NATIVE Exclusive: Cloud X is on a mission to diversify festival lineups in the UK
"We had orchestrated this cultural moment by accident."
"We had orchestrated this cultural moment by accident."
According to a recent report by the UK Music report, many positions in senior levels of the UK music industry remain egregiously white, male, and middle-class. Only 6% of music industry execs in the UK are Black and these numbers are even lower when you consider the lack of gender diversity rampant at the heart of the industry. This means that the music and entertainment industry by virtue of this low representation already fails the diverse community of artists, listeners, and music lovers that it caters to today.
This lack of diversity equally trickles down into other sectors of the music industry. This year, despite seeing a return in concerts and festivals due to the easing of lockdown rules, a survey carried out by The Guardian found that a majority of the musical festival line-ups in the UK still lack women. Since then, more than 100 festivals and conferences, led by U.K. advocacy group Keychange, have planned to establish a 50/50 gender split by 2022. However, that reality still seems uncertain when, this year, big-ticket festival line-ups such as Wireless and Parklife still lack diversity and representation.
Cloud X—a festival for the culture with values of community, creativity, and inclusion at its heart—is on a mission to diversify the festival lineup in the UK. Founded by friends and business partners, Ben and Dabieh, the summertime staple has become a popular hotspot in the UK for anyone looking to have an inclusive musical experience.
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Formed back in 2015, Cloud X Festival was created out of a need to cater to the diverse community of music artists and lovers in the UK. Originally an underground rave in a parking lot with an eclectic lineup of upcoming acts in the Hip-Hop/R&B scene at the time of its first event back in 2015, the Cloud X brand began building and growing into a massive event that took on different European cities from Paris to Berlin.
This year, after a year-long break from curating any festivals, the Cloud X team is back again and has partnered with Native Sound System with a pioneering 50/50 gender lineup that rivals many of the festivals taking place this year. Ahead of the August 8th festival, we spoke to co-founders, Ben and Dabieh about the importance of community, where it all began, and their plans for the future.
Our conversation which follows below has been lightly edited for clarity.
NATIVE: What was your first concert experience that put you on this path?
Ben: Growing up I had a babysitter who was an up-and-coming DJ and even after she stopped looking after me we stayed friends. When I was 15 she invited me to see her play out as part of an all-women of colour DJ collective at the opening of a club called XOYO, a now-famous club in London. I ended up having an absolutely wild night and after their set we went to an afterparty in Brixton in south London, near where I lived. It was in this huge illegal warehouse space and to me at the time It was the dopest thing ever. I immediately knew David and I needed to have our 16th birthday’s there. I went into school on Monday and told David and that week we met up with the owner, a guy called Pedro, and organised our party. When we posted it on Facebook & invited our friends, we were hoping that about 60 people would come. Long story short, like many of these parties that go viral on social media, it went wildly out of control. 1500 people turned up and my older brother who was on the door decided to up the entry fee from £3 to £20 a head. Big move from him!
Dabieh: We curated the lineup out of friends or people that we just loved from the area. The music we liked wasn’t getting platformed and you have to remember that at the time – Brixton in the late 2000s – the area was one that people didn’t really want to go to. In the crowd, there was like drag queens, people of all races, Black, white, Asian, African, everything. It just felt like the most London, most Metropolis mix you could possibly have. It was a spirit of that event, that first event, that I think really drove us on. We had orchestrated this cultural moment by accident. And yeah, after that event, a lot of the local venues heard what we’re doing and asking us to come to do shows not even caring that we were underage. And from there, we just kept moving. We still try and incorporate that spirit in everything that we do.
NATIVE: How did you go from those events to Cloud X?
Dabieh: In the simplest terms, we started off as a very underground, illegal rave. Over the years, we kept hosting different types of music that we liked and platforming different types of artists that we wanted to work with. And because we were building a reputation for bringing in amazing artists and audiences, a lot of venues started asking us to come and use their spaces. And that meant that we moved essentially from these really underground illegal spaces to something a bit more formal and official which still had the same spirit of the underground. We started by doing parties in different venues and different cities across the UK and then expanded out to Europe, doing parties in Paris and Berlin. By visiting all these different places and seeing how much enthusiasm there was for what we do, we realised that the kind of music that we loved simply wasn’t getting platformed in the UK. And that was fundamentally a lot of R&B, Hip-hop/Rap, Grime, Afrobeats.
We had the first-ever Cloud X Festival in 2015, which was really a celebration of Hip-hop and R&B in London. We booked an artist called RAY BLK, who went one on to win BBC Sound of the year, we had A2, Chance the Rapper pulled up – it was just an amazing day. The year after that, we linked up with Jamal Edwards – who owns the platform SBTV – as we used to share an office with him. We came up with a festival called the Cookout which we did with SBTV. We curated the lineup, which included artists like Dave, AJ Tracey, Lancey Foux, Bree Runway, Nadia Rose, Knucks and more. It was just the most incredibly curated event and a lot of those artists went on to do very well. A lot of them are now household names in the UK. In 2017 we repeated that festival, and in 2018, we took a break to keep the energy of what we were doing new. We then decided we were going to upscale it to a much bigger festival the following year. We had it all planned out until the pandemic. Anyway, this year’s Cloud X Festival is really the end result of that whole journey.
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NATIVE: What inspired the decision to host an R&B-focused festival in the UK?
Ben: We specifically didn’t want to do a festival that was huge but instead wanted to make something that – emerging out of the pandemic – really celebrated London, and by extension, Britain’s culture, which is such a melting pot of all these cultures and people. It’s meant to be a tastemaker festival. I think making a festival that is based around community and creativity and the DIY spirit of what we do has been super important. And it’s crucial to us that what we do is gender-balanced and inclusive, in part because that’s the only way to plan a festival that makes sense, and also because a lot of the established festivals haven’t been doing that.
NATIVE: How do you sustain your community as a brand and a festival?
Ben: Cloud X itself is multi-faceted. We throw parties. We manage artists. We release artists’ records, and we help them creatively too. Many of the artists on the festival lineup are actually artists we work with in different ways, which is all part of sustaining & building a community as well as a brand. But I think in a more macro sense, we’re curating a culture and a platform for culture, particularly because a lot of the communities that the artists & the Cloud X team come from have been deliberately marginalized. For me, creating infrastructures for people to exist within and platforms for people to tell their stories is super important, and festivals and live is one aspect of that.
Dabieh: This is why we believe that NATIVE Magazine and Native Sound System, by extension, is an important publication to partner with. You create that voice, you know, the millennial voice of West Africa. I’m from Ghana, but we needed the native magazine, as a continent.
NATIVE: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you both as event organisers?
Ben: When we were thinking about the festival this year, the one thing on our mind was how much was there an appetite for live music? We thought- do people still want festivals? Do they still want to be in a room full of people after a pandemic? I think overwhelmingly our responses were that actually, young people, and by and large, our demographic, do want to go to festivals. And so for us, the most important thing was that we should persevere and do so in a safe way. We’ll be paying very close attention to that and making sure that everyone feels safe but also everyone can celebrate because it’s been a difficult time.
Dabieh: So because the last year has basically been lived online, it forced us to think about how we treat the festival both on the day and after, how we can reach a larger audience internationally while still having this very physical real space. Also, just making sure that there’s a lot of interactive ways that people can essentially tap into the festival even after the show. And so, we’ll definitely be employing techniques that we haven’t really before, such as live streaming and Twitch. In that sense, that’s a good thing for us as the pandemic forced us to think more interestingly about how we utilise the event, about what an event even is.
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NATIVE: The first wave of the festival line-up just came out and it has got 50/50 gender inclusion. How do you champion community and inclusivity as a festival and as a brand?
Ben: For me, it’s a no-brainer. All cultural institutions should really be practising inclusivity. It’s not only the fair and right thing to do, it should naturally be the only option in an era where people are interested in stories that have previously been marginalised. The idea that there are not 15 out of 30 brilliant artists for a festival lineup who are female, is, to me, ridiculous. And to be clear. It’s not a thing of positive discrimination – the women who are on our lineup are not only there because they are women, but because they are brilliant artists in and of themselves. So there’s nothing tokenistic about how we’ve gone and chosen the lineup, but we have been very conscious to make sure that it’s inclusive.
Dabieh: This is also how Ben and I have built Cloud X internally, in a way that people don’t see. Our workforce is very balanced. It’s, in fact, more women but it’s not really about the numbers, it’s about making sure that we have a team that’s entirely representative. It means that you actually make decisions collectively that end up representing the diversity of the world we live in. Even Ben and I as co-founders, Ben’s white, I’m Black, I’m Christian and he’s of Jewish descent. So we don’t hide from those differences, we actually discuss them as a team. I think it just goes back to that very first event when we were watching drag queens, Rastafarians, and like black people, white people, Asian people, all in one room. That is what the world is and should feel like and maybe because we saw it so young, we were like this is the spirit that we always want to keep. So it really is at the core of what we do and it shouldn’t ever be tokenistic. You know, it should just be common sense.
Ben: Exactly. For us, it’s something that’s meant to be always inclusive and it’s run by an inclusive team. I think that a lot of UK festivals that have failed to do those things seem more of a representation of an old guard of the traditional music industry that needs some self-reflection on how it’s been built, for whom its been built, how the personnel are all stacked in a certain way. Particularly given that we all know a lot of people in power in the music industry, as in any other industry, will be primarily male and white and rich and straight.
NATIVE: Tell us about the partnership with Native Sound System?
Dabieh: As we said earlier, Native is one of those platforms that is basically providing a space for marginalised voices, and also just actually platforming in a really interesting way a lot of the amazing music and talent coming out of Africa. We’ve been working closely with Native Sound System DJs Addy and Sholz and so as part of the event, NSS have their own stage with an exclusive lineup that will be announced towards the beginning of July with artists they feel represent a lot of the great music coming out of West Africa that should also be found in London.
NATIVE: Would you ever have a Cloud X festival outside of London?
Dabieh: We’re actually planning to build an office in Ghana and that’s a big thing in our medium-term strategy. We’ve been looking at finding some good spaces in Accra and taking the festival over to West Africa at some point.
Featured image credits/VickyGrout
Tami is the Community Editor.