Culture is cultivated through communal gatherings, where people join together as one for the sake of a common interest or incentive. And for those in attendance at Dreamville Festival this past weekend, the crux of that assignment was to enjoy live performances from some of the biggest stars in Black music alongside other Black people.
Returning for the first time since the Coronavirus pandemic, the second annual Dreamville Festival took place at the historic Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh, North Carolina. This time the festival lasted an entire weekend instead of just one day and was live-streamed for fans at home in partnership with Amazon Music’s Rap Rotation.
With three different stages spread out across the park and lineups for each day boasting headlining performances from Lil Baby (Saturday, April 2) and J. Cole (Sunday, April 3), there was something for everybody. Add in the presence of an actual HBCU marching band and the tailgate-style games in the festival’s VIP section, and the festival essentially felt like a Black college homecoming.
If Dreamville Festival were an academic institution, it would indeed be an HBCU, as both the vibe and turnout were beautifully and overwhelmingly Black—much more so than what people typically imagine when they think of festival season. The vast majority of the faces in the crowd matched the complexions of those performing on stage. This felt uncommon, and in turn, monumental.
“I’ve never seen so many beautiful Black people in one place,” said Brittany from Atlanta. “This is actually my first festival, period, so I’m very overwhelmed, in a good way.”
Given the rising costs of ticket prices at events like Coachella, Governor’s Ball, and even Camp Flog Gnaw (a festival established by a Black artist with a sizeable white fanbase), many festivals have become inaccessible for the average fan. This has resulted in their demographics being skewed in a way that fails to reflect the prevalence of Black culture in popular music.
With many Black artists on festival bills coming from underprivileged backgrounds themselves, at times, it can be a bit unsettling knowing they’re performing for crowds that may not have embraced them under a different circumstance. Yet, this was not the case for Dreamville Festival, as every wrinkle appeared to be geared toward the tastes of certain Black communities—from the Caribbean and soul food cuisines to the staff, which was primarily comprised of Black Carolinians, and even the various hookah stands that filled the air with pineapple flavored smoke.
One attendee, Raquel of Las Vegas, acknowledged how the number of Black people at Dreamville differed from other festivals she had been to in the past. “This is so ethnically diverse,” she told VIBE. “But to see as many [people of color] as I’ve seen and just to be in such great vibes, it’s been amazing.”
Whitley, who traveled from Charlotte for the festival, mirrored Raquel’s comments, albeit while also accounting for the fact that Duke University and the University of North Carolina were facing off in a historic Final Four matchup that same day (Saturday), which may have also altered the turnout locally. “I was expecting there to be more white people actually than what there is, but it’s a good little mix,” she said. “Then considering the area, I definitely felt there’d be more white people. But it is a big night for the area with UNC and Duke playing each other so they might’ve had to dip out and decided to watch that game instead.”
Dreamville Festival being for the culture doesn’t mean it’s discriminatory in nature, as there were attendees of all ages, backgrounds, and demographics in the vicinity. Joey and Jordanna, a white couple who came to the festival as part of a larger group, had a slightly different take, attributing the turnout to being a reflection of the makeup of J. Cole’s hometown of Fayetteville, as well as the rapper’s personal sense of duty to his community.
“In Fayetteville, we’re a melting pot, so we’re used to this,” said proud Fayetville resident Jordanna. Joey, who resides in Raleigh, ultimately agreed but had a more layered response. “A lot of the Black people who’ve made it to be superstars, what do they do? They sell out arenas,” he explained. “It’s high-priced venues, so you do have to spend a lot of money to go in. But what does J. Cole do? Being from Fayetteville, he rents out [Dorothea Dix] Park [and] makes it affordable for everybody to go.”
A similar sentiment was shared by Dee and Sophie, another couple in attendance. Like Jordanna, Sophie, a Brooklyn native who met Dee during their time in the Marines, viewed the crowd of festival-goers as more of a melting pot than a sea of Blackness. “I think it’s a unity. I think you see a good mixture of all different races, even Asians, too, if you think about it. People are here with their kids, you’ve got older people, but I think it’s the vibe, too. It’s relaxed, it’s mellow.”
For Dee, a native of Durham, the Black community’s general acceptance of all races and ethnicities makes the conversation less about division and more about the people coming together. “I think it’s the blackest festival so far,” the retired Marine admits, before elaborating, “What I would say is, it’s not just the melanin, the blackness, it’s the way that it brings other cultures together with us. And if you look in the crowd and you see everybody going in, everybody’s one and it ain’t really no difference. And that’s what I think Blackness is, bringing everybody together as one, and that’s what I saw out here in the crowd.”
With such an impressive lineup, there were plenty of opportunities for the crowd to do just that throughout the two-day event. One of those opportunities was Ja Rule and Ashanti’s dual performance, as the pair performed some of their biggest collaborative and solo hits during the first day of the festival.
Opening with “Mesmerize,” Ja Rule ran through classics like “Holla Holla” and “Put It On Me,” while Ashanti performed joints like “Happy” and “Foolish” from her 2002 self-titled debut. In light of the 20-year anniversary of the album’s release coincidentally being that same day, Ja helped celebrate the occasion by bringing out a cake onstage for Ashanti before closing out their set with their classic duet, “Always on Time.”
At one point during the performance, a woman in the crowd playfully chided her friends for not singing along with the songstress, as even the men were belting out lyrics at the top of their lungs. For Niecey of Kingston, NC, the set was one she had been looking forward to, as well as the subsequent performances from both Kehlani and Wizkid, who followed Ashanti and Ja Rule on the “RISE” stage during their respective slots later in the evening.
“I had a wonderful time, I’m ready for Pt. 2,” Niecey said. “This was the biggest [festival] I’ve been to. I wanted to see Ashanti and I seen her.”
Among the other highlights from Saturday’s show were opening sets by Mereba, Fivio Foreign, and Blxst on the “RISE” stage, as well as Dreamville spitters Lute and EarthGang on the “SHINE” stage. Moneybagg Yo, who performed “Wockesha” and “Time Today” among other fan favorites, was followed on the “SHINE” stage by Saturday’s headliner, Lil Baby. The Atlanta spitter put on a fiery performance, warming up the crowd with his J. Cole collab “Pride Is The Devil” before launching into a string of selections including “Drip Too Hard,” “All In,” and “Close Friends.”
The evening was eventful for a man named Big Smoke, a Fayetville native working at the venue who shared his excitement for all that had occurred. “I had to come out for Moneybagg Yo. That’s my mama’s husband right there,” he joked, “So I had to come out for him. Lil Baby, I had to come out for him, too. I felt Lil Boosie was gonna be out, but if Boosie ain’t coming out, it’s alright. I f**k with everybody, but that’s the major ones I wanna see.”
The second day of the Dreamville Festival didn’t disappoint either, upping the ante with a slew of performances that built on the momentum set by the previous one. Opening sets by Omen, Larry June, and BIA on the “RISE” stage and Kyle Banks, Cozz, and Rico Nasty on the “SHINE” stage were taken in by the early arrivers. Yet, the lineup hit its stride as Bas and Wale attracted sizable crowds to the respective stages they were rocking.
One performance that got an overwhelmingly positive response came via T-Pain, who made his Dreamville Fest debut on Sunday. Performing solo selections like “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” and “Can’t Believe It,” as well as a few of his most notable guest features, T-Pain, who also debuted a new song titled “Just Tips,” engaged the crowd with his jovial nature and wisecracks. By the end, his set turned out to be one of the strongest of the entire weekend. Though he eventually ran out of time with more hits left in his arsenal, he promised he’ll stay on stage as long as the crowd wants the next time he plays the festival.
Dreamville crooner Ari Lennox provided sultry grooves during her performance with vintage cuts like “Backseat” with Cozz, as well as standouts from her Shea Butter Baby album. Her vocals translated well live, a rarity in the age of digitized studio singers. Including an attempt to introduce the crowd to her young nephew, a singer himself who ultimately (and adorably) shied away from the spotlight, Ari’s feel-good set provided a timely change of pace. It was effectively the calm before the storm that was DJ Drama’s Gangsta Grillz set.
Drama, who earned a Grammy Award for his work on Tyler, the Creator’s Call Me If You Get Lost album hours before hitting the stage, took fans back down memory lane with performances from Jeezy, T.I., and Lil Wayne, who ran through tracks from their respective Gangsta Grillz mixtapes and various studio albums.
Immediately after the Gangsta Grillz set, the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived when headliner J. Cole emerged on the “SHINE” stage, bringing the crowd to an uproar with “95 South” from his The Off-Season project, as well as “100 Mil.” However, other than those songs, Cole largely strayed from his more recent material, instead opting to run through choice selections from the entirety of his discography, going as far back as his Friday Night Lights introductory track “Too Deep For The Intro” and Cole World: The Sideline Story’s Missy Elliott-assisted steamer “Nobody’s Perfect.”
Donning a No. 15 Dreamer jersey with the Chicago Bulls colorway, the Fayetville ambassador made room to extend crew love, bringing out the entire Dreamville squad for an amped performance of the Revenge of the Dreamers III posse cut “Down Bad,” as well Ari Lennox for “Shea Butter Baby.” Born Sinner and 2014 Forest Hills Drive also got some burn as “Power Trip” and “Wet Dreamz” turned the crowd into a Hip-Hop recital. Running through a medley of his features, including verses from “The London” and “A Lot,” Cole got introspective, serving up food for thought with “The Climb Back” and the closing number “Love Yourz,” capping off a night and a weekend that all who were in attendance are sure to remember.
As thousands of festival-goers exited the venue, one in particular, summed up its magic in how it brought people together on one accord. “This is one of the biggest things that North Carolina ever has, especially on a music standpoint,” said Trish, a native of North Carolina who currently resides in Atlanta.
“This is my second year coming. The first time was amazing and this is definitely a step up. And J. Cole’s for the people. You can tell how it’s really been mapped out, it’s just really dope. And I done ran into old childhood friends and college friends, not even through social media, just naturally running up to them. So, it’s just been beautiful—and love.”