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Festival: Art of Cool Recap

Art of Cool is a Durham staple that has brought not only great music but a sense of community to the area it serves.

AOC, as it is affectionately known, was started by locals Cicely Mitchell and jazz musician Al Strong. The two partnered up to bring Jazz music and artists to the forefront in Durham by creating The Art of Cool project.

AOC Founders _ Owners
A few short years later they curated a festival to complement the shows and the nonprofit they created. Art of Cool encompassed music education as well providing summer music programs for Durham children along with lectures, panels etc. to further jazz music and related genres. Every spring “Cooligans” knew to prepare for AOC but year five brought on some changes. This past April instead of the lineup being released, an announcement was made that the entertainment company Dome Group had purchased the Art of Cool festival and would be rescheduled to September with a new exciting lineup promised. Art of Cool Project remained a nonprofit and it offered lectures and panels, all free to the public, over the weekend as well in conjunction with the festival.

Friday Day One

With new ownership year 5 of Durham’s Art of Cool was the place to be. The festival that could and did feels like it grew up overnight with a dope as hell lineup and people driving in from out of state to catch one of NC’s homegrown events. Friday started off at a frenzied pace, the Durham Athletic Park was so packed, the crowd poured into the street. Tonight’s headliners we were looking forward to were NC’s own Anthony Hamilton, Maxwell and Sons of Khemet.

After braving the insanity of the ticket booths. I entered the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. It’s a gorgeous stadium and it was where Anthony Hamilton was about to perform.

Anthony Hamilton

Anthony Hamilton (RCA) is a NC native, from Charlotte. Anthony Hamilton and the HamilTones are NC music icons, hometown celebrities that not only made it but often return home to perform and visit. His newest album What I’m Feelin (2016) featuring the single, “Amen” is available here. Lately he and the HamilTones have become popular for their jazzy takes on various viral clips and popular social media jokes. Their soulful spoof of rapper and CEO Birdman’s “Put Some Respect On It” viral response during a Breakfast Club interview is now infamous. (If you haven’t heard it –here– don’t say we’ve never given you anything.) There isn’t anything the guy’s can’t make sound beautiful, and their clips prove it. You can hear the candied yams and Grandma’s cornbread in Anthony’s voice, it’s so rich and smoky. From covering The Floaters’ “Float On”, to a blended remix segway using Jodeci “Freakin’ You”. I’m pretty certain I’m pregnant just listening to their version of Prince’s “Adore”. My favorite part was watching all the couples start dancing and singing to each other when he sang his hit song “Best of Me”. The vibe was all love and I left the venue feeling starry eyed, and could pretty much ride a cloud the rest of the night Goku style after that set.

Young Bull Music-3

The Pinhook hosted this year’s Carolina Music Award winner for Best R&B Group Young Bull from Durham, NC. They mix hip hop with soul music but think more Bryson Tiller than Tory Lanez as far as sound.

Young Bull Music-2

Way more soulful in my opinion, closer to if say Mos Def decided to experiment with trap soul. Their song “We Up” is fire, and catchy as hell. I caught myself singing the hook later that night and it immediately puts me in the mind of Souls of Mischief.

Young Bull Music

Tahmique Cameron, Christian Sinclair, and Gabe Fox-Peck make up this hip hop trio and they’ve been touring and performing up and down the east coast. They are ones to get up on so check out their album Sopadelic.


I hiked back downhill (thank goodness) to the Athletic Park to see the final headliner of the night, Maxwell (Columbia). I’ve seen the singer once before and he always delivers vocally, and is good for some comedy and light hearted banter. Dressed in a black suit and kufi, giving a 90s throwback vibe, he sang a mix of old and new hits. There were favorites off his newer bodies of work like Pretty Wings, and Lake By The Ocean to classic cuts that are crowd favorites like the sexy Fortunate.


Maxwell is one of those men whose sex appeal is effortless and not contrived. He always comes off genuine and I’ve never seen him dance so much. He was dancing dancing, getting low and body rolling which I don’t think anyone was complaining about. That falsetto grabs you and his love songs are more like poetry. I’ve always enjoyed his lyric writing, his words pull at your heartstrings which is why his ballads are consistently moving emotionally.  


He’s currently out on the 50 Intimate Nights Live Tour and he will be playing at 10/9 – Charlotte, NC – Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre.

After being so sweetly serenaded, I was ready to party. DJ Spinderella of Salt-N-Pepa and 9th Wonder, hometown NC golden child of Little Brother, producer and lecturer, were spinning a DJ set at Duke Armory. Fellow Jamla DJ, DJ Jayclipp was on hand to help hype up the crowd.


Spinderella is hip hop royalty and the first woman DJ I ever saw as a hip hop fan. She spun some great classics that helped get everyone in the mood to dance like ATCQ “Thank You” and De La Soul with some light scratching before what appeared to be equipment problems cut her set short. The Armory was starting to fill up when 9th Wonder stepped in stage and dived right in. I know that 9th often hosts an event called 95 Live, and I’ve heard how dope the party’s end up being but I’m old and they often go on after my self imposed 9pm bedtime  so that’s the excuse I’m using for why I’ve never attended one.


Let me say this: I’ve been seriously missing out. I could say 9th killed his set but that’s not really describing what happened. As one fan, Tameka J. said, “It’s like a high school party!” The Armory is set up like one big room so you’re either dancing or posted up on the wall because the only limited seating area on to one side in VIP. So the entire venue was pretty much packed with dancing bodies.

Everyone was sweating out their hair and cute outfits and I saw nothing but smiles and jubilation. It’s like all the adults forgot they were adults and just had fun got awhile. The cops had to come shut it down evidently, talk about nostalgia. That’s a business sign of a party well done right there, when the cops gotta come kick everybody out House Party style. I had to sneak through VIP just to even get out the building. It was hard to leave the party but I couldn’t miss the next, my last group of the night.

Sons of Khemet

Sons of Khemet  is a band I’ve been aware for some time. The British Jazz band is made up of members Shabaka Hutchings, Tom Skinner, Theon Cross, and Eddie Hick and they’ve made a name for themselves in the Jazz circle. They’re originally from London, using primarily brass instruments. I love their sound because it’s like jazz and afrobeat had a baby and that baby is their Your Queen is a Reptile LP.

Sons of Khemet-5

It’s jazz that thumps and you can’t help but sway rather than nod or tap your feet. I made it just in time to catch a seat because the Pinhook quickly filled to capacity with fans. Watching Theon Cross grooving with his tuba was such a treat, I love watching artists get caught up in the music still. When I left there was a big line outside with more walking up, waiting to get the opportunity to get in.

Sons of Khemet-4

Day One performance wise was on point, festival attendees were happy once the ticketing fiasco was sorted out and everyone I spoke to said how much of a good time they were having. Several people mentioned how they were excited and proud to have Durham throwing a festival on this scale of events, and it reminded me that Cicely and Al’s vision of community is still felt, regardless of the change of hands. I headed home to gear up for the even fuller schedule for Day two.

Saturday Day Two

Day two, the last day of AOC. After all the crazy partying from last night, Saturday has a lot to live up to. Today has a full schedule with yoga glasses and even fortnite tournaments during the day and the festival shows officially starting at 4. Tonight’s headliners are Royce Da 5’9, Nas and Erykah Badu.

Saturday was a different animal. It had a lot more acts but it also felll a lot further behind so after 8pm you pretty much had to decide between catching the headliners or catching none and sticking to the smaller venues. With the back and forth between venues and acts performing at the same time as the headliners, most of the attendees I saw out and about everywhere yesterday all pretty much hung out at Durham Athletic Park. It was just easier. That was disappointing since there were great acts like Dwele and Vanessa Ferguson performing that day as well.


I did get to check out one new act, opener Bryan J. He’s adorable, I could definitely see my younger cousins rocking with him. He started doing covers like Frankie Beverly and Maze “Before I Let Go,” smart strategically because it played to the age of the audience and he didn’t do a bad job of it. He had a great command of the stage, playing to the audience. He’s got a song with hip hop group Travis Porter that you should check out called “Let Me Take You Out.”

Rapper Big Pooh

Apparently Royce 5’9” missed his plane, and his set was one I had been looking forward to. NC hip hop to the rescue though. NC hip hop group Little Brother responded to the bat signal because not all heroes wear capes as the saying goes. I won’t make light of the schedule change, I’m going to celebrate it like the historic moment it was. Little Brother was the group that made me glad to be an artist in hip hop. Their sound was what these current singing rappers strive for: a trifecta of lyrics, harmonious singing and immaculate production. No shade because all genres must evolve and hip hop is no different. Hearing Atari 2600 by Little Brother changed my life and altered a new course in hip hop. So watching Big Pooh, 9th Wonder, and Phonte all on stage for the first time in 10 years was like watching the Fugees reunite. They performed Step My Game Up,” “Speed,” and “Watch Me”and it was like going back in time. You would’ve thought they’d performed last week, not last decade. The chemistry was still there and oh my goodness don’t let them get the great idea to do a tour because let me tell you, I’m reaching I know,  but I’m going to reach until they shut me down. As Phonte stated though, it was only fitting they reunited in the place it all started, Durham.


I think I could’ve been good for the rest of  night but Nas (Def Jam) was next to come. He literally pulled up in the truck and jumped on stage, cup in hand and full of energy. He did my favorite song of his “The World Is Yours,” “Street Dreams,” and “If I Ruled the World,” among others. With band in tow, drummer singing hooks, I felt like Nas was more lively than the last time I saw him this summer.


He’s a lyricist, one many consider one of the best to ever touch a mic, so you’ll never see him dancing like crazy but he definitely was more amped than I’ve seen, even though he never spits the entire lines of his songs. By the time he got to crowd favorites like “You Owe Me” and “Made You Look,” his audience was already on full tilt. NC made sure he felt their energy because the crowd was losing, far different than how it was with his Raleigh show a couple years back. He even stayed behind a bit to give hugs and take pics with some lucky bystanders.


Now love Erykah Badu (Universal Motown)as much as we do, she’s habitually late but I don’t think anyone really cared since by now the whole show was running at least 30 mins behind schedule. She always good for something unique or edgy for her stage set up. This show she had billowing white sheets hiding her band with red lights lighting up the stage. She entered on the side of the stage, barely visible in all the red.  She eventually moved centerstage, doing a mashup of “Love of My Life” over ATCQ Bonita Applebum beat. She freestyled about her life, on her son Seven and how she’s been waiting for all the 90s babies to grow up and fully understand the music she created around that time.


Badu always talks to the crowd, making sure they feel what she’s trying to give, offering up stories and jokes. As always she went into the history of the Ankh and what her 360 degree lyrics meant. She educates her fans. It always feels like an intimate show, even when it’s at a venue like the Athletic Park. She performed “Window Seat” and “…..& On,” and can I say this woman is flawless to be going on 46 years old as she informed the crowd. The show was awesome, and musicians I missed I ended up running into like the beautiful and talented singer Vanessa Ferguson. It was a nice way to end the final day so I packed, said my goodbyes and tried to beat the traffic.


For Dome Group’s first year doing a major festival, performance wise I was happy. Besides staggering the performance times, I thought the variety of lineup was nicely done. They had a healthy mix of NC musicians, helping keep it true to the festival’s roots but I enjoyed the heftier hip hop additions. I would like to see a bit more Jazz artists in keeping with AOC heritage but I think this was a good first effort for everyone involved. Now that year 5.1 is done, I can’t wait to see what they will make happen next year. Sulaiman and Lesleigh Mausi definitely brought a new feel to the local festival, let’s see what great things  happen for Art of Cool in 2019.

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