Saturday was a dream come true for North Carolina native J. Cole, whose inaugural Dreamville Festival hosted forty thousand fans from far and wide. Especially for the first major event in Dix Park, the festival, produced by the Dreamville team and Scoremore Shows, ran exceptionally well. Except for the signal jam that made our live coverage almost impossible, every logistical “i” was dotted and “t” was crossed. The traffic around Dix Park was not as bad as expected, and entry was a smooth process. The performances started on time, with two stages at opposite ends of the park strategically avoiding overlap.
The festival attracted a diverse crowd and had a family-friendly vibe. The mud from the previous night’s rain didn’t dampen the comfortable picnic atmosphere. Art installations were spread throughout the park, creating a number of photo ops to choose from. A live sand-carving of the festival’s logo attracted a steady audience. You could visit a beer garden, play a Dreamville-inspired game of miniature golf, and lounge in colorful hammocks. There were plenty of bathrooms and, though the wait time for food could be an hour or more, the options were good. Many people told me it did not feel as if they were among forty thousand other people—there was more than enough room to express oneself.
A mosh-pit led by rapper J.I.D and a surprise guest appearance from Meek Mill were two highlights. Dreamville Records artists dominated the lineup, and regardless of how much radio play they had, their fan bases were front and center, reciting each lyric. This is the magic of Dreamville—the label has managed to carve a unique lane for each of its artists, avoiding comparisons and competition. During his high-energy set, Bas allowed a fan to share the stage with him to recite J. Cole’s verse on “Tribe.” The crowd erupted with excitement as the fan kept up, not missing a beat or a word. Other standout performances came from Big Sean, SZA, Teyana Taylor, and N.C.’s own Rapsody, who came through with her live band, The Storm Troopers.
Hip-hop veteran Nelly was also on the bill, and although at a glance his name looked out of place, festival-goers were excited to relive some of the hottest early-2000s moments. Headliner J. Cole took everyone down memory lane, too, performing tracks from his early discography, starting with The Come Up. The theme was “classics not hits,” as he repeated, acknowledging the journey it took for him to acquire mainstream success. It’s not often fans get to witness a chronological performance of their favorite artist’s songs.
In that moment, Cole allowed forty thousand people to see his hunger, his persistence, his shortcomings, and his growth as an artist and lyricist. Toward the end, he performed a moving tribute to the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was gunned down less than a week before the festival. His presence was felt throughout the day, as Taylor, Big Sean, 21 Savage, Nelly, and many others all paid their respects from the stage.
Promising to give artists their flowers while they are still here, J. Cole surprised fans by bringing out Philly’s Meek Mill. Although Meek was the only real element of surprise—other than how well this first-time festival was run—by the end of the night, when all the official vendors were sold out and closing down, it was clear that Dreamville is a good fit for Raleigh, and Raleigh is a good fit for Dreamville. —Kyesha Jennings
Dreamville is going down as one of the most successful events in Raleigh’s history, according to analysts at Visit Raleigh. Almost half of the people at the sold-out one-day festival came from outside of North Carolina. But what does this success mean for local music culture—more specifically, hip-hop music culture?
For decades, our region has been an appreciated underdog in hip-hop. With the Black communities of New York and North Carolina interconnected by family ties and the draw of major universities as tour stops, our state is a solid foundation of grassroots support. However, until Dreamville, public support and money for hip-hop events have been scarce, and festival curators have had to grind out funding on their own.
Let’s face it: From spring to fall, you can throw a penny in any direction in the Triangle and hit a bluegrass or electronic festival that’s getting some kind of city funding. But hip-hop artists have to operate in a very tight-knit community that rarely gets acknowledged by local mainstream media outlets, despite a swelling list of vibrant current stars, including Deniro Farrar, DaBaby, Mez, Rapsody, and of course, J. Cole, who had to leave the area for more than a decade to come back and bring something of the magnitude of Dreamville Festival to North Carolina.
Is it racism? Is it underestimation of the Black dollar? Is it a generational gap between the people handing out public money and the general public? Maybe all of the above? What can be said for sure is that Dreamville is a chickens-coming-home-to-roost situation. Hip-hop is the most popular genre in the world. The Billboard country charts are even bowing to its influence, and the crowd at Dix Park was filled with Black faces who paid top dollar to be there. There was no violence. North Carolina has homegrown talent that is worth investing in, and now, it’s officially impossible to ignore without looking like you’re doing it on purpose.
Dreamville’s contribution to local hip-hop culture has been met with skepticism by some in the local scene, with mentions sprinkled around social media about how local independent artists and the entirety of the Triangle’s pulsing beat-making and DJ community were snubbed. Last summer, before the original, weather-delayed September date, the festival’s promoters put out recruitment calls to the area’s most sought-after artists, which spread like wildfire and generated a buzz of hope. But ultimately, none of the artists suggested by avid local fans were put on the roster, and no explanation as to why was was offered.
But local hip-hop artists shouldn’t be too disappointed. This is the South, and money speaks louder than anything else—even racism. Though Dreamville didn’t directly influence the local independent scene, it has planted the seed that hip-hop is profitable, feasible, and safe. And it looks a lot cooler than throwing another bluegrass show if you’re trying to attract millennials with money to relocate here. —Charles Morse