'The event is part of a greater story': How Sole DXB galvanised the UAE hip-hop scene

The founders of the festival speak about its growth and preserving its ideals

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - November 21, 2019: Interview with with the founders of the popular Sole: Hussain Moloobhoy, Joshua Cox (R) and Rajat Malhotra (M). Thursday, November 21st, 2017 at Design District, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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As any festival organiser will tell you, the last few days leading up to the doors opening at an event are nothing short of stressful. They are filled with ticking things off an ever-growing checklist of site visits, meetings with staff and associated brands and ensuring all the booked talent actually made it on to their flights.

Hence when The National meets the three founders of Sole DXB, it is understandably in a cafe within eyesight of the venue. Joshua Cox, Hussain Moloobhoy and Rajat Malhotra look tired, but their excitement about the festival is infectious.

They also appear satisfied that their vision is nearing its completion. That's the thing about Sole DXB – the festival itself is the last and major piece of a year-long puzzle.

"The actual event is all part of a greater story, or vision, that began at the start of the year," Moloobhoy explains. "There will be people who will just come for what is happening on the ground. But for those who follow what Sole DXB is about, they know that this campaign actually started a long time ago."

Their campaign began about 13,000 kilometres away, on an island paradise. In June, the founders and a small production crew packed their bags and headed to Jamaica for two weeks. With the country's rich culture deemed the focus of this year's festival, the trip was a reconnaissance mission of sorts.

"We really just wanted to go there and soak up as much as we could," Malhotra explains. "We spoke to our connections over there and told them we wanted to meet everyone who is involved in music, arts, fashion … you name it. From those conversations we then began working on what we could bring to back to the festival in Dubai."

Indian-American Malhotra blends the cultural intellect of a gallerist with the smooth verbiage you might hear in a board room. This comes from his background in the telecoms industry, and he was also the founder of the New York gallery and exhibition space On Stellar Rays. When he joined as a partner of Sole DXB in 2013, he took over executing deals with performing artists and brands.

While Malhotra was setting up the next round of paperwork in Jamaica, Moloobhoy and Cox were busy creating a massive visual document of the trip. Not only was this displayed in a superbly designed book previewing the event – it was released in October – but Jamaican vibes will be subtly expressed in the festival venue's overall design.

This is Moloobhoy's forte. A graduate of the London Institute of Art and Design and former creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, the British-Pakistani is essentially in charge of Sole DXB's striking visual identity.

And what about Cox? "You can say that I am a builder," he says. He is the quietest of the three, and is responsible for executing the vision by designing the stages and all other spaces at the festival.

It was Cox's initial partnership with Moloobhoy that sparked the idea for Sole DXB. They met in 2010 during an uncertain moment of their lives. A long-term Dubai resident, Cox returned to the city after spending years in Australia completing his design degree. Moloobhoy was in the midst of a sabbatical at the time and was looking for a new creative outlet. Naturally, the conversation turned to their shared love of hip-hop culture and before long, the idea for Sole DXB was formed.

The first Sole DXB was held on February 24, 2011 at thejamjar, a warehouse art gallery in Al Quoz. It may have been marketed as a "sneaker summit", but the actual aim was to galvanise the city's nascent hip-hop scene. It was about bringing rappers, DJs, street artists and designers together in the same place – and if you bought a fresh pair of kicks on the day, then that was dope, too.

TThat event attracted about 1,000 visitors and in the following years it grew in size and scope. In 2015, Sole DXB found its permanent home in Dubai Design District and has welcomed international hip-hop artists, film screenings and panel sessions to its programme.

While still harbouring bigger ambitions for the event, Moloobhoy says the founders are keen to preserve its mission, which is about more than simply entertainment.

“We are a platform for people to connect,” he says. “Because hip-hop culture has not been here for 20 to 30 years, like other cities, it is an education on where the culture comes from and the different strands it has. This is why we are focusing on Jamaica, for example. If you see these reggae artists and see the Wu-Tang Clan, you will then be able to see a connection.”

But can Sole DXB's popularity come at the cost of its ethos? Malhotra doesn't think so.

“The key for us is to not be too cynical in how we approach it,” he says. “This is why you always see established acts or brands beside those that are up and coming. The day that we programme the festival based on what is popular or what’s on the radio, it is all over.”

Sole DXB will take place at Dubai Design District on Friday and Saturday. More information is available at soledxb.com