The For Oak Cliff back to school festival was wrapping up with a series of freestyling competitions.
“Go to school, go to college, that’s a fact,” said a young lyricist over a Kendrick Lamar beat. “I’m goin’ to remember Oak Cliff whenever I get older!”
The crowd cheered. And minutes later award-winning rapper J. Cole walked up to the small crowd left at Glendale Park in southeast Oak Cliff on Saturday. The thousands who showed up for the fourth annual back to school festival hosted by the nonprofit had mostly gone home by 2 p.m. But a smaller group of about two hundred people who were still at the park gasped when the rapper arrived.
“Hey! He’s here! J. Cole showed up!” someone shouted.
The musician from North Carolina, wearing a yellow T-shirt and red basketball shorts, made no previous announcement he would attend. There was some speculation after social media attention swarmed the rapper when he shouted out the neighborhood in his latest freestyle. But as the festival was coming to a close, many thought he wasn’t going to arrive.
When he walked up, there was no emcee introduction. It appeared he tried to keep as private as a profile he could until the group of Oak Cliff residents approached him, bashfully smiling and asking for his autograph.
Taylor Toynes, founder of nonprofit For Oak Cliff, talked to the rapper in front of the small crowd about kids who had been killed due to gun violence. A poster that had been created for the festival that day had an image of J.Cole with children, three of who had halos.
“When you talk about the stuff you talk about on your album, we need it,” Toynes said, pointing to the kids with halos. J. Cole has been lauded as one of the best rappers for his takes on social issues that range from education to crime.
The musician grabbed a sharpie from someone in the crowd and signed the poster.
Shaquna Persley, the mother of Shavon Randle, who was killed in summer of 2017, received a hug from the musician. She took a photo with him and her 16-year-old daughter, Kayla Randle.
“I’m happy he showed up,” she said. “Just when we thought he wasn’t going to come.”
Joshua Ellis, the artist who made the festival flyer, said the autographed piece will be going in the For Oak Cliff community center.
“The kids can see it now: J. Cole shouted out your hood in a rap, and he actually showed up to your hood. No rapper does that.”
Ellis added that he appreciated how the artist tried to make his arrival private, keeping his interactions with true residents of the neighborhood.
“There would have been 10,000 people out here,” Ellis, who is a teacher in the neighborhood, said. “People who would try be vultures and claim Oak Cliff would be here. It’s really Oak Cliff out here.”
When asked by a reporter what brought him to the festival, the reserved musician said “we’ll talk later.”
And then J.Cole went on to sign a few dozen backpacks and T-shirts before leaving to get ready for his evening show at the American Airlines Center.