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Friday, July 01, 2022

Diversity on the rise in Gainesville’s music community

Members of the Gainesville music community are working tirelessly to make the city’s music scene more inclusive

Gainesville artists and organizations are working to uplift people of color, queer and female voices in the local music scene.

In a town previously viewed as a hub for white, indie-rock music, now people of color, queer and female artists are breaking into the Gainesville scene with more experimental sounds inspired by hip hop, ska, funk and Latin music. 

Although a study from the University of Southern California found that 86% of the top music industry executives are white males, members of the Gainesville music community have been working tirelessly to make the city’s music scene more inclusive of different sounds, people of color, women and the queer community. Local artists, music organizations and live music venues represent the leaders of this movement. 

Artists using their voices

Jeremy Hunter, 26, skyrocketed to fame at the end of 2016 when they started posting ska covers on Facebook from their bedroom under the name Skatune Network. Now, in addition to Skatune Network, they also make their own ska-punk music as JER, garnering a niche following of over 200,000 subscribers on Youtube

“I don't have as big of a following, but the following that I do have is very dedicated and very supportive,” they said. “That's more important than having a million followers who could care less about what I do.”

Hunter discovered their love for ska music in seventh grade through listening to the soundtrack of the popular Japanese media franchise Digimon. Once they started diving deeper into different ska bands, they were instantly hooked by the catchy and colorful genre.

To be closer to Gainesville’s vibrant music community, Hunter moved from Broward County in 2017 to pursue their passion. 

Even though multiple notable ‘90s ska bands originated in Gainesville like Less Than Jake, many of today’s Florida ska-punk bands have broken up — giving ska a reputation as a dying genre. Because of this, Hunter has continued to be denied opportunities to tour or be featured in publications, which has been tough, they said.

As a Black and queer artist, Hunter has always felt supported by the local music scene. One source of support they mentioned was The Civic Media Center, located at 433 S. Main St, a public library that platforms artists of diverse backgrounds through live music events and art shows. 

Spearheading the expansion of hip hop and R&B in Gainesville is artist Israel Jones, 22, from Waldo. Influenced by artists like Kendrick Lamar, Jones described his music as a vulnerable reflection of the Black experience.

Jones signed with local hip-hop-focused record label Dion Dia last year and is thankful to be a part of an organization platforming so many artists of diverse backgrounds. Dion Dia has also fostered an organic environment for him to grow musically with people who look like him, he said.

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However, Jones said he’s disappointed by the local venues that have only recently started curating hip hop events. ‘Dia Days’, which took place at Bo Diddley Plaza on March 17, was one of the first hip-hop shows at the venue, he said.

“There are Gainesville venues that are still living in the 20th century,” he said. “I wish venues could realize that hip hop is a culture and movement. Everything is hip hop.”

Hip hop isn’t the only music genre that’s been historically overshadowed in the Gainesville community — Latin music has been another. For Latino musician Elio Piedra, 30, moving to the United States from Cuba in 2011 allowed him to share his love and passion for Latin music with a new community, Piedra said. 

Before he was able to make a feasible income in music, Piedra washed dishes at the now-closed Sabore Restaurant when he moved to Gainesville. 

“It was a great opportunity to grow as a citizen, to understand the system, to save money to buy my first instruments and start making connections,” Piedra said.

Eventually, he moved on to working as a drum instructor at local music stores and met Grammy award-winning Latino artist Chuchito Valdés, who he started accompanying as a drummer for Valdés’ local shows. He then connected with a producer based in California and spent several years touring across the country.

Today, Piedra runs Bringing The Fiesta to You, a one-man show in which he DJs, sings, dances and plays live instruments. 

Piedra’s early career was marked by racism and xenophobia in the surrounding areas of Gainesville. He struggled to find work, as many local restaurants weren’t open to booking Latin music acts. 

Although Gainesville’s Latin music scene is not as vibrant as other areas in Florida, Piedra has felt embraced by the local community since starting his business. His commitment to spreading messages of love and positivity has remained constant.

“We need to showcase our authenticity and show that we are genuinely trying to engage and embrace the community and share the richness of our culture,” he said. 

Within Gainesville’s music community is also a severe lack of female representation. Bianca Maesa, 25, plays sousaphone in the Sooza Brass Band — a six-piece brass band that started as a few college friends jamming out together. 

The Sooza Brass Band has been playing together for over four years. They describe their sound as acoustic dance music or brass funk, Maesa said.

When she was six years old, Maesa moved to Gainesville from the Philippines after her mother got a job at UF Health Shands Hospital. Her love for music began in middle school when she was assigned to play the tuba in band class. She then proceeded to study music at UF, being one of four female tuba players out of 30 in the Gator band at the time. 

Maesa does not understand why there are so few prominent female musicians in Gainesville. As a woman, she has always felt encouraged and uplifted by the local music scene.

“Gainesville is such an eclectic community,” she said. “I like how I walk with a sousaphone and have people turning their heads to me, a five-foot-two Filipino woman carrying something that's almost as tall as her.”

Community members like Jennifer Vito, co-founder and vice president of Gainesville Girls Rock Camp — a summer camp that aims to foster self-esteem through music education for gender-marginalized youth — are individuals to be thankful for, Maesa said. 

Maesa hopes the local music scene continues to encourage female participation, as she has become used to being one of the only female musicians in the room.

Local organizations and community members prioritizing diversity

For Laila Fakhoury, the 24-year-old co-founder of Dion Dia Records and the How Bazar, as well as the only woman on the board of directors for MusicGNV, uplifting communities to benefit the social good has always been the goal of her work. Throughout middle and high school, she volunteered at prisons, hospitals and crisis centers and went on to study social work at UF. 

During her second year in college, she met Jahi Khalfani in an astronomy class, who she eventually partnered with to start Dion Dia Records in 2019. Along with Jahi’s brother, Khary, the three founded a record label because they had multiple musician friends who did not understand how to push their music to larger audiences. 

“We were really interested in doing something creative with a community focus,” she said. “We wanted to do something that was bigger than ourselves.”

Most artists signed to Dion Dia are in the R&B and hip-hop realms, which was difficult to navigate because many Gainesville music spaces weren’t catered to artists outside of the indie-rock and folk music genres, she said.

Because no other mainstream spaces in the downtown area would book Dion Dia artists for shows, the label had to resort to unconventional venues, like the Civic Media Center. The team is thankful that they now have a venue at the How Bazar to platform their artists.

“We've proven ourselves and what we can do,” she said. “There is a desire and a need for hip hop in the community.”

Since starting the label, Fakhoury has seen a shift from hip hop being underground to being desired by all live music venues in the Gainesville area. However, Fakhoury feels like the scene is still lacking in terms of non-white, queer and female representation. A lot of the local music venues in Gainesville are still mostly platforming white, cis-gendered male indie-rock musicians. 

“It's a venue or an organization's responsibility to show their openness and willingness to work with people,” she said. “People who are just trying to create art and express themselves need to feel like there are safe spaces for them to do that.”

As a Black woman, Kenya Warner, 20-year-old UF Swamp Records member and second-year computer science major, is also concerned about the lack of female and non-white representation within Gainesville’s indie-rock scene. She cannot recall a time she has seen a woman of color play live at a local venue, Warner said.

“I think it has a lot to do with not feeling like we have a space in the music scene,” she said. “Feeling like we won't really be heard or received as well as some of the white, male counterparts, who have already had that platform.”

Warner believes more venues should take the initiative to seek out and promote women of color and queer artists, as long their intention is to uplift marginalized voices and not meet a quota, she said. 

She mentioned Dopen Mic, a local open mic held at The Backyard at Boca Fiesta and Palomino, located at 32 1/2 SE First St., which is dedicated to showcasing marginalized voices, as a resource for people of color and queer women to use as a creative outlet. 

Contact Amanda Friedman at Afriedman@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @afriedmanuf.

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