Home Arts & Culture Dreamville Festival as a celebration of Black music, culture

Dreamville Festival as a celebration of Black music, culture

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Teezo Touchdown performs at the first day of Dreamville Music Festival in Dix Park in Raleigh, NC on Saturday, April 6, 2024.

Teezo Touchdown performs at the first day of Dreamville Music Festival in Dix Park in Raleigh, NC on Saturday, April 6, 2024.

An R&B songbird who rose to fame in the ’90s with her alto vocal stylings.

The “Queen of Rap,” who climbed the charts with her animated rap flow and alter-egos.

The Fayetteville-raised artist who first gained recognition with a fiery mixtape.

Dreamville Festival, the hip-hop and R&B music event in Raleigh, has always had a diverse line-up. As thousands head to Dix Park this weekend, it has also become a homecoming for those with something in common: a love for music.

J. Cole, the Grammy-nominated rapper from Fayetteville, created the festival in 2018 as an extension of his record label, Dreamville Records. His Cumberland County roots have helped shape the celebration of Black American music, art and people.

“The diversity of the music reflects what has been a long diversity of Black music in North Carolina,” said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor at Duke University who teaches the history of the hip-hop. “There’s a long tradition of very different kinds of Black music, whether it be country, jazz, R&B or hip-hop.

“For a contemporary moment, Dreamville reflects that diversity of taste among Black listeners and also a multi-generational taste of Black music,” he said.

J. Cole headlines the Dreamville Festival in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday, April 2, 2023. Scott Sharpe ssharpe@newsobserver.com

The history and diversity of Black music in North Carolina

Hip-hop was birthed in the Bronx, New York, a half-century ago.

Its foundation — DJing, rapping, break dancing and graffiti — responded to the hardships of urban Black life.

“If you go back 20 years,” Neal said, “it was limited in terms of the range of masculinity that we saw in hip-hop.”

Over the last 20 years, there’s been a shift. Now, Black men and women in hip-hop are much more comfortable being themselves. From Cole to rappers Drake and Kendrick Lamar, “they have very different kinds of personalities and different ways they perform their masculinity,” Neal said.

UNC professor Maya Shipman performs hip-hop and house music as Suzi Analogue. In her beat-making class, she incorporates North Carolina’s deep music history and its diversity.

“We have people and figures in culture, especially coming from African culture. We have griots who always pass down stories,” Shipman said. “It’s important that people know the rich cultures and histories that music comes from.”

Dreamville Festival is important because “we just need spaces that are owned and operated by Black people to celebrate and have Black joy within the community.”

“We have challenges in the music community with spaces being still dictated by people who do not experience the Black experience,” she explained. “It’s great when we can bring all different acts together and celebrate innovation and the connectivity of hip-hop all together.”

The crowd cheers for Earthgang on the first day of the Dreamville Music Festival at Dix Park in Raleigh, NC on Saturday, April 6, 2024. Heather Diehl

Why Raleigh?

“There’s a void in Carolina period for this type of thing,” Cole said in a 2019 interview with Rap Radar and TIDAL after performing at the first Dreamville Festival, which drew 40,000 people. “I’m not from Raleigh, and don’t know nothing (about) Raleigh, but just driving in the streets it felt familiar.”

Adam Roy moved to the City of Oaks when Dreamville was just an idea in 2015. As the festival’s president and co-founder, choosing Raleigh to host the event was a “serendipitous moment.”

At that time, Raleigh had just acquired the 308 acres of land from the state to construct Dorothea Dix Park.

“Raleigh was a fast-growing city, and we were hitting our strides as a label,” Roy said. “They needed to open up this newly acquired park, and what better way to do that than to have J. Cole and Dreamville be ambassadors and welcome people with world-class talent?”

Raleigh welcomed their ideas with “open arms,” he said, and it was easy to meet local artists and others who helped the festival succeed.

And then there were the fans.

“There’s not too many festivals that can sell out a show before any lineup has been seen,” Roy said. “Hardcore fans trust us to deliver, and they enjoy it. This is kind of part of the way Dreamville has done things, keeping that element of surprise.”

Black music fans who attend each year have even given the festival nicknames like “The Cookout.”

“The fans came up with that, and it’s a beautiful thing,” Roy said. “We welcome everybody, but at the core of what we do is for our people, our culture and our fans.”

For Neal, the most exciting part of the two-day music festival being held in Raleigh is seeing its economic impact.

“Now it’s 5 years old, it’s generated more of a reputation, there are more people coming from outside the region to participate,” Neal said.

“I think it becomes part of an extension of J. Cole’s brand and what he contributes to hip-hop, a certain kind of consciousness and a certain kind of realness at the same time and what North Carolina represents in terms of Black popular culture,” he said.

A fan holds up a sign during Ari Lennox’s set at the Dreamville Festival in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, April 1, 2023. Scott Sharpe ssharpe@newsobserver.com

Local businesses, visual artists reap the benefits

Chef James Shufford has lived in Raleigh since childhood and opened his restaurant, Jolly’s Catering, to honor his father, who loved to cook and make people smile.

The Black-owned soul-food restaurant has three food trucks around Raleigh and has taken part in every Dreamville Festival, serving up popular dishes like chicken wings and the “Big Momma” wrap that comes with fried chicken, collard greens, mac-and-cheese and candied yams.

In the days leading up to and during the festival, it’s all hands on deck for the chef and his siblings, children, nieces and nephews, and wife who help run the business.

“Everything is more,” he said. “Speed is key, and we have to keep a high-quality product. That’s the recipe: doing what you do every day but doing it much, much faster.”

Shufford said he loves interacting with people from all over the world who come to the festival and try his soul food, some who might have never had it. Customers there give feedback and share the foods they eat on social media.

Dreamville Festival also hires about a dozen local visual artists to represent the event through imagery.

Zac Bender, a Benson native, said the turning point in his career came after Dreamville approached him about a mural. He quit his job two years ago to go full time as a muralist and illustrator, and his brand, Brutal Bohemian, grew.

Bender had an idea of drawing four Dreamville Records artists — Cole, Earthgang, Rico Nasty, who performed in 2022, and J.I.D. — as tarot cards.

“This year, when (Dreamville) brought me back, they asked me to extend that out to other Dreamville artists,” Bender said. This year’s mural features Omen, Lute and Ari Lennox.

Seeing fans pose for photos in front of his mural or being tagged in posts online has been “inspiring” for Bender.

“As an independent artist … that I am being displayed with these artists that are known internationally, it’s very … validating that my art is synonymous with this festival that they love and they’ve been looking forward to and traveled for.”

Uniquely NC is a News & Observer subscriber collection of moments, landmarks and personalities that define the uniqueness (and pride) of why we live in the Triangle and North Carolina.

This story was originally published April 5, 2024, 8:06 AM.

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Kristen Johnson is a local government reporter covering Cary and Wake County for The News & Observer. She previously covered southeastern North Carolina for The Fayetteville Observer and spent time covering politics in Washington, D.C. She is an alumna of UNC at Charlotte and American University.

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