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Durham's Creative Soul: Exploring the Vibrant Black Arts Scene 

Welcome to Durham's Black artist scene. Here, every brushstroke tells a story, every lyric resonates with truth and every performance ignites the spirit of curiosity.

Posted By Khalisa Rae on Jun 10, 2024

This story is a part of our African American Heritage Guide Project, a printed guide and collection of stories about Durham's Black history, culture, community and entrepreneurship created by Black writers, poets and artists. Find more stories and information about the guide.

Durham's Black artists are the heartbeat of a city pulsing with cultural vibrancy, and anyone and everyone can find a pocket of creativity and craft their community, regardless of interest. Durham is a place where passion meets purpose; where art is not just a reflection of life, but a catalyst for new experiences and creativity.

From visual arts to music, theater and literature, Black artists in Durham have long been at the forefront of shaping the city's cultural landscape and enriching its social fabric. Artists such as Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Shirlette Ammons, Derrick Beasley, adrienne maree brown, Dare Coulter, Dasan Ahanu and more use their creativity and commitment to social justice to shape Durham's identity as an inclusive art hub.

The Bull City offers a plethora of spaces where Black artists can showcase their talents and where art enthusiasts can immerse themselves in the rich tapestry of African American culture, from historic landmarks to contemporary galleries. Over the years the Black art scene has bloomed from speakeasies and corner plays, to poetry slams, African drumming, vocal rhythms and dramatic presentations can be heard and seen every night of the week in this bustling city.

Blue light and smoke bathe a performer on stage at Beats N Bars in Durham.

Durham has so many fun spaces and events that showcase Black art, like Beats N Bars. Photo: Discover Durham

But the scene didn't emerge as the arts mecca it is overnight. Rather, it has been cultivated over time through the efforts of numerous individuals, organizations and community initiatives.

Today’s contemporary Black artists stand on the shoulders of Durham legends who paved the way, such as Shirley Caesar, renowned gospel singer; Baba Chuck Davis, revered dancer, choreographer and founder of the African American Dance Ensemble; Phillip Freelon, renowned architect responsible for numerous landmarks in Durham and beyond, including the National Museum for African American History in Washington, DC.; Howard L. Craft, a contemporary playwright and poet who emerged as a prominent figure in Durham's Black arts community; John Biggers, an acclaimed African American muralist and educator who left an indelible mark on the city's arts community as the founding director of the art department at North Carolina Central University.

Without giants like six-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and composer Nnenna Freelon and fashion icon and former editor of Vogue, Andrew Leon Talley, Durham’s art scene would not have the historical vibrancy it possesses today. These key figures, along with many others, have played instrumental roles in shaping Durham's Black arts community, leaving a lasting legacy of creativity. Their contributions continue to inspire and influence artists and art enthusiasts in Durham and beyond.

Let's delve into some of the key players in Durham's Black art scene, from renowned institutions to hidden gems waiting to be discovered.

Arts Spaces

Influential painter and Duke professor Beverly McIver and visual artist, Ernie Barnes have left an imprint in the Black art scene of Durham with her emotionally charged portraits exploring themes of race, identity and family, drawing on her own experiences growing up in Durham. Visitors to Bull City will be met with murals, paintings and public art on street corners, building walls and sidewalks that bring the images to life and sing the streets electric.

The Hayti Heritage Center

The Hayti Heritage Center stands as a testament to expansiveness of the Black community. Once the heart of the city's Black business and cultural life, this landmark now serves as a beacon of heritage and creativity. Exhibits like “Return to Revive” pushes boundaries and calls back to ancestry with artists such as Rachel “Gemynii” Stover, Wade Williams, Willie Bigelow and Freedom Clay. Programming that spans the annual Hayti Heritage Film Festival to musical performances and educational programs highlights the contributions of contemporary Black artistic expression while honoring the past.

North Star Church of the Arts

Founded by Phil and Nnenna Freelon, North Star Church of the Arts is a community-centered space in Durham that hosts a variety of events centering Black artists, including art exhibitions, theatrical performances, panels and workshops. Founded with a focus on social justice and community empowerment, North Star provides a platform for Black creatives to showcase their work and engage with the community through inclusive programming and textured experiences.

Ella West Gallery

Located on downtown Durham's historic Parrish Street, Ella West bridges the gap between tradition and innovation in Black art. With a focus on showcasing the work of both established and emerging artists, this gallery offers a dynamic space for creativity to flourish. From traditional African art to contemporary interpretations of Black culture, Ella West Gallery celebrates diversity and pushes the boundaries of artistic expression, enriching Durham's cultural landscape in the process.

The owner of Ella West Gallery, Linda Shopshire, sits in the middle of the main gallery room.

Head to Ella West Gallery to appreciate Black art across multiple genres. Photo: Morgan Crutchfield Photography

NCCU Art Museum

Collections include paintings, sculptures, prints, African art and artifacts. The museum has temporary exhibitions of African American art from national, regional and local artists and exhibits art from local public school students.

Find more arts spaces in our blog.

An exhibit at the NCCU Art Museum shows paintings from Black artists.

Visit the NCCU Art Museum to appreciate Black art across a variety of mediums. Photo: Discover Durham

Retail Spaces that Celebrate Black Artistry

The legendary Andre Leon Talley gave way to makers and designers in Durham.

Black Farmers’ Market

Lovers of fashion and handcrafted goods can visit Durham’s Black Farmers Market to shop directly from Black makers, as well as local Black-owned boutiques and shops with an artistic and fashion focus. Don't miss the beautiful, locally grown produce and prepared foods, as well!

A woman makes a purchase at The Black Farmers Market in Durham

Visit The Black Farmers market for a little bit of everything. Photo: Samantha Everette


Downtown Durham staple, Exotique, was founded by Lola Olufolabi and her husband Yemi Olufolabi. Originally from Nigeria, Lola moved to North Carolina from the United Kingdom (U.K.) and soon opened her boutique and art gallery with a globetrotting focus. Exotique Boutique & Art Gallery celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, showcasing art, handcrafts and promoting artisans through fair trade practices. Lola travels extensively to find artists and artisans, supporting their businesses and enriching the community through fashion and artisan designs.

Cultural Festivals and Events

An array of cultural festivals and events take place throughout the year, such as the Beats N Bars and the Hayti Heritage Film Festival, both showcasing the talents of local and regional Black artists and performers while fostering community engagement and dialogue. Other events include –

Bimbé Cultural Arts Festival

An annual, free celebration of African American culture and heritage in Durham dating back to the 1960s. The festival features music, dance, art, food and cultural activities that highlight the contributions of the Black community to Durham's cultural landscape. The Bimbé Cultural Arts Festival serves as a platform for local artists, musicians and performers to showcase their talents and celebrate the richness and diversity of African American culture in Durham.

Fans cheer by the stage as artists perform at Bimbé Cultural Arts Festival.

Listen to both local and touring acts at Bimbé Cultural Arts Festival. Photo: SP Murray


On New Year's Day, the African American Dance Ensemble presents Kwanzaafest, a celebration of African American heritage, culture and family on the final day of the seven-day holiday at the Durham Armory.

A performer smiles while they dance at Kwannzaa Fest in Durham.

See the lively performances at Kwanzaafest. Photo: SP Murray

NC Juneteenth Celebration

Hosted by Spectacular Magazine each Juneteenth for nearly 20 years, North Carolina’s official Juneteenth Celebration includes live music, food trucks, vendors, kids’ entertainment and much more.

Children walk in the Juneteenth processional in Durham, North Carolina.

Enjoy the lively processional during the NC Juneteenth Celebration in Durham. Photo: Keenan Hairston

Griot and Grey Owl Blk Southern Writers Conference

Rooted in Durham, NC, and founded by poetic duo, Eric and Khalisa Thompson, the Griot and Grey Owl Black Southern Writers Conference is an annual writers conference downtown Durham dedicated to shedding light on Black Southern writers, particularly authors and writers in Durham NC. Featured artists have included Durham-natives and renowned poets, DJ Rogers, Destiny Hemphill, Crystal Simone Smith, Zelda Lockhart, whose poetry and stories can be seen in local bookstores such as the Letters Bookshop, and on stages at the Hayti Heritage Center, North Star Church of the Arts and Missy Lanes.

Black Theater and Dance

As Black-centered performing arts spaces continue to grow and expand, Durham's vibrant theater scene offers a rich and diverse array of talented Black actors and directors across various venues. From The Carolina Theatre to the Hayti Heritage Center, audiences and visitors of all ages can experience compelling theatrical performances. The Durham Arts Council, The Fruit and North Star Church of the Arts regularly showcase Black stage performers featuring Black playwrights, while groups like Hoof n Horn and Durham Regional Theatre provide valuable platforms for budding Black youth thespians. Organizations like MOJOAA Performing Arts Company, founded by Durham dancer and actress Monét Marshall, passionately share Black stories through theater in transformative spaces.

Discover a range of inclusive dance opportunities for Black dancers at Empower Dance Studio and Breathe Studio. These studios offer a diverse selection of classes for Black dancers of all ages and skill levels with classes in modern, jazz, African dance, tap and more. Durham welcomes dancers to explore their passion for movement and cultural expression.

Performers dance on stage at The American Dance Festival

See dance performances of all types at The American Dance Festival. Photo: SP Murray

NCCU Department of Theatre credits the late Dr. Johnny B. Alston and his contributions to the strength and success of NCCU Theatre. The firm foundation that he and those before built him like Dr. Linda Norfleet, Ms. Karen Dacons-Brock, Ms. Nancy Pinckney and Baba Chuck established, catapulted generations of future Black thespians. North Carolina Central University's (NCCU) theater department stands as a cornerstone of the Durham theater community, wielding a profound influence that resonates far beyond its campus walls. With a legacy rooted in excellence and a commitment to artistic innovation, it serves as a beacon of creativity and cultural enrichment within Durham and beyond. Thought-provoking performances, educational programs and cultural events make NCCU's theater department a rich textile in Durham’s theater community.

Groups like the African American Dance Ensemble and local theater companies have showcased the talents of Black actors and creatives, fostering a vibrant and inclusive theater scene that reflects the diversity and complexity of Durham's community. Stage performers, dancers and directors like Nadia Bodie Smith, Lakeisha Coffey, Xavier Cason, Chauntee’ Schuler Irving, Sonny Kelly and Kenneth Hinton; not only deliver gripping performances, but keep Black theater and the work of legendary Black playwrights alive in Durham.

Black Musicians and Venues

From the early days of Durham’s history, local musicians like Blind Boy Fuller, Pigmeat Markham and Betty Davis have been influential in Black music traditions, including Blues, hip hop and funk. Since then, many figures, including hip hop duo Little Brother, have carried on the tradition. Brother Yusuf Salim is credited with helping to establish and grow Durham’s thriving and vibrant jazz community. Jazz giants like Branford Marsalis continue to influence the scene, bringing along young talent through renowned programs at NCCU, brought to national acclaim under the late Brian Horton, and Duke University under bassist, composer and bandleader John Brown.

An NCCU Jazz Studies alumni plays saxophone on stage.

NCCU Alumnus Marcus Anderson hosts the Marcus Anderson Jazz and Coffee Experience. Photo: Discover Durham

Missy Lanes Assembly Room

For those seeking an intimate jazz lounge experience, Missy Lanes is the perfect destination to sit back, sip and indulge in smooth sounds. Located in a distillery downtown Durham, this low-lighted experience has been called a “vibe” by attendees and performers alike. Whether it be day-time coffee or night time live music concerts and Eloquent Soul open mic, Missy Lanes provides a platform for Black jazz and spoken word artists. Founder of Art of Cool’s, Cicely Mitchell, the vision is to be a home for rhythm and blues, showcasing decades of musical influences by award-winning musicians, Rissi Palmer and Collin Williams. Missy Lanes stands as a modern day juke joint with musical stylings that calls back Durham’s long connection to soul.

A singer performs on stage in the dim lights of Missy Lane's Assembly Room.

Enjoy live music in an intimate setting at Missy Lane's. Photo: Chris Charles


Durham-based community organization Blackspace is dedicated to empowering Black youth through arts, activism and technology. Founded in 2016 by Grammy-nominated artist Pierce Freelon, Blackspace encourages young people to express themselves creatively, amplify their voices, and become agents of change. As a vital resource for Durham's Black community, Blackspace plays a crucial role in nurturing the next generation of artists, activists and leaders, ensuring that their voices are heard and their talents are celebrated. The space provides a unique blend of digital and arts-based workshops, African-centered events and storytelling projects. Take advantage of free weekly programming rooted in Afrofuturism, including activities like poetry, coding, puppetry, 3D printing and beat making. One hallmark offering is MED CITY CYPHER where every 1st and 3rd Friday night, youth gather downtown Durham by the bronze bull to rap and make beats because they believe rhythm is deeply medicinal.

Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture at Duke University

Since 1983, the Mary Lou Williams Center affectionately known as the “Lou”, has had the mission of offering a safe and affirming space that supports the diverse needs of Black people at Duke University. Mary Lou Williams, “the lady who swings the band,” was a prominent jazz pianist, composer and arranger who influenced the likes of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Duke’s first artist-in-residence, Williams was a pioneering figure in Durham's arts community, known for her dedication to preserving African American culture and heritage. As the founder, Williams played a pivotal role in encouraging Black students to explore their identity and engage with issues of race, social justice and community activism through the arts. Through lectures, performances, exhibits and gatherings, the Mary Lou Williams Center broadens appreciation and awareness of the African diaspora. Visitors can witness the Lou’s Wednesday jazz nights that in the past have featured John Brown, Vice Provost of Duke Arts, and The North Carolina Central University Vocal Jazz Ensemble.

Murals: Street Art as Social Commentary

In addition to galleries and cultural centers, Durham's Black arts scene can be found adorning the city's streets and buildings. From colorful murals depicting scenes of Black joy and resilience to thought-provoking pieces addressing social issues and honoring significant figures in Durham’s past and present, street art serves as a powerful form of expression and activism in Durham. Whether commissioned by local artists or created through community collaborations, these murals add vibrancy and depth to the city's urban landscape, inviting residents and visitors alike to reflect on the diverse experiences and perspectives of Durham's Black community. Explore Durham's murals that celebrate Black history and culture.

A man stands in front of one of Durham's Black history murals.

Durham's murals tell a story of Durham's Black community that you won't want to miss. Photo: Eric Waters

A Tapestry of Diversity and Creativity

Step into Durham, where the vibrant pulse of the city is fueled by its thriving Black art scene. Here, diversity, creativity and social consciousness converge to create a tapestry of cultural richness and innovation that has shaped Durham's identity for generations. From the captivating rhythms of spoken word poetry to the soulful melodies of jazz, Black artists in Durham are the architects of change, using their craft to inspire and uplift. When exploring the Bull City, jamming to live performances and immersing yourself in multi-disciplinary art exhibits and experiences are sure-fire ways to transport yourself to new realms of experience and emotion.

The influence of Durham's Black art scene extends far beyond the canvas, permeating the fabric of the city's present-day culture and identity. From the revitalization of historic neighborhoods to the emergence of new community spaces, the impact of Black artists can be seen and felt throughout Durham. Their work serves as a catalyst for important conversations and connections that transcend boundaries. Discover the heart of Durham's Black arts community, where creativity knows no bounds and every story is a symphony waiting to be heard.

Literary Arts

From Pauli Murray, Randall Kenan and Mandi Carter, to the Hayti Heritage Center Jambalaya Soul Slam, and our first Durham Poet Laureate, stories are alive in Durham and have given weight to spoken word at Missy Lanes, Letters Bookshop and Oak House Coffee. Durham's writing scene is rich with history and innovation, where past and present literary voices intertwine to tell compelling stories of resilience, culture and community.

Poetry Dedicated to Black Durham

Ode to a City in 11 Haiku – by Durham Poet Laureate D.J. Rogers

The River Speaks of Thirst, For Our Beloved Eno River – by NC Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green

About the Author

Khalisa Rae - Author

Khalisa Rae is an award-winning author, educator, and arts administrator based in Durham, NC. She is the author of two books, including her debut collection, Ghost in a Black Girl's Throat from Red Hen Press 2021. She is the winner of the Appalachian Arts and Entertainment Award and multiple poetry prizes. She is the esteemed co-founder of Griot and Grey Owl Blk Southern Writers Conference in Durham, and the new Theater and Literature Director at the North Carolina Arts Council.