DJ Irie, whose name and work are synonymous with Miami, is a natural-born artist, entrepreneur, philanthropist, socialite, and passionate member of the Miami community. Ian Grocher, more widely known as DJ Irie, has worked hard to cultivate his visions. Irie’s passions have carried him to unique places and spaces that are the playground of ground-breaking artists and visionaries, such as Irie, that set the tone and create the vibe for the City of Magic.
The official DJ for the Miami Heat, Irie labors to capture the essence of the Heat Experience and transform the atmosphere of the American Airlines Arena. The enthralling presence and electric energy at home games are consistently conjured up by Irie. Having turned tables across the nation and with international audiences, this philanthropic entrepreneur engineers events, spaces, and programs that benefit the community. Many people only know this man as the celebrity DJ who is spinning in the mental-mix of the Miami they romanticize in daydreams to events like Irie Weekend, an event he conceptualized. But this artist offers a much more an attainable dream for the future artists of our communities. With Miami as the home-base of its endeavors, the Irie Foundation is firmly planted and fostered by Irie and his team.
Upon launching his new website, www.djirie.com, we thought it only fitting to release some inner dialogue and insight from the artist that further defines him as a transformational community leader. As an ongoing goal for the artist and his team, at-risk youth at home and abroad are receiving guidance and mentorship not only to impact their present lives but to shape their futures. The Irie Foundation achieves this goal through the Impact Scholarship Program, the Irie Foundation Music, and Literacy Center, the Cultural Passport Program, the Pen Pal Initiative, Mentoring, and the newest Irie Rhythms Project.
DJ Irie recently took some time to talk with L’Etage Magazine and opened up about the organization that inspires his heart, the Irie Foundation.
L’Etage: So first off, what role do the arts have in the Irie Foundation?
Arts play a major role in the foundation! I draw from my own experience in my schooling years and having access to the arts specifically. Music really helped me find my way in terms of what I was really passionate about. With the Irie Foundation, what we’ve found is that so many of our kids are so talented, and they want to express themselves through the arts. Unfortunately, many of them don’t have the access. The cornerstone of our foundation is the Irie Foundation Music and Literacy Center in partnership with the Motivational Edge. What we do there is everything from studio production, where they learn how to produce beats; songwriting, infrastructure, vocal coaches (you know they can actually go in there and make an actual record!). It’s not just music, but there is dance, as well. It’s really cool because you can’t wake up one morning and go to a studio and make a record, but them having this center, they actually can do that. But the best thing about it is that this is a motivational tool, as well, because we allow them to have access as long as they keep up their grades and attendance. So it is aspirational – they have to keep up their end of their bargain with schoolwork, and then they get to come use our facilities, and get that training.
L’Etage: What would be one of your most moving stories to exemplify the impact of the foundation?
Wow, there are so many! That’s like picking your favorite child! Okay, one story that sort of helped with how we started the foundation is when I was working with Teach for America. I was a guest teacher for a day at a school named Edison. It was a very troubled school with a lot of issues going on, and by the time I got up there to do my teaching work for a day it really worked to turn things around. My class, at the end of the lesson, had a Q&A. One young man asked me where I lived (now, this school Edison, is maybe at the most 10 minutes from the beach, across the bridge). He asked me where I lived, and I told him I lived on the beach. He said, “Oh, wow that’s so cool! Do you ever go to the actual beach?” I said “yeah, yeah I get really busy but I’ve been there a few times. I can enjoy a nice spot.” I said, “wait a second; you’ve been to the beach, right?” He said, “No, I’ve never been I’ve only seen it on TV, and videos and stuff.” I was blown away! This is Miami Edison! Right across the bridge from the beach! The young man actually lived in that area. So it blew me away.
Right then and there I knew we needed to do something, to have a program in place where we make sure that kids in those situations get to have those kinds of experiences. The academic part of it is very, very important, but the social part of it is just as important. We’re telling these kids to ‘work hard, you can get a scholarship, you can go to the college of your choice.’ But the part that we are neglecting is that you have this youngster that has only ever experienced their block, their neighborhood. Then they get a scholarship and go to a school in-state or out of state. They meet other kids and who share their experiences about traveling to Europe for the summer, or going to games with their families… doing things that a lot of other people do, and this makes the other kids feel completely and totally inferior. They can’t relate. So we started the cultural passport program which gives these types of experiences to the kids.
Building off of that, one of the best stories I’d also like to share with you actually happened this year. We have a partnership with Big Brothers, Big Sisters where we provide four scholarships a year; it’s called the Tony Smith Head Scholarship. We go and interview the candidates, learn about their motivations…etc. This year, we met an exceptional young woman, who just… our hearts went out to this woman with how hard she has worked to overcome her situation, you know, not just her but her whole family. The biggest challenge she had with her family was transportation. They really, really needed a car. We heard that took it to another level, and not only did we decide to giver one of the scholarships, but we went back to one of our partners (Toyota) and put our heads together and figured out a way to grant them a complimentary lease on a brand new Toyota. We got her driving lessons, as well. It was the most amazing things. She was surprised at the ceremony, and not only was she, but her entire family was in tears. That totally transformed their lives. To this day it’s something that… just… I’m so thankful we were able to do something like that for her and her family. That’s something I’m really proud and happy about.
L’Etage: In the ‘discover, develop, and deploy’ process-oriented aims of the Irie Foundation, which is most the most integral step for the foundation to cater to?
They’re all extremely important, but I would say Discover. The reason being, we have to identify the need before we can help, before we deploy our resources. What is crazy is that, take an area like South Florida: there are areas that are doing quite well, and there are a lot of areas that are extremely challenged. Because they’re under-resourced, underfunded, and it’s really not a leveling playing field. It really takes getting out there, being on the ground, going to these institutions, and talking to these kids. One of the programs that really helps with this “discover” process, is we do “report card dates.” A lot of kids are not held accountable. As talented as they are, there’s no motivating factor there because no one is holding them accountable. They may live in a single-parent home, or they may not even live with their actual family. There really aren’t people checking on what they’re doing and their progress. So the kids will go to school, get the report card, but no one is actually checking what they’re doing!
We just don’t understand that! Between myself, and other members of the staff, we reach out to other folks in the community as well and we go into the schools, and we literally sit down with these kids individually, and go over their report cards! (Laughs) Absolutely! We identify where they are excelling or falling short and then by having that discussion we get to understand why they’re not doing well in certain areas. A lot of the time it goes back to issues at home or other outside factors, and then guess what? We can actually start. Whether it be deploying our resources or setting them up with other organizations, other individuals who start helping them get over that. To fix that issue, whatever it is. But we would never know how if we did not have that process of sitting down with them and holding them accountable. We do that in the first semester, and then we go back the second semester and we find out how they have done better or worse from semester to semester so that we can know what we are doing is the right thing, that what we are doing is actually making an impact… etc., to gauge ourselves, as well. That’s super important because without doing that we could have resources all day, and not know how to deploy them or know that we are being effective without that discovery.
Once we sit down with them and identify the issues, and then we stay with them to make sure we turn that around.
L’Etage: After high school, where do most Irie Foundation students’ progress to?
Our thing is this: we are about opening their eyes to the possibilities, the options. We understand that college may not be for everybody. Maybe its vocational school that is the path they want to pursue. But it’s all about them really knowing and understanding what their options are. 100% we want them to go to college, we want them to seek higher education, but if they want to do other things as well we try to support them in whatever direction that they want to take. Some folks want to continue on the path of the arts: in film, or music, or dance, and we try to get them the tools that make that possible, to try to pursue that. But the other thing for the kids that do go to college is we try to keep them engaged in our program as much as possible, because they are success stories. And whatever kids we are working with currently, we want them to see those students, to know that they can do what they are doing, as well. They were in the same situations that these kids are in now, and they dealt with all the hurtles and issues — but they overcame, they’re successful, and they’re following their paths and careers. These students need to know that they can do it, too.
I’m not just some guy here saying to them “hey, keep your eye on the prize.” No, this person [Irie Alum] is doing it, we helped them do it, and we want to help you as well.
L’Etage: It’s great that you guys get to know these students to a point that you’re able to encourage their goals, and also realize what those are. From what perspective would you say the students of the Irie Foundation are most likely to contribute to our Miami culture?
Honestly, they are such an inspiration to others. During the gala dinner that we had during Irie Weekend, students came from the Music and Literacy Center and it was such an amazing evening. We brought the students there not only to tell their stories, but they performed for the guests as well. What was really amazing was for the guests that were there (a large part of them were from Miami) for them to be there to witness and hear firsthand what these kids have gone through to get to where they are… A student lost both of his parents and was living with his brother, his brother was getting locked up all the time, and the young man felt like there was nowhere to turn. Luckily we found him, and were able to bring him into the family. He would literally be at the center every single day. It would be school, then a music session. And that’s where he developed his love for instruments. He became amazing on the drums and was accepted into a very prestigious program at UC Berkeley. For that young man to be there and tell his story – and also perform and share his talent – it gives a level of motivation not only to his peers, but to everyone in that room. We really understood what it means to invest in a life. Not just monetarily, but time as well. And all of the things we do really go back into our community.
It absolutely starts with the youth, and it comes back to inspiration. I like to think of us as a platform for these kids to really live out their potential. It’s extremely inspiring to see it takes place. Not everyone gets exposed to the transformation that these kids go through. It really helps the community come together and get behind them. We were just at the Miami-Dade school board headquarters, and we were so humbled to be recognized for our work. They’ve been watching us all along, they’ve seen these transformations, and they want us to liberate as much as possible. Once you see the work happening in these kids’ lives it is just really inspirational and brings out a positive twist to what is happening to our community.
L’Etage: So you guys are gardeners, planting seeds, and they’re blossoming all over the place. How would you say the Irie Foundation grew to be so key to Miami’s shared experiences?
First of all, I have to give a huge amount of credit to our team. We would not be able to do any of the things mentioned if we didn’t have such a passionate team. These folks… believe me…they don’t do it for the paycheck. But we’re all looking it at the same way as work that needs to be done. It’s a labor of love and passion. Beyond that – the community, once we started talking to people and started to let them know what we’re trying to do, overwhelmingly it was “yes, I got you; how can I help; yes.” From brands, to celebrities, you name it. So many people came together to support us to help us get on a move. And that just goes to show the fabric of Miami. Miami is a very special place in my opinion. The love and support that we’ve received from the community has really helped us to do what we do. We could not do it without the support; they are valued because they have wholeheartedly been behind us.
L’Etage: If you had to choose three songs, to sum up the Irie Foundation, what would those be?
That’s a great question! You just put me on the spot! But I guess one of them would Rhianna’s “Diamond,” and the reason being because we tell our kids to let their personalities shine, to let their talents shine. So many kids come to us who are such introverts or are just really shy, and the next thing you know we them get on an instrument, into the studio, or they begin to do some spoken word—and then they’re shining! Another one would probably be Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.” That’s a word that we try to use a lot around these kids. We’re all individuals and what not, but we’re all also very beautifully so. We want them to love themselves, and they need to know that they have to no matter what they are beautiful so that they can continue to shine! The third would be extremely cheesy, but why not – R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” …because why not? They have to believe in themselves before anyone else does. They have to have confidence!
L’Etage: At what age did you begin to delve into music?
I was probably 12 or 13. I actually was in boarding school as a youngster, and we weren’t allowed to have radios, so I made one. I just loved music so much that I actually made one, I made my own radio. My roommate was Sean Paul, and we would just talk about music all the time. We’d go crazy knowing that all these songs were coming out and we wouldn’t be able to listen to them, and I just got motivated and started playing around with some parts and I made a radio. We’d get together, late at night, we’d turn it on and gather around, and we’d listen to reggae tunes! That was the beginning right there! That was the beginning. I was a little MacGyver!
L’Etage: How long have you (DJ Irie) been invested in the cultivation of youth? Is there a story behind your passion?
It’s been a good eight to nine years now. The backstory of it all really comes from Alonzo Mourning. Alonzo is one of the first guys I met when I started working with the Heat [The Miami Heat], and the thing with Alonzo is he does such great work with the community, and he kind of took me under his wing. I remember one of the first times I went out to an event with him; he was going to go speak at a middle school. I go to the school with him, and he’s talking to the kids. What’ crazy is that, he was supposed to be there for 15 minutes, but he wound up staying there for an hour and fifteen minutes. The reason why he did that is he wanted to answer every single question that the kids had. After that one of kids came up to me, blown away, and he said to me “you know what? I have to do better. I have to do better brother, for my parents. I can tell that Alonzo really cares. You know, I look up to him so much, I don’t want to let him down.” Then I was blown away — I was like, wow! This guy [Alonzo] just changed this kids life! The kid was dead serious. And that’s when I realized the levels of influence that people like him have. Not only that, I realized how much good they can do by being the role model that they are. And that’s when I was like; I want to be a part of this. I want to be a part of the solution, in spreading that hope and positivity for these kids. That was the moment for me, thanks to Alonzo.
L’Etage: It’s wonderful to see how communities interact. Young community with Alonzo engaged as a solution offered to the community of children in classrooms. What would you say is the dream of the Irie Foundation?
Right now, we are engaged in our dream and vision. We’ve come up with this really amazing concept called Irie Rhythms. It’s basically taking a lot of the things that we’ve learned work and produces results, and we’ve sort of wrapped it up into one experience: the Irie Rhythms Music Center. This center will be everything from music production, film & film production, spoken word, dance, you name it. A lot of the things that we do at the music and literacy center now, but completely blown out and expanded in a major way. And of course cutting-edge technology… you name it. We are going to build up this center, and our plan is to have the first one in Miami, but try to open them in other parts of the country as well, to really roll it out into something bigger.
On September 9, 2016, DJ Irie launched his website: www.djirie.com. To see the man who has equal passion for art and activism, check out the page. For more information on the Irie Foundation, check out www.iriefoundation.org.
Be on the look-out for the next big moves of the Irie Foundation!