Live Report: Cloud X Festival 2023

A superb showcase for soulful-leaning talent...

Sometimes it’s only when success is certain that the importance of doing things differently becomes entirely apparent. Cloud X — the independent record label turned festival powerhouse — founded by childhood friends Ben Cross and David Dabieh, has gone from hosting underground parties in Peckham to creating one of the UK’s premier R&B, soul and alt-rap festivals. They’ve taken the music scene by storm in just three years, and as an organisation, they have developed in leaps and bounds, transforming not just in its operational prowess, but also in the vibrant community of artists it champions and nurtures. This past Sunday – August 20th – marked the eagerly anticipated third iteration of Cloud X’s annual festival, and this time it’s clear that their evolution knows very few limits.

Admittedly, they held onto all the quintessentially British elements of a summer music festival: a fusion of all-encompassing heat and flowing streams of uniquely flavoured cider but what gave the event a rare edge was a distinctly London feel that permeated the whole affair. From artists like BERWYN, Cityboymoe, and Safiyyah to the demographic of the attendees, it was definitely a magnet for South London’s best-dressed youth, with a sprinkle of older veterans dotted about to take in the scenes.

Last year’s Cloud X festival was held across two stages at Studio 338 in Greenwich. So, it was easy to recognize how it has evolved when taking in this year’s map that lays out five different stages across Beckenham Palace Park, including specially curated stages from MOBO and Notion. The independent label element of Cloud X breeds familiarity and brings a new level of intimacy to the experience of a music festival. Jaz Karis embodied this at its best during her set in the Notion tent, as the crowd harmonised in perfect unison while she sang one of her most well-known songs, ‘Petty Lover’. 

From the MOBO Unsung stage to the main stage (Cloud X World), the lineup timings created a seamless flow of sound and coherence, exposing the importance of considered selection and curation. Some festivals can be slapdash in their timings, pushing irrelevant artists back-to-back on billings, focused more on the numbers or genres than a cohesive representation of sound. Among the myriad tasks of organising a festival, sound can often get overshadowed, but that was definitely not the case this time. And although we adore larger festivals, it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to jump between stages, tents, and artists without having to trek the equivalent of the Andes mountains.

A staple of Cloud X is their shorter-than-traditional set times – a choice that carries through strongly both in alleviating the pressure on a developing artist’s performance and allowing for a new kind of access and variety for punters. If you time it right, within an hour, you can catch your favourite DJ, be enchanted by a rapidly rising singer, and uncover your next musical obsession. Standout moments include watching Scuti’s effortless cadence shine through in her rapping and basking in the impeccable vocal range of Samm Henshaw. Turns out, it’s not assisted – it’s entirely natural. Special props go out to Juls, who managed to shell down the stage over in Selectors Paradise, as he continues his legacy as one of London’s most in-demand DJs, the crowd really came alive when he started spinning a fusion mashup of amapiano and Bollywood.

Cloud X itself acts as a platform for underrepresented and historically silenced artists. This year’s realisation of its much-loved festival upheld this principle, elevating more established figures like Saint Levant and Pip Millett and simultaneously contrasting the experience with newly emerging artists like Victoria Jane and Kwaku Asante, who may not yet have the same reach or fan base as their peers but are definitely on their way to growing it. If you were to observe the unfolding of Santino Le Saint and the refinement of his performance over the past couple of years, you can see precisely why Cloud X is fundamental to the landscape of so many of London’s independent musicians.

There’s one element that if Cloud X chooses to expand upon, could bring their festival into legendary status: the art direction. It is always better to lack decoration than substance, and Cloud X is definitely rich in substance. Given that South London is filled with exceptional artists who can create powerful visual installations. If the 2024 manifestation of the festival taps into that resource and unleashes their talents to amplify Cloud X’s essence, it could easily become an unmissable spot on the UK’s summer festival calendar. However, regardless of shiny visual flourishes, Cloud X festival remains the ultimate haven for unearthing budding artists and a brilliantly good time in itself.

Words: Naima Sutton

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