At J. Cole’s Dreamville festival, Dix Park faces its first test

J. Cole’s joy-filled Dreamville Festival

Tens of thousands of people converged in Dorothea Dix Park on Saturday, April 6, 2019 for J. Cole's Dreamville Festival.
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Tens of thousands of people converged in Dorothea Dix Park on Saturday, April 6, 2019 for J. Cole's Dreamville Festival.

J. Cole’s Dreamville Festival, a hip-hop spectacle years in the making, was a definitive test for Raleigh’s future destination park.

Questions swirled around how the city and its partners would fare for its first private event at Dorothea Dix Park.

How would the downtown-adjacent park, designed to keep people out, welcome thousands for its day-long festival?

How would a 308-acre campus with no bathrooms or water fountains transform into a safe and fun celebration of art, food and music?

And increasing the capacity to 40,000 within the last week struck some as too ambitious.

But that has been the story of Dix Park.

It’s a story community leaders and thousands of residents tried to write and create through a months-long planning process to dream the future of the park. How does the Dix campus transition from psychiatric hospital to a world-class attraction? From a former plantation to its tagline of “park for everyone?”

By many accounts, Dreamville passed this test.

J. Cole performs at his inaugural Dreamville Festival at Raleigh’s Dix Park Saturday night, April 6, 2019. Scott Sharpe Scott Sharpe, The News & Observer

An ‘intentional decision’

The music festival — headlined by Cole and featuring SZA, 21 Savage, Big Sean and others — was originally planned for last fall but was washed out when Hurricane Florence was headed straight for Raleigh.

“It was a very intentional decision that the first large-scale festival we have out here is a hip-hop festival,” said Kate Pearce, the senior planner for the park. “Raleigh has bluegrass down. We have Hopscotch down. And those all bring specific demographics. I think (Dreamville) is really something that speaks to the history of the place and hopefully its future.”

The festival was birthed from the desire of Cole, who grew up in Fayetteville and lives in Raleigh. He wanted to give something back to his home state.

“It really took J. Cole and (Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane) connecting to really paint this vision of what this festival could be,” said Joey Voska, who supervises programs at the park. “The mayor has been very involved in making sure all these logistics, all these pieces are coming together.”

Complex, an online music and pop culture publication, describes that connection happening at Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum a few years ago when they talked about Cole’s aspirations. He wanted the festival to be in his home state and he searched for locations in Raleigh and Fayetteville. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park and Raleigh’s PNC Arena were two reported locations, according to Complex.

When the festival was announced over a year ago, McFarlane said, “Musical events like Dreamville are just one example of the types of special events that could be held at Dix. Dreamville will be the first large private concert in the park, and the process of hosting it will help the city and Dix Conservancy as we look to the future.”

Proceeds for the festival will benefit hurricane victims, Dorothea Dix Park Conservancy and Cole’s own Dreamville Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a stated mission to “bridge the gap between the worlds of opportunity and the urban youth of Fayetteville.”

Rapsody salutes the crowd at the Dreamville Music Festival at Raleigh, N.C.’s Dix Park Saturday, April 6, 2019. Scott Sharpe ssharpe@newsobserver.com

“Good Vibes”

Jamal Taylor, originally from Raleigh, traveled from Baltimore for the festival. He had his ticket last year and was planning to drive down in September and was devastated when it was postponed.

“They brought me back,” he said. “The team, the culture, the love. I’m just in the moment, happy, peaceful.”

Kimberly Kimbrough and Kariba Daye, both living in Raleigh, arrived at the festival with their friend Brooke Marron, who came from Philadelphia. They arrived at Dix’s Big Field in a party bus and barely felt any traffic.

“I was surprised and I’ve never been to Dix Park,” Kimbrough said. “When I first saw it was going to be here, I was skeptical to see if it could really hold all these people, and how it would be arranged.”

The two stages, called Rise and Shine, were on opposite ends of the Big Field within the park with artists, merchandise tables, lockers and hammocks in the middle. Attendees who found a spot near the front of the stage pits stayed to claim their spots for future shows.

Around the edges, food trucks, vendors, water tents, medical stations and bathrooms were spaced out. Winston-Salem resident Pat Culbreth, of Some Art by Pat, was selling her fans, painting.

“I can sell my art and be in the same venue of all the Dreamville artists?” she said. “That sounds good to me.”

As of 8 p.m. no major incidents or arrests were reported, according to a Raleigh Police Department spokesperson.

Some portions of the field were wet and muddy from this week’s rain, but that didn’t stop some from dozing on blankets in preparations for the night ahead while others danced in small circles of friends between the stages.

Cole should be praised for bringing the spotlight to Raleigh and helping create this event for North Carolina and the community, Kimbrough said.

“It is about time,” Kimbrough said. “We have a lot of people come out of Raleigh, but we don’t get the praise that other cities get.”

It’s a sentiment shared by those working in the music and tourism industry in Raleigh.

“When you look at the three key components: music, art and food, it fits so well into the landscape of Raleigh and what this city does best,” said Scott Peacock, director of public relations for the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Part of the early crowd at the Dreamville Music Festival at Raleigh, N.C.’s Dix Park Saturday, April 6, 2019. Scott Sharpe ssharpe@newsobserver.com

The ‘big foray’

This festival is the first introduction for thousands to Dix Park in Raleigh and even North Carolina.

“It’s our moment to come out, if you will, to talk about the hip-hop scene in Raleigh, and where we have come from and where we can go,” Peacock said.

More than 60,000 people contributed to the park’s master plan, which is used as a guiding document and roadmap for future development in the park. While not set In stone and decades away from completion, the plan calls for a amphitheater and for the park to become a destination for music lovers.

“This is the big foray into Dix Park, which I think was inevitable,” said William Lewis, executive director of Pinecone, which produces the World of Bluegrass Festival in Raleigh.

“Let’s build on what we have done for the city of Raleigh and have yet another event,” he said. ”I think it’s all those things. It didn’t happen over night. It didn’t happen by magic. It took a lot of hard work. It took a lot of bold vision and leadership.”

There will be infrastructure difficulties as Dix Park begins testing outs its property.

“You have to see what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “What is possible and what isn’t possible. And I think this is in grand fashion along that tradition that Raleigh has maintained for decades.”

The city doesn’t take things on it can’t handle, he added.

That’s part of the reason why the planning for the event was more than three years in the making, said Derrick Remer, the special events and emergency management director. The city’s initial reaction was “we are not ready,” he said.


The residents of Boylan Heights, the historic Raleigh neighborhood that bridges downtown Raleigh and Dix Park, are in two camps.

Some escaped their homes with the intention of being gone through the weekend to skip the chaos while others gathered their provisions to listen to the show from their driveways.

“(I) went to the grocery store, stocked up on supplies and I’m ready to hunker down,” said Travis Bailey, who lives near the Park in the neighborhood.

“I am excited,” he said. “There are so many plans for really cool stuff going in over there. Big changes. They’ve got plans I think to handle a lot of the issues that are potentially going to arise.”

Most expected Western Boulevard to be a parking lot as festival goers attempted to park off Centennial Parkway or make their way to the downtown parking garages. They’re armed with the experience of previous traffic woes and the understanding this will be much worse.

“Some are a little bit more tense (than others), but everyone seems to understand that this is a trial,” Bailey said. “We will see how things goes and if we can fix somethings to make it better for the next big event, great. And if not, there will be some things to discuss and compromise on, hopefully.”

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