Craig Mitchell brings the fun — and lessons of social justice — with his music

WINOOSKI – Craig Mitchell is known for bringing the fun, whether it’s as a club DJ, as the man in charge of the now-defunct Burlington gay bar 135 Pearl or as singer of a Prince tribute band, Purple, that performs Thursday at The Higher Ground Drive-In Experience.

Mitchell is also a gay person of color who has taken on challenging roles of leadership in causes of social justice. He led the drive to raise a Black Lives Matter flag Aug. 7 in the traffic circle in his hometown of Winooski and print “Winooski Strong” T-shirts to further awareness of racial issues.

Mitchell, who has mostly lived in Vermont since arriving at St. Michael’s College in 1989, spoke last week with the Burlington Free Press about his dual life of entertaining and mobilizing. These quotes of Mitchell’s are from that interview, edited for concision and clarity.

More:BLM flag raising marks launch of Winooski anti-racism campaign; effort has raised over $15k

DJ/musician Craig Mitchell in Winooski on Aug. 13, 2020.

Experience as a Black man in Vermont

“It’s been mostly good. There have been little things here and there, of course, and stuff to work through, stuff to work for.

“Where I grew up in (Saginaw) Michigan I wasn’t Black enough for the Black side of town, wasn’t white enough for the other side of town. I was sort of in limbo. And then I moved to Vermont and all of a sudden, I was a Black man. Whoa! The world’s very different now. Now I gotta think about things differently. I have to reprogram my brain, because I was just being Craig — not saying that I’m not still Craig — but I had to figure out how to be an ally/advocate/social-justice superhero so to speak. It took a lot of navigating, you know?

“I live in the world that I’d like it to be, and sometimes that is in a fantasy world. I don’t want to have the label of gay, I don’t want to have the label of being Black. Me first — only Craig first — and then everything else comes underneath, because that’s who I am, that’s my history. Now I have all the weight of all the other stuff that comes with that, so I’ve got to bring Black culture with me, I have my not-Black-enough culture I bring with me (laughs), and my life experience as well as being gay.”

One confrontation in Winooski that changed Mitchell’s life ‘forever’

“I live right here, on the (Winooski traffic) circle, I leave my apartment, I get to the corner, I push the button so the lights flash so I can cross the street, there are cars stopped right there. And this car — (makes sound of screeching brakes) — pulls up right here (next to him). There’s three people on their phones laughing and the guy driving (says) ‘You (expletive) n….., hurry the (expletive) up!’ I knew what they were trying to do — the three were trying to catch me on camera so they could edit it and make it look like the narrative was very different.

“I crossed the street, I keep going and part of me, honestly, I felt defeated and deflated because I didn’t do anything. What I would have done, who knows?… The venom that came from his voice was like, ‘Ouch!’ I mean, it hurt, so much. And I think about it every time, and we’re talking four and a half years later. I’m still there. That’s the one thing that people don’t realize when they’re, ‘Oh, we’re just having fun, we’re joking around, oh, big deal, blah blah blah, get over it!’ No — you changed my life, forever, that one little moment.”

DJ/musician Craig Mitchell stands Aug. 13, 2020 beneath a Black Lives Matter flag he helped raise days earlier in the Winooski rotary.

On turning the tables after that incident

“There’s the punch in the head that you can give someone, whether it be with words or physically, or you can massage them or give them a kiss on the cheek, or leave them standing there going, ‘Wait… but… I… I… I tried to rile you up, and it didn’t work.’ You may have changed my life, and hopefully I changed yours by not responding in the way that you wanted me to.”

What a Black Lives Matter flag means for his town

“It’s the first thing you see when the wind’s blowing…. It’s very cool that this little town is willing to do the work, and willing to at least open the door and sit down and talk about it, and admitting what we don’t know, including myself. I’m still learning, I’m still growing, I’ve made mistakes. I’m still figuring out, like I said, carving my way through this whole thing. It’s uncharted waters for a lot of us.”

DJ Craig Mitchell spinning at the January Thaw Beach Party Jan. 17, 2009, at Higher Ground in South Burlington.

Combining fun and messages

“When I had issues with folks at 135 Pearl, with the gay community picketing us and being pissed that we were no longer ‘the gay bar’ anymore, all that stuff, there was one night I was in the (DJ) booth and the place is packed with people that are sort of ‘orientation-less,’ as most of my friends were and so on. And I got on the mic and I said, ‘You know what? Within these walls, on this dance floor, there’s no such thing as gay or straight, white or black, man or woman — we’re all one people united by rhythm, and if you don’t believe that get the (expletive) outta my house!’… We’re having fun, let me slip this in, now let’s get back to the fun.

“And even with that we can still have fun with it, and hopefully it resonates with certain folks, and the folks that don’t get it, I always remind them, either I say, ‘Get the (expletive) outta my house!’ or, the main one, the one I use now, ‘You’re at the wrong show. So it’s OK. You can get up and leave. I won’t judge you. Make room for the people that really want to be here. And that’s OK.’”

More:Black Vermonters share stories about life in the Green Mountain State

If you go

WHAT: Purple, a Tribute to Prince featuring Craig Mitchell and his seven-piece band, with DJ Dakota

WHEN: 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 20

WHERE: The Higher Ground Drive-In Experience, Champlain Valley Exposition, Essex Junction

INFORMATION: $65 for a vehicle of up to five people. www.highergroundmusic.com

Contact Brent Hallenbeck at (802) 660-1844 or bhallenbeck@freepressmedia.com. Follow Brent on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BrentHallenbeck.

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