Celebrating Black Grammy Nominees and Creative Venues
You don't have to be a talent agent to find Black talent in Durham — just go out and explore.
Posted By Erim Akpan
It’s no secret that Durham is a goldmine of great music, boasting a long history of award-winning artists with strong ties to the city. With so many Black artists to celebrate, we chose to highlight five distinguished Grammy-nominated artists who call Durham home, plus spots with creative vibes where you can discover the next generation of up-and-coming musicians and artists.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Nnenna Freelon is a legendary jazz vocalist, composer, actress, and playwright. In her jazz career, she has amassed six Grammy nominations, and her family has long been considered the face of Durham’s artistic community. Filled with love songs, her recent album, “Time Traveler,” is dedicated to her late husband Phil Freelon.
Her work has been nominated for Grammy Awards in numerous categories, including Best Vocal Album, Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying a Vocal, and Best Jazz Vocal Performance.
Durham native Pierce Freelon is an accomplished hip-hop artist and filmmaker. Pierce has founded many initiatives to inspire marginalized artists such as Blackspace, a digital maker space that mentors youth and teaches digital storytelling.
His 2021 album, Black to the Future, was Grammy-nominated for Best Children’s Music Album. Additionally, he contributed to the album “All One Tribe,” which was also nominated for the category. (Yes, the talent runs deep in the Freelon family. Both mother and son were nominated for Grammys in different categories in the same year!)
Rissi Palmer is a trailblazing and nationally-known country musician based in Durham. Palmer’s unique sound, “Southern Soul,” blends the best of R&B, gospel, and country music. Her 2007 debut album, “Rissi Palmer,” contained the first song by a Black woman to top the charts in 20 years. She has contributed songs to multiple albums nominated for Best Children’s Music Album, including “Little Black Girl” and “I Just Can’t Sit Down.” Palmer often performs at Durham venues, including the Carolina Theater, Durham Central Park and the American Tobacco Campus. She has also been a recent headliner for Duke Performances.
Living in Durham with his wife and three children since 2002, Branford Marsalis is an acclaimed saxophonist, composer, educator and instrumentalist. A versatile musician, Marsalis is also a gifted soloist who has led orchestras across the globe. His extraordinary talent, coupled with his famous performances with the Grateful Dead and Sting, have made him a prominent figure in pop music. Deeply engaged with the community, he serves as an adjunct professor at North Carolina Central University to mentor the next generation of musicians.
His work has garnered over a dozen Grammy Award nominations and the following three awards: Best Instrumental Performance, Best Jazz Instrumental, and Best Pop Instrumental Performance. Make sure to catch his upcoming live concert for Duke Performances.
Born and raised in Durham, Shirley Caesar is one of the most famous gospel singers in the world. With a career spanning 70 years, her work has won 12 Grammy Awards in Best Traditional Gospel Album, Best Gospel Performance, and Best Soul Gospel Performance. Her 1988 song “Hold My Mule” — made famous in recent years with internet challenges quoting the line “I got beans, greens, potatoes, tomatoes” — was #1 on Billboard’s gospel chart for a year straight.
Want to experience the music scene in Durham for yourself? Here are a few local venues and presenters to check out.
804 Old Fayetteville St.
One of the last traces of Durham’s historic Hayti district, known in its heyday as “Black Wall Street,” the Hayti Heritage Center promotes cultural understanding through diverse events, activities and programs that preserve the heritage and embrace the Black experience. The center features a rotating exhibit of Black artists, quarterly concerts, and a number of monthly poetry and literature events. Walking tours of the district are available year-round by appointment.
220 W. Geer St.
NorthStar Church of the Arts believes that artists have the power to engage, uplift and heal communities. With monthly programming that normally coincides with Third Friday events and live music, they provide a welcoming, safe, and vibrant platform for artists to share their art in all its forms — right in the heart of the city.
900 Park Offices Drive
Boxyard RTP combines shopping and dining experiences with networking and social events. Built as a space for the surrounding community and up-and-coming businesses to connect, there’s a lineup of events designed to help visitors and locals alike unwind after a long work day. You can listen to international music, join open jam sessions, or laugh your stress away at a comedy night.
2010 Campus Drive
Founded in 1931, Duke Arts is the professional performing arts presenter at Duke University. With a mission to foster community and further the presentation of new performances, the organization engages local and international future-thinking artists who are masters of their craft. Duke Arts offers a variety of events (both ticketed and free) often collaborating with downtown Durham venues such as the Pinhook and Sound Pure Studios. The 2023 calendar has shows at the Reynolds Industries Theater, Rubenstein Arts Center, Baldwin Auditorium, First Presbyterian Church, American Tobacco Amphitheater, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, and more.
Good Food + Creative Vibes
Looking for spots with great food to go with great music? Durham’s Black-owned bar and dining scene has you covered. In addition to mouthwatering comfort food, Justin’s Bar & Grill hosts a bevy of events highlighting local artists and musicians, as well as a weekly jazz brunch, karaoke and open mic nights. The Living Room, an upscale bar and lounge, features live music on Fridays with a DJ-led afterparty. And Goorsha offers live music on Sundays to enjoy while sipping curated artisan wines and sampling traditional Ethiopian fare.
Durham’s music scene is an essential part of its culture. With talented Black creatives and unique music venues, you'll never find yourself lacking in live music options. Make sure to catch a concert or live show on your next trip.