serves as co-founder and vice president of The DOME Group, were approached two years ago by the previous coordinators about taking over the festival, after years of attending as participants. 

“It just felt right,” Sulaiman Mausi said. “We’re really blessed to be a part of the festival and its growth.” 

Since taking over, the pair has largely focused on expanding the festival’s benefit to the local Durham community. This year, the festival will feature programming such as a college fair, merchandise and food, local small-business vendors, spoken word performances from local poets and a talk on mental health from the renowned academic and author Michael Eric Dyson. 

“All the time, [people ask], ‘Hey, can you bring Art of Cool to Charlotte? Can you bring Art of Cool to Virginia?’” Lesleigh Mausi said. “We’re trying to change [that] mindset. We are wanting to make Durham a destination.” 

This year’s festival, the second under The DOME Group’s leadership, will feature a larger array of Durham restaurateurs, merchants and musicians than any of Art of Cool’s previous iterations. 

“We’re proud that we’ve been able to purchase [the Art of Cool Festival] and keep it in Durham,” Lesleigh Mausi said. “It wasn’t acquired and then moved to another city. We’ve been able to keep it Durham-bred, and that ... adds to the Durham love that people feel in the air when they [come]. We employ other small businesses and partner with small, minority-run non-profits to pull this together.”

Some of the festival’s local collaborators, like Motorco, have been with Art of Cool since its inception.

“Any time there’s something arts-related ... that someone’s trying to do for the community, everybody pulls for it,” Motorco’s talent buyer Glenn Boothe said. “I think for Motorco, our involvement was initially whatever we could do to support it, we would. [Now, the festival is] more of an established entity, whereas before it was an idea that may or may not work. But it has worked, and I think that’s been great for the Durham community.”

According to Boothe, the Art of Cool Festival “brings artists to the [Raleigh-Durham] market that don’t usually visit Durham.” The festival largely showcases up-and-coming neo-soul, R&B, jazz and hip-hop artists. 

“[The Art of Cool Festival] has tapped into a genre of music — and thus an audience — that we don’t serve as much as we’d like to,” Boothe said. “Because we do Art of Cool, I think it helps make our schedule throughout the rest of the year more diverse. Some of [the acts that play at Motorco during Art of Cool] come back to the area and after some of their booking agents had them play here during the festival, they think ‘Oh, that’s a cool venue, we need to use it again.’”

The 2018 Art of Cool Festival, the first under the DOME Group’s leadership, had over three million dollars’ worth of impact on the city of Durham. 

“[In the past decade], the Raleigh-Durham market has developed as one of the leading [music] markets in the country,” Sulaiman Mausi said. “People are excited about coming to the area. Everybody’s ready for Art of Cool. Everybody’s ready for Durham.”