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DION DIA: WHERE MUSIC, CULTURE, AND ACTIVISM COMBINE
By Hope Dean
For Laila Fakhoury, appreciation of music is practically genetic.
It was the way she connected to her father, who came to the United States from Lebanon and learned English from music. The two would sway to old soul and rhythm and blues (R&B) songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s — but they would also talk about the meaning behind the lyrics.
Her grandmother learned English from music, too. Her favorite songs were “cowboy music,” like the Gene Autry tunes she would sing to Laila when she was young.
“I just grew up loving it,” Laila said. “It's only broadened my creativity and my interest in the things that I do.”
At 23, Laila is putting that creativity to work. She is one of the founding members of Dion Dia, a Gainesville-based record label with six signed artists that is dedicated to diversity and community service. And while the pandemic hit the label hard, its members are fighting to expand and change to match the circumstances.
“We’re more of a brand, something that people can get behind”.
THE START OF DION DIA
Dion Dia started with three people — Laila and two brothers, Jahi and Khary Khalfani.
Laila first met Jahi in an astronomy class at the University of Florida during her freshman year, and then met Khary through him. All three had similar interests, including community work, activism and street culture.
Dion Dia didn’t start with making music, however. It started with a silent disco — an event where people gather to listen to music through headphones.
After attending silent discos during music festivals with her brother, Fakhoury wanted to throw one of her own. But after a conversation with Jahi, she realized that creating a brand made more sense.
“We really wanted to do the silent discos, but we were like, ‘We're not going to just do Laila’s silent disco,’” Laila said. “So we ended up creating the label as a means to push those events from the beginning.”
So in late 2018, Dion Dia officially launched with Laila as the community outreach director, Khary as the creative director, and Jahi as the CEO — and they got to work right away, creating a one-room home studio to produce music and host events.
As promised, the first event was a silent disco. Then, the silent discos became a monthly event hosted at the Civic Media Center, an independent library and community space.
Eventually, lines went out the door as hundreds of people started to show up.
“You could go to one of our silent disco events and literally everyone looks different,” Laila said. “We would have people from the punk scene there, and then you would have people from sororities and frats … but everyone was so harmonious in this space of just enjoying their time.”
These events led to “Disco for Good,” a series of silent discos where the money raised went to a Gaineville-based non-profit. Dion Dia partnered with seven organizations before the pandemic hit, including Conservation Initiative for the Asian Elephant and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
These fundraising events are what makes a difference between Dion Dia and other record labels, Khary believes.
“We’re more of a brand, something that people can get behind,” he said. “And I think that's something that a lot of labels are kind of missing today, in terms of not really being involved with the community or being in touch with actual people.”
The crown jewel of Dion Dia events was at the Thomas Center on March 14, 2020. It was a hip hop showcase with full sound and light production, also including a local art gallery and an open bar. Event vendors can be hard to find due to the stigma behind hip hop music, Laila said — so the fact that Dion Dia managed to score an event in a historic government building was incredible to her.
But days later, Gainesville went into quarantine and everything changed.
THE PANDEMIC AND BEYOND
The COVID-19 pandemic came at a tipping point for Dion Dia, where events were racking in almost 500 people each. For a label that is event-based, its effects were devastating, Laila said.
“It was so tragic,” Laila said. “I’ll randomly watch the highlights that we have on our Instagram from the events, and it just makes me truly, truly sad. It was like our baby that we're creating and then we couldn’t do it.”
For three months, Dion Dia didn’t record any music at all. They had to halt all in-person events and projects, including one where they helped prisoners and terminally ill adolescents make music. Almost all income dried up.
But content picked up after the initial few months of quarantine. Dion Dia signed on several new artists and plans for a large line of new releases in 2021.
Although clubs and venues are opening, Dion Dia won’t return to host live events until they feel it’s completely safe, Laila said.
But the lack of physical events doesn’t mean that Dion Dia isn’t expanding. Laila is currently working with music marketers, managers and artists in Los Angeles that she hopes to network with for the label.
“When we start pushing our own music again and pushing our content, then these people who have been working with me directly at different record labels or different marketing firms are just like, ‘Oh shit, this is what you also have going on,’” she said. “It’s a very direct string to the music industry.”
Khary said he wants to see Dion Dia as one of Florida’s premier record labels in the next five years, with a physical studio and storefront location that’s not a small room inside his house. He also wants to expand community involvement and have Dion Dia sign on as many as ten artists.
“[We want to] provide a space for people — artists, creative people and people of color — to come in and feel welcome,” he said. “When we do come back, it's going to be a lot different and a lot better.”
FARO: F**K ALL REGULAR OPTIONS
by Naz Hussein
Jamari Boothe, aka FARO, fell in love with music at a young age as he traveled between his hometown Gainesville, adopted city New York, and origin countries Jamaica and the Bahamas. At eight years old, Jamari had experienced life beyond America, heard different accents, and interacted with people hailing from various backgrounds. The increased exposure to diversity built a good foundation for both his character and art.
Growing up surrounded by hip-hop and reggae music, Jamari inherited the music tastes of his Jamaican father and artist uncle, who humanized the creation of music. As a teenager, Jamari attended PK Yonge in Gainesville, a school focused on the performing arts. He joined one of the school bands and started performing to larger audiences regularly.
“By the time I was a senior, I was used to having my voice recorded and played back over,” Jamari said. But the budding rapper’s mastery of lyrical flow didn’t start until 2017, after graduating high school.
“I’d always tried to write songs and rhymes in the past. It never came out right,” Jamari said. “I was really good at writing poems, though.” The first song he made, in a friend’s home studio, started off spontaneously.
“My friend said, 'I know you can rap. Write something,'” Jamari said. “So I wrote.”
After he posted the song on SoundCloud, it garnered two hundred plays. “That’s when I realized people were looking out for me,” Jamari laughed. “So I made another song the next day.”
After publishing two songs online, Jamari found musical connections through Twitter and other social media platforms. “I collaborated with a producer who was blowing up at the time,” he said. “The next logical step for me was to record an album.”
Yet, the album proved to be a struggle. Jamari juggled two jobs to earn decent money, didn’t have a car, and couldn’t access reliable recording studios. “There were long stretches of time where I couldn’t record music,” he admitted. Finally, an acquaintance reached out and offered Jamari his home studio. Commuting across town, though, was an obstacle.
“I had to walk three-quarters of a mile to the bus station, ride the bus to another bus, and then take that bus across the city to walk over to his house,” Jamari said.
Despite the hurdles, Jamari successfully recorded an entire album. The remaining steps were to edit and properly release his work: he was determined to get signed within one year.
One night, Jamari reconnected with an old high school friend, Jahi, through Instagram. Little did he know that Jahi had initiated a record label called Dion Dia. After sending Jahi some of his songs, Jamari was invited to a networking event with local artists.
“They had an open mic at the event, and I did a freestyle with rhymes I’d put together that same morning,” Jamari said. “It went really well, and I met everybody from Dion Dia.”
After a few months of spending time with Dion Dia managers and creatives, everything came together. “I was wrapping up the album when Jahi gave me the call. He was like, we want to bring you on,” Jamari said. That was a big moment.
“What they did for me was immense. I didn’t have to worry about recording music anymore, and I got to work with their amazing producer, Alex,” he said.
Dion Dia helped Jamari with his social media presence, as well as the business side of the industry. Ever since June 2020, Jamari has been consistently recording music, with a slight surplus of songs.
In the near future, FARO is coming out with two new EPs. The first EP, a collaboration project with producer Vikram, adopts a darker nature with gritty and emotional undertones. The second EP is more lighthearted and fast-paced, with "KANO" as the single.
“Getting the music together for me is the easy part. The hard part is getting the songs together and packaging them appealingly,” Jamari said.
But putting together his words with a pleasant melody is too satisfying and rewarding. It keeps pulling him back, along with other people enjoying his music.
“I recently made a new fan from Taiwan. Every day, at like 8 or 9 a.m., they listen to KANO for a few times in a row,” Jamari said. “I don’t know how they found me, but I’m glad they did.”
FARO also plans to release a two-part album soon, a project he calls “the big big album”. Throughout lockdown and the pandemic, Jamari has still been writing and working on new music.
“Be on the lookout. There’s a lot of content coming out,” Jamari said. When the situation gets safer, Jamari hopes to perform live-shows.
“I can’t wait to get out there,” he said.
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