What happened to the Triangle's soul? And what of its funk?
Outside of hip-hop and jazz, a quick tally of local acts suggests that the Triangle has perhaps never been as infertile of an incubator for black-centric music as it is today. Homegrown soul, R&B and funk acts like Heather Victoria, The Chit Nasty Band, The George Tisdale Band and Carlitta Durand have yet to capture the renaissance spirit that once catapulted similar soul acts like YahZarah, Darien Brockington and The Foreign Exchange only a few years ago.
In recent years, for instance, the rapper, singer and poet Shirlette Ammons has reduced her own number of area performances. When she arrived at The ArtsCenter in August 2012, though, she almost wept with excitement. She spied a line full of more than 300 black folks, wrapping around the building. Ammons had worked at the multi-use space for the better part of a decade by that point, but it was an unfamiliar venue to many who had shown up to see a free set from soul-funk's strange new android princess, Janelle Monáe. She was stumping for Barack Obama's re-election campaign.
Soon enough, though, Ammons realized the line outside doubled as a missed opportunity.
"I don't know if we put forethought into that and took advantage of the fact that people who don't normally come to The ArtsCenter were in the building," says Ammons, a black, queer-identifying musician, activist and writer. Until October, she was The ArtsCenter's Youth Arts Coordinator. "We didn't take advantage of that moment, then it was gone. No similar moment has happened."
With limited exceptions, like Monáe, jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson and R&B duo Les Nubians, the 355-seat Earl & Rhoda Wynn Theater space has traditionally housed genres not often associated with African-Americans, like bluegrass, folk or indie rock. The venue's new booking agent, Brad Porter, says he remembers maybe two soul acts booked into the space in the four years he's worked there. It's not just The ArtsCenter, either: To find consistent soul and R&B in local rooms, you have to work.
During the last year, Ammons spent large chunks of time touring through Germany and, with the State Department-sponsored Next Level program, Serbia. (See page 18.) While traveling throughout those European countries, she had to find her own personal comfort zones. That renewed her interest in using The ArtsCenter to create similar zones for black music fans.
So she decided to mix it up: With Porter and The Art of Cool Project co-founder Cicely Mitchell, Ammons brainstormed ways to diversify the color of the room's assorted music makers. She recruited revered drummer Chris "Daddy" Dave, who has played with Maxwell and Adele, Robert Glasper and Dolly Parton, and his backing band, The Drumhedz. The Art of Cool and The ArtsCenter worked together to book him into the room, confident that a musician described by Questlove as "the most dangerous drummer alive" could fill at least half of the Carrboro venue.
"As a black musician and someone who worked at The ArtsCenter, I thought, 'Shit, I would like to actually see music here that informs and excites me,'" she says. "That venue is perfect for other types of music."
But on Tuesday, just two days before the gig, The ArtsCenter canceled the show, largely for low ticket sales. For Ammons, the cancellation meant another blow for what she calls cutting-edge black music in the Triangle. In short, if black people don't show up to support black musicians, the venues will stop—or won't even start—booking them.
"Think about someone like Phonte [Coleman] in that room," says Ammons of The Foreign Exchange frontman's knack for audience repartee. "It's a perfect place for that dialogue and exchange. I find it to be a beautiful, untapped resource—a seated room where we can go and hear our favorite crooners and be conversational."
The onus for cultivating a new black music scene may fall on events like the weekly open mic at Skewers Bar and Grill in Durham or Mixed Mic Monday at Cuban Revolution instead of larger, seated venues—The ArtsCenter, Carolina Theatre or Fletcher Opera Theater. In a creative pinch for space, this movement may even find expression in unmarked speakeasies like Durham's Bar Lusconi, where The Art of Cool holds its expensive Sous Sundays fundraisers.
Speaking of high costs, the problem might be a mixture of show prices and a lack of spacing between gigs. In September, for instance, soul and jazz impresario Bilal performed at Durham's Motorco for the third time in just more than a year. In March 2013, he sold it out; only 18 months later, the room was rather empty, with tickets as costly as $30 presumably cutting into attendance.
A month later, on a Tuesday night at Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre, one of Bilal's R&B counterparts, Marsha Ambrosius, subjected a handful of her fans to an uninspiring performance. What's more, a post-show meet-and-greet cost $40 more than the already-pricey tickets.
Perhaps the problem stems, too, from the way live, black-oriented music acts such as Chris Dave and The Drumhedz are presented and consumed—as an event, a spectacle, a party, not just a regular concert where people pay to check out the band.
There are exponentially more fans of this kind of music living in the Triangle than those who actually arrive at the shows. That's a primary reason that The Drumhedz show didn't work and why the second Art of Cool Fest, scheduled for next April in Durham, had to raise an additional $35,000 through a second Kickstarter campaign to even have a next year. Despite a successful first Kickstarter and general community enthusiasm for the inaugural event, ticket sales were too low to give them a sure footing for 2015.
"We used to fill up those hip-hop spaces," says Ammons. "Is it that we're getting older, and we have different desires in terms of what our musical tastes are? Just look at the college scene here: There are all of these historically black colleges and other major universities. A lot of those educated, black, people of color are settling here. This music caters to them, but why aren't they coming out to shows?"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Please, please, please."