Sole DXB finds its feet after a two-year absence.
The popular gathering, held at Dubai Design District and which concludes on Sunday night, made its anticipated return this weekend after the past two festivals were scrapped due to Covid-19.
From its beginnings in an Al Quoz warehouse as a "sneaker summit" in 2011, Sole DXB has grown to become a stylish hip-hop music and culture festival that reached a peak with a sell-out 2019 event featuring a blockbuster music line-up including genre legends Wu-Tang Clan and Blackstar.
While the success of the home-grown event is worthy of celebration, is Sole DXB running the risk of losing its winning boutique vibe as its popularity grows?
"I never looked at it that way," festival co-founder Rajat Malhotra tells The National. "We have always been going forward and trying new things and sounds that people may not expect from us. Fundamentally, when it comes to the music and things that come with the festival, we do it based purely on the things we like.
"With this festival, we wanted to have a real global line-up representing parts of the world that are not just the US and the UK and taking in Morocco and the Arab world."
A show of strength
Sole DXB doubles down on its key strength as an immersive discovery platform for hip-hop culture.
While the features of the festival — from stands featuring leading and boutique fashion brands to the two performance stages and basketball competition — were retained this year, the offerings have seemed richer and more vibrant.
This is encapsulated by the decision to have Hassan Hajjaj as the festival's first official host.
Inspired by the vibrant Madina district of Marrakesh, the celebrated Moroccan photographer’s vibrant visual imprint permeates the venue.
The main entry gates resemble a Lego installation, the colours of which are inspired by the Moroccan flag. The timing couldn't be better, with all eyes on Morocco as they lead the Arab world and North Africa into the Fifa World Cup semifinals.
Inside the venue is a pavilion built like a riad and festooned with Hajjaj’s portraits.
With a DJ playing Moroccan hip-hop and trap music on an elevated stage, the space functions as both a mini gallery and chilled-out meeting spot.
Those Madina vibes also extend to the several outdoor markets on-site featuring a trail of small sneaker outlets, where customers engage in spirited haggling over the latest shoe drops from New Balance and Fred Perry.
Even the major pavilions by brands such as Puma are minimal, with a major focus on customer education on sneaker culture rather than sheer commerce.
Once again, the food outlets onsite are tastefully curated and feature everything from the Lewis Hamilton-backed vegan-friendly Neat Burger to home-grown favourites such as the Caribbean-West African restaurant West to West Kitchen and Project Chaiwala, the latter coming with its own majlis.
A must-visit is Dubai pop-up Rascals, whose take on classic deli staples, including the pastrami sandwich, is worth the festival visit alone.
A rich musical offering
While this year's Sole DXB artist line-up seemingly lacks the big names of past events, it has encompassed some thrilling discoveries.
"The line-up this year is all about the idea of discovering new music," says festival co-founder Joshua Cox.
"Our priority is for people to have a great experience and we chose artists who, while some people may not know, will guarantee to have them leaving the festival thinking that it was a great experience."
It has proven to be a shrewd move.
After setting the internet alight with viral videos of freestyle performances, US hip-hop quartet Coast Contra make a rare overseas visit with a frenzied set, further confirming their status as the genre's future stars.
Also making her mark was acclaimed female rapper Rapsody, whose nimble flow recalls the virtuosity of Missy Elliott and soulful odes to empowerment echo the humanist work of Lauryn Hill.
With American-Sudanese rapper Bas and UK hip-hop star Central Cee also delivering spirited sets and British soul singer Jorja Smith headlining Sunday's final night, Sole DXB returns with its heart and soul in place.
Sole DXB runs until December 11 at Dubai Design District. Tickets, starting at Dh100, are available at soledxb.com