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‘The steps are small but important’: a Black DJ shares his formula for exceeding clients’ expectations, and staying safe

Freddy Fontaine, known as DJ Backspin, has been in the events business for about 20 years.
Freddy Fontaine, known as DJ Backspin, has been in the events business for about 20 years.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Freddy Fontaine of Framingham is the man behind DJ Backspin Entertainment, providing the soundtrack for weddings, corporate events, nightclubs, and private parties. (Most of his live events have been postponed or canceled this year due to the pandemic, including about 40 weddings.) Here, Fontaine, 37, describes the formula he has developed as a Black business owner to exceed clients’ expectations, and stay safe. As told to Katie Johnston.

We get the stereotypes: “Oh, they’re going to show up late.” Or, “They might not be able to provide the level of professionalism that we’re expecting.” As Black vendors, we have to go above and beyond to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible. That’s why I came up with a formula. The steps are simple, but important.

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When it comes to weddings, I like to get to know the couple. If the parents are paying, they often want to meet with me, too. They want to know: “What’s making them want to pick this guy? This is a very important day for us, we’re spending a lot of money, we really want to know what’s going on.” The skepticism tends to come more from white families. Being in this business for over 20 years, I’m used to it, so it doesn’t necessarily bother me anymore. I just know I always have to prove myself.

I like to find out who the wedding planner is, and get a contact at the venue. I give them a call, find out a good time to show up at the venue on the day of the event, let them know what kind of vehicle I’ll be driving so that folks will know when I’m approaching.

I usually get there two hours early. Most of the time, I’m the first person there. The company setting up the seats and tables may be there before me, but that’s it. You don’t want people looking at you like, “Why is this guy late? What happened?” I don’t want to have any questions.

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I’m dressed up, suit and tie ready to go, I got my clipboard, everything already typed out. I already checked in with the banquet manager, event planner, the photographer, the videographer. I make sure I quarterback everything ahead of time to put the venue staff at ease.

At high-end places on the Cape, Newport, Martha’s Vineyard, Black vendors like me tend to stand out. I can have an event in New Hampshire or Vermont, and I might be the only person in the town that’s of color. Especially in today’s climate, I find myself being a little bit more alert, taking my time driving, no speeding.

Driving to and from work is where I feel the weight of everything. I make sure my car’s plates and registration are up to date. I put my keys and wallet on the passenger seat, so I’m ready for anything, so I’m not digging in the car to make cops suspicious of anything. I usually stay in uniform. I still am in my suit, I might loosen my tie, but I keep it on. I make sure I have my business card, my bag with my logo on it, just to show, “Yeah, I’m coming from work, I’m headed to a hotel, or driving back home.”

That’s another reason why I like to make sure I know people from the venue, so I can say, “Mary or Sue from X, Y, and Z venue can tell you that I just came from there.”

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I’ve never been pulled over, but I’ve had cops follow me. Obviously they’re running my plates and checking my car out. There have been instances when I am in affluent towns and I’ve been followed as I’m getting closer to the highway, making sure I’m on my way out. It’s second nature to me. It’s a little bit of extra work to make sure I’m crossing my T’s and dotting my I’s on everything. But the most important thing is keeping myself safe in neighborhoods that may not be the safest for someone like me. We have no room for error.

My parents are of Haitian descent. They raised me to show respect, be on time, be professional, be polite, show that you know what you’re doing and that you’re confident. It’s just something that’s been in our culture. It’s in my DNA. I’m always striving to show that I am just as good as any other deejay.

Me having to think about a formula to prove myself in this industry and keep myself safe flows into that bracket of systemic racism. My business protocol helps me exceed the low expectations some people have.

I worked in corporate sales for 10 years, so I’m kind of used to this environment. As a Black man in corporate sales, you’re more on the radar than anybody else and you need to make sure you’re staying on your A game. You definitely have to do more to go over and beyond. You’ve got to put in a little bit more effort to make sure we’re hitting the numbers and doing things right, showing up early or staying late. I always wanted to show that Black professionals can do what everyone else is doing, and then some.

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This is the blueprint I adapted for my deejay business. I’m sure many professional vendors of color have similar formulas. I want to create a space for up-and-coming deejays who are still wet behind the ears, to tell folks, “Yeah listen, I get it, there are stereotypes about us. Prove why you belong!” I’m trying to break those boundaries and show folks we can stand right there with any of our counterparts by providing elite service. No matter the color of our skin.

Part of an occasional series of personal essays by people of color working in the Boston area. To tell your story, contact workplace reporter Katie Johnston at katie.johnston@globe.com.