Let’s Hear it for the Misfits

My weekend turn-up at Dreamville convinced me that the city where I was raised is right where I’m meant to be.
By Courtney Napier | Photography by Samantha Everette

In 2017, a chance meeting between the then-mayor Nancy McFarlane and Fayetteville-born rap superstar J. Cole became the beginning of Dreamville Festival.

While I wasn’t able to attend the inaugural festival in 2019, this year’s event felt in many ways like a rebirth of the Dirty South’s special flavor of hip-hip music and culture. The quirky vibe of Raleigh’s hip-hop aesthetic hit me as soon as I walked out of the South Wilmington Street parking deck. In line were locals and visitors of every shade, gender-expression, and age, all buzzing with excitement to see the likes of T-Pain, Ari Lennox, and T.I., right here in this sometimes sleepy government town. It didn’t hit me until our shuttle (a Wake County school bus, how apropos) pulled up to the park that this wasn’t just a show, it was a celebration.

Yes, “celebration” was the word of the weekend. I’ve never been to an event where the guests were so happy. Not starstruck, not ecstatic, but blissful. Perhaps it was the perfect 69-degree weather and clear blue skies that blessed us that day — it carried any anxieties and stress we brought into the festival out of our bodies with the spring breeze. The park was decorated with a whimsical combination of classic hip-hop inspired art, like stunning murals by Johni Bleu and Frankie Zombi, mixed with oversized, fantastical installations, like an oversize sofa covered in greenery and floral arrangements spilling out of the multiple photo opps. The entire park felt like stepping into Alice in Wonderland.

As a Black kid growing up in Raleigh, I have always struggled with a sense of belonging. I grew up with parents who played Earth, Wind, & Fire and Peter, Paul & Mary on Saturdays while we did our chores. My Mom loved James Taylor and Minnie Ripperton, and my Dad loved Prince and Morris Day. As I got older, I developed my own “unusual” musical interests, from Lauryn Hill to Jamiroquai to John Mayer.  My parents were great at not forcing me to choose one particular way to dress or eat or have fun, but high school is all about “fitting in,” and that was never something I could quite figure out how to do.

At Dreamville, I felt I was surrounded by thousands of misfits just like me. The drifters, the artsy kids, the drama kids, the ones who were into technology before technology was cool. The eccentric fashion displayed by the attendees truly felt like being a part of a Misfit Ball — festival-level style, with an urban twist. Some folks wore pants coated in sequins, others wore pants that could barely be described as “pants,” for the amount of leg they showed. I saw a fur-trimmed, hot pink blazer that evoked Dionne from Clueless; I saw maxi dresses and biker shorts and leather jackets and every possible print. There were lots of jerseys from our favorite Carolina sports teams — especially on Saturday, when the epic Duke vs UNC basketball game was streamed live at the festival.

Click on the images below to see some of the ’fits at Dreamville Music Festival.

Even the acts let their freak-flags fly. Earthgang, an vibey rap duo from Atlanta, sported a vintage hybrid of the ‘70s and ‘80s (as well as perfect six-pack abs for those who would appreciate it). One of my favorites, Morray from Fayetteville, shared a brand new song with the adoring crowd all about his love for the Tar Heel State. He was unapologetically Southern, with a powerful tenor voice and an impeccable hip-hop flow. 

The man of the hour, J. Cole, didn’t disappoint. You know you are special when attendees leave in the middle of Lil’ Wayne’s hit-filled set to grab the perfect spot before your show. J. Cole gave a special shoutout to all the North Carolina homies who came out and made the festival possible. From the local Black businesses, Like Black Friday Market, Oak City Fish & Chips, and Lee’s Kitchen, to the techs and stage designers, like local legend Tre Mars, Raleigh’s Village truly came together to make this a festival to remember. I’ve never felt more comfortable than I did among these 80,000 misfits, rebels, and weirdos. 

My inner child needed to see this side of my city, one that’s nurtured historical misfits like Anna Julia Cooper, Ella Baker, Joe Holt, and Charles Norfleet Hunter. Now I see that I’m not an outsider. Dreamville Festival, rooted here in Raleigh, showed me that I am, in fact, exactly where I belong.