Rural and urban collide in the sound of Shirlette Ammons' music

Shirlette Ammons performing at Hopscotch 2018
Shirlette Ammons performing at Hopscotch 2018 | Photo by Sandra Davidson for the N.C. Arts Council
Saturday, March 2, 2019

Shirlette Ammons isn’t interested in staying in her lane. Best known for her work as a musician, she is also a poet, filmmaker, and activist who claims both rural and urban. Her childhood in the tiny eastern North Carolina community of Beautancus influences her creative voice just as much as Durham, the town she now calls home. In an interview for the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50 for 50 project, Shirlette reflected on how those places shape her sound.  

Musician Shirlette Ammons reflects on her connection to North Carolina.

You grew up in eastern North Carolina. Will you talk about the creative context you grew up in and how it shaped your identity as an artist?

I have a twin sister and we grew up in rural North Carolina. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of open space, and we were really imaginative. My first performance was for a corn field that we imagined as an arena of people, so I’ve always been creative and always had that outlet. 

I grew up in church, and I always sang in the choir and recited Easter speeches as we call them – [they are] poems in essence. I always wrote short stories and drew, so I was always inclined to be creative and was always encouraged to be outside. Probably the best thing about growing up in eastern North Carolina is space…open land…and the ability to look out over the span of nothingness for miles and think. I grew up with a wonderful backdrop for becoming a creative person.

You are now a Durhamite. Will you speak to what makes Durham a good community for you to work as an artist?

I love Durham. It’s like any place that has its complexities, but for me it’s been a wonderful place to challenge myself as an artist…to reach beyond my own personal safety zones and work outside of the genres that I’ve been prescribed that I never actuallyreally ever claimed myself. Coming to Durham gave me an opportunity to really shake loose those labels that I didn’t want to own and meet creatives who I otherwise wouldn’t know, who I would not have had the opportunity to work with. 

Every song on my last record Language Barrier has a different artist on it. Every artist is of boundless genres, and I’m into that. That’s kind of how I envision my life being [with] these really malleable boundaries that Durham has helped me decide how and when to challenge. I think that’s the spirt of Durham — not just musically, but also in terms of social activism. A lot of folks I know here in Durham are both those things. They are artists, and they are activists, and they negotiate both things in everything they do and celebrate those things in everything they do. 

Arts are important to elevating people’s voices. The arts are important to cultivating new ideas, and also to bringing people together – not in this superficial “we’re all the same way,” but in a way that celebrates all the differences that make us unique and important and valid. That’s something I think is inherent to a democratic society. I think that’s part of any framework of a place that is required to support and celebrate humanity. There’s no way you can support the intellectual growth of a place without supporting the creative growth of a place.

Durham is complicated. There’s a really strong history of black artists who have come through here to perform. The Chitlin’ Circuit ran through here. That’s important history to be familiar with. I’m proud to claim Durham, and I think it’s up to us as artists to really make sure that what we create here is reflective of everybody and the Durham we want to see and leave behind.

In 2017, Durham powerhouses Shirlette Ammons, Phil Cook and Tamisha Waden released the song "Skin and Bones."