I didn’t realize how much my social life depended on African communities until I moved back home to Raleigh, North Carolina. Going to school in the northeast and having easy access to major cities such as New York, Philly, and D.C made finding young Africans very easy. Almost too easy, whether it was Afropolitan parties every month in both NYC and DC, random treks to The Shrine in Harlem, Afrobeat nights in Brooklyn (finances permitting #brokecollegelife), or even PASA events at school or nearby schools—there was always something to do, people to shoki and alkayida with, and jollof rice to be eaten.
So when I moved home, I was eager to find the same spaces in the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) but it was hard. While we have the numbers through all the jobs Research Triangle Park has created, and the numerous schools in the area, the community of young Africans networking, connecting and vibing out to afrobeats and hip-hop, was hard to find. While this may sound like me lamenting about my social life, it raises bigger questions about how these spaces function in communities and how they contribute to the overall health and vibrancy of said communities. The social infrastructure around the communities that exist in places like DC, NYC, and Atlanta did not spring up overnight and they are not a function of critical mass—they were built.
Meet Moses Ochola, a builder.
In my quest for the afro-vibe I stumbled upon Moses’s space, The Vault. A Kenyan-American, born and raised in Durham, he owns and manages The Vault at the Palace International, a space in Durham, which through curated programming is bringing contemporary African and diasporic culture to the forefront while building community around this shared culture.
The space, which exists on the lower floor of the Kenyan restaurant founded by his parents, is barely 2 years old. Yet in that time span the space has developed and hosted amazing programming from live music, to poetry, to parties and community events, all with an Afrocentric vibe.
I caught up with Moses to talk about the importance of these spaces and how challenging it can be to engage communities when infrastructure is limited.
Tell me about yourself.
I was born in Durham. I went back to Kenya was I was 1…I was there for 4 or 5 years then I came back and did my whole schooling here.
My dad opened up the first Palace International in ‘88 in downtown Durham. He outgrew that building then moved to Parrish Street, former Black Wall street, and was based there until 2001 when there was a fire and had to leave…Then it was more so a club then a restaurant. The palace became a Mecca in the east coast for people to go out and party to African music but also to listen to music in the diaspora…my dad brought a lot of artists from Africa and the Caribbean.
They decided to open up the restaurant again, bootstrapped it, and I got wind of this…and…came back here in ‘07 and really delved into the restaurant…
The Vault has been there for 2 years…since then I’ve been intentionally and strategically growing slowly to try to build a base just because, as far as from a club standpoint, [it’s] hard… You’ll see that clubs in this area…start off as “Grown and Sexy” then it turns [into] a college spot then it becomes a hood-ass spot…just to meet budget.
So what do you hope to achieve with this space?
I’m trying to cultivate a lounge and arts-centric culture where people come into the Vault not necessarily to drink and twerk but to network…and see entertainment and meet people and actually connect with people. In North Carolina there’s a problem within the professional group [where] they don’t feel like there’s a consistent place where they can network and connect with other like-minded people.
…I think too often people go into spaces and they box it (hood, indie, rap, jazz) and through that decide whether they will patronize it or not. I want this to be a comfortable space for the diaspora so I went about marketing through heavy word of mouth and curating in-house. Through creating a base and foundation, I can widely market the space and anyone in the community can feel like they can participate.
Another side of it that I’ve been very strategic about is, Durham specifically is changing greatly, Raleigh as well. There’s a massive population growth, a massive amount of transplants coming in which inevitably changes the culture of a city and that’s not just…socially but also economically. So if you look back maybe 50 years, the city of Durham was very urban, very black, urban in the metropolitan sense, black through culture and population. What you see now is economically, people are being kicked out, you also see a lot of these people who are still here around the area, being priced out. So event space, whether you’re trying to host a birthday party for your two-year old [or] you’re trying to showcase your art and culture in any medium…these [spaces] are out pricing you and in many cases they are not targeting you at all. So the Vault it supposed to be a [place] where through this process of gentrification…tries to create a space where the entire demographic can have a space to showcase their culture or art or things they want to do for their family or friends.
My first event, I did with Derrick Beasley and Joshua Gunn, was Art Underground, it was a two day event—Perspectives and Art Underground. Perspectives was around a community issue…We had a conversation and we invited 3 or 4 professionals to moderate the discussion and pose questions. And the next day we invited artists from around the community [and] we had a band..it was kind of like a mix and mingle and we had a DJ afterwards…that was one of my first favorite events.
Downbeat is our in-house event—we do it 1st and 3rd Thursdays. The last Downbeat where Joshua Gunn performed was a packed event. We have a house band throughout the season and they invite featured guests to perform. The idea is a hip-hop hour, hip-hop as a culture….and just creating a live sound with a rap artist…it’s really dope, it’s like an unplugged experience, the interaction and participation is dope.
All photos courtesy of The Vault at The Palace International, Photographer: Dare Kumolu