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DJ Sean thought the Upper Valley was missing some energy, so he got the party going himself

A photo of two people, a baby and a dog sitting at a kitchen table, with a rug underneath. Sean Hay, who is sitting closer to the camera, is giving his dog a "high five."
Alex Driehaus/Valley News / Report For America
/
Granite State News Collaborative
Sean Hay plays with the family dog, Coco, while his wife, Melanie Hay, feeds their 7-month-old daughter, Aria Hay, at their home in Quechee, Vt., on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. The Hays moved to the Upper Valley from New York to be closer to Sean’s mother almost nine years ago, and they chose to stay in the area because it seemed like a good place to raise their family.

Not long after they moved to the Upper Valley in fall 2013, Sean and Melaine Hay used to take two trips a month to Long Island and New York City.

The couple, then in their mid-20s, and their two children had moved to Quechee to live with Sean’s mother. But they missed where they grew up — the parties they’d attend with family and friends in their tight-knit Caribbean community, the food, the music.

“It felt like we were getting older faster,” Hay, 34, said.

Starting out

After three years in the Upper Valley, they considered moving to Georgia.

The couple’s move had been motivated by their two young sons: They felt Vermont would be a good place for Jayden Forbes and Dylan Hay, with its educational opportunities, proximity to their grandmother and access to the outdoors.

“We said maybe we should stay put,” Hay said. “And then when we stayed put, it was like, ‘What should we do now?’ ”

So Hay set out to re-create what they felt at the Caribbean parties the couple attended growing up. When he didn’t find what he was looking for, he set out to build it himself, using music and food as a way to connect with people. In the years since, Hay — who performs as DJ Sean — has brought the party to the Upper Valley.

Hay’s great aunt and grandmother moved to Long Island from Jamaica in the early 1980s. Other family members, including Hay’s mother and uncles, soon followed.

In Jamaica, “they always had music playing, they always had the sound system, they always had food and parties,” Hay said. “When she moved to the States that wasn’t the same. It was move to work and make a better life for your family.”

His great-aunt missed those parties, so she started her own. On weekends, she cooked and Hay’s uncles provided the music. In his childhood, Hay was sent upstairs as the parties got going, but he would sneak down and watch the scene play out.

“I saw what they did and it just looked like fun,” he said.

Music, he saw, could be used as a way to connect with others, a way to make social interactions less intimidating. He started to pester his uncles to let him join in.

“When I was a teenager, that’s when I got a chance to help them bring the boxes around and the records,” Hay said. Then he started performing at parties on his own, including those of classmates. “I wasn’t any good, but it was still fun.”

Hay also started accompanying one of his uncles to Long Island clubs on weekends. No matter the weather, they would set up a tent, a grill, a small heater and a table and start cooking. As clubgoers departed, around 2 a.m., they’d stop by for chicken.

“Of course, heat from the grill kept us warm,” Hay said. “It was like a party every time.”

After graduating from high school in 2005, Hay attended automotive school in Pennsylvania. While he loved to cook and DJ, he didn’t see it as a viable career option. When he returned home he got a job at an Acura dealership, then a Ford dealership, until he was laid off during the 2008 recession.

He started helping his uncle every Friday night at the clubs. The money wasn’t great, but the experience was worth it: He learned to smoke meat and work with seasonings on the grill. He also started working at Home Depot and continued to DJ.

In fall 2011, Hay and his future wife started dating. They’d known each other as teenagers — “We all went to parties together,” said Melaine Hay, who was born in Jamaica — and got together in their early 20s. Jayden was 3 years old at the time.

“From then it was always, he’s my boy,” Hay said.

Hay’s mother, Marcella Hay, moved to Quechee in September 2010 to take a job at a bank in the Upper Valley. The couple started visiting, and his mother encouraged them to move up. They resisted, but when their son Dylan turned 1 they decided to give it a go. Hay transferred to the Home Depot in West Lebanon.

“Many times I told him I could not do this,” Melaine Hay said. “After, we just decided it’s really great for the kids.”

The couple began to make friends in Quechee. On their trips back to Long Island, they started to think about how they could bring together what they loved about where they grew up with the place where they were growing their family.

For Hay, that started with music. He connected with a hip hop group in 2014 that was looking for a DJ. On weekends, he’d go to different venues in the Twin States where rappers would perform over his mixes.

After a year, he went out on his own with the business name Livemixkings. For a year and a half, he performed every Saturday night at Club 101 in Claremont. He found spots in White River Junction. He became a regular at First Fridays, hosted events at the Engine Room and started picking up gigs at Dartmouth College.

Along the way, he discovered that the people who came out to hear him perform responded more enthusiastically than the crowds in the New York City area, where what he’s doing is much more common.

“When I bring it here, everyone is so happy,” Hay said.

Tim Wunderlich was one of those people. He moved back to the Upper Valley in his 20s to work as an assistant coach for the Dartmouth College track team. Wunderlich and his friends became regulars at Hay’s performances. The music was a draw, naturally, but it was something else too, a phrase that is regularly used to describe Hay: His energy. He exudes a positivity that plays off the audience just as much as his music.

“I think it’s huge. I think it brings a community together and we are a small community. Having fun events to look forward to … is what the community needs,” said Wunderlich, who grew up in Maryland and attended Dartmouth as an undergraduate. “With creating a space for, like, a fun dance party environment, I think that’s something that we all crave from time to time, just a social atmosphere for good music.”

As Hay was building his DJing business, he was still working full time at Home Depot. He was promoted to manager and held the position for two years. But it took a toll.

“I was just going, home and work, home and work,” he said.

Pivoting and innovating

Hay switched to working nights on Home Depot’s freight team so he could stay home with the boys during the day while Melaine was at her job as a medical assistant and pursuing a nursing degree. It also gave him a chance to work on his music and start to consider: “How could I help my family by doing something that I liked instead of doing something that burned me out every day?”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic came and changed his direction.

In March 2020, DJing as Hay knew it stopped. Weddings and events were canceled or postponed.

With another DJ, he started a Zoom program called “What’s Up Upper Valley?” on Saturday nights to play music. It started in March 2020 and lasted about a year.

In March 2021, he left Home Depot for a job at a car dealership. It wasn’t the right fit, but it led him to realize that he could support his family with his earnings from the coming wedding season, June through October.

“I leaped. I said, ‘I’m going to do this,’ ” Hay said. “I said it doesn’t make any sense to work all week and then leave the family on the weekend and work all weekend.”

He connected with Lebanon Opera House Executive Director Joe Clifford, who reached out to him about pulling together a “silent disco” for the opera house’s Nexus Festival last August. In a silent disco, participants listen to the music through wireless headphones. Neither Clifford or Hay had any experience with it.

The first silent disco proved so popular they held more. Hay helped the opera house tap into a diverse audience, including younger people and people of color, Clifford said.

“He’s very interested in the audience’s experiences,” Clifford said. “Especially in the work that he does, the idea of collaboration is really important, understanding what the host organization needs and what the audience needs. Word just travels from there.”

As wedding season drew to a close, one of Hay’s last gigs was for Wunderlich. He met his wife, Alex Lenzen, at a DJ Sean gig, and they’d shared their first kiss on New Year’s Eve 2017, as Hay was performing. Their wedding was a full-circle moment both for the couple and for Hay.

“That meant a lot. That was like, ‘All right you’re doing this for a reason,’ ” Hay said. “I’m going to go out and entertain people, but you see that it has true meaning, that people create something from what you did for them.”

Extending his reach

After wedding season, Hay knew he needed another source of income and he recalled the family parties of his youth. Working out of the Quechee home that he and Melaine purchased in 2019, he advertised a meal pickup on Facebook. The response for his new business, Fulla Flava Jamaican Jerk, surprised him.

“A single person would order for their family and it would be six plates,” Hay said.

Hay began hosting pop-up events, and the first one took place April 2 at the Black Center in Hanover. His friend, Renoir Ramsay, who goes by DJ Fire Chip, provided the music, but Hay provided the flavor.

While he considers himself a cook, “I wouldn’t go as far to say chef,” he said.

Over the course of the three-hour event, people picked up food and stopped to take in the music, nodding their heads to Ramsay’s beats. Dylan played basketball and Melaine Hay walked around with the couple’s 8-month-old daughter, Aria. Everyone stopped to talk to Hay.

“This is what we grew up in,” he said.

Hay’s friend, Phillip Mangieri, helped take orders as Hay put together plates. Hay provides the music to any party that is held.

“He’s trying a lot of different things to have the community (be) part of what he’s doing,” Mangieri said.

Hay also makes an effort to include other DJs in his gatherings, including Ramsay, who grew up in Jamaica and moved to Windsor a decade ago.

Ramsay thinks he met Hay on Facebook around six or seven years ago, but it’s fuzzy.

“We’re family now,” he said. “It’s like asking, ‘How did you meet your family?’ ”

Before the pandemic, Hay had been working with the Upper Valley Music Center to develop a “DJ Academy” for middle school students. They were weeks away from a pilot program in March 2020 when it was pushed online. Last fall, Hay taught a six-week in-person class and is teaching another one this spring.

“I think people know UVMC as the place to go for violin and piano lessons,” said Erin Smith, assistant director at the nonprofit organization. The pairing is not an obvious one, she said. UVMC tends to focus on classical music.

Smith said she was heartened by Hay’s desire to work with middle schoolers.

“There haven’t traditionally been a lot of entry points for them other than taking lessons on an instrument, and not everyone wants to do that,” Smith said. “With middle school it’s a time where kids are figuring out who they are. They’re on the sports track, they’re on the music track, but a lot of kids don’t have their thing and they’re still figuring it out.”

Hay knows what it’s like. At 14, he was shy and unsure how to interact with others. Music changed that.

“I find that that’s the age. You’re in middle school now, things are different, and you’re really trying to find your way,” Hay said. “Your classmates see that and it’s ‘Cool, you’re in.’ ”

During a lesson last month, Hay taught his son Jayden and Phineas Roy-Ollie how to set up equipment. Imagine where the podium is, he told them, the dance floor, the position of the speakers and lights. Could people sitting at imaginary tables still enjoy the music like the people on the dance floor?

Then, Jayden and Phineas, 15, took turns on the mixing board. Hay stood nearby, offering encouraging words and suggestions as the young DJs mixed songs by Rihanna, Flo Rida and C+C Music Factory.

“Go again, go again,” Hay said occasionally. “Listen to the beat.”

Phineas, who also plays bass, started taking lessons when he was 13. It’s exposed him to different genres of music and to study it more closely.

“It’s more creative than just listening to it,” Phineas said. “I like the social aspect of this, being able to entertain people.” Performing for classmates and at parties has helped build his confidence. “I’m definitely less shy than I was when I came here.”

For Hay, that’s part of the motivation.

“You come back to music to solve a lot of issues within yourself, and I feel like that’s one of the things he’s shooting for,” Melaine Hay said of Hay’s teaching.

Throughout, Hay keeps his family involved. He wants Jayden, 14, and Dylan, 9, to have the confidence and skills to chase their dreams, whatever they might be.

“The goal is to keep doing this and grow,” Hay said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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