‘You have to go with the vibe’

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BOSTON — Fenway Park DJ Kahleil Blair stares down onto the field at Fenway Park on Tuesday night, watching the Boston Red Sox host the Toronto Blue Jays, waiting. Perched in front of a Mac with QLab software loaded up with songs like “Levitating” by Dua Lipa and “Fireflies” by Owl City, and the drums from “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani, Blair watches the action, waiting for a particular play or a moment that inspires a soundtrack.

Throughout the game, Blair and John Carter, vice president of Red Sox productions, go back and forth on what to send through the Fenway Park speakers. Earlier in the day, before the game, a fan had visited the booth and requested Justin Bieber, so between the second and third innings, Blair queues up “STAY”, the pop superstar’s song with The Kid LAROI.

When Red Sox right-hander Nathan Eovaldi strikes out Blue Jays DH Zack Collins to start the third inning, Carter shoots a finger gun into the air, a sign for Blair to play the “WOO WOO” whistle that indicates a strike out. On this April evening, the wind blows into the Fenway Park control room on the fifth level behind home plate, and Carter, Blair and public address announcer Henry Mahegan sit in the front row wrapped in winter coats. April through October, regardless of temperature, they keep the windows open so they can hear the feedback from the crowd.

“You can’t plan everything out,” Blair said. “You have to go with the vibe.”

At Fenway Park, there’s been a very noticeable vibe shift. For more than a decade, the electric guitar riff of “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band blared before first pitch — but the times are changing on Jersey Street.

When Fenway mainstay TJ Connelly left his post following the 2020 season, the Red Sox were without a ballpark DJ for the first time in 15 years. While conducting the search for his replacement, Sarah McKenna, the team’s senior vice president of fan services and entertainment, asked herself a question over and over.

“The beauty of Fenway Park is that it’s always changing, but yet it’s always been the same,” McKenna said. “So how do you stay true to that fabric but continue to evolve?”

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The gravelly voice of Springsteen still makes its appearances, along with other Fenway favorites, but in between there is the sound of a new generation of Bostonians, including tracks from more contemporary musicians like “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers, “Butter” by K-pop megagroup BTS or “DÁKITI” by Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny.

The Red Sox have not one but three DJs now, who rotate at home games throughout the season: Blair, a local Boston DJ also known as Maverik; Liv Dulong, a 2021 graduate of Suffolk University; and Jeff Jackson, known as DJ Action Jackson. The trio shares playlists and tosses around ideas about how to best get Fenway Park flowing and in turn, attract a younger, more diverse crowd to baseball games in Boston.

This season, Fenway Park not only sounds different, it looks different. The Red Sox added the 521 Overlook event space above a new terrace at the top of the right-field bleachers, plus new video boards and a television studio for the pre-and post-game shows.

As Fenway Park began to bring more and more fans back during the course of the 2021 season, team employees, fans and media members noticed the new sounds. The change in the soundtrack reflected a change in demographics. United States census data showed that Massachusetts became significantly more diverse from 2010 through 2020, with the white population falling from 76.1% to 67.6% with growth in the Black, Latino, Asian and multiracial population. That change is even more evident in its capital. Over the past two decades, Boston has become a majority-minority city with a growing, diverse immigrant community that played a major role in the election of Michelle Wu, the first woman, person of color and Asian-American to serve as the city’s mayor.

To account for the changing face of the city, the team needed to make changes, and as the music played at Fenway Park trended younger and more diverse, so too, the Red Sox hoped, would the fans at the ballpark, said McKenna.

“We wanted Fenway to be a more dancier place, to feel more diverse and present. Those were our two goals,” McKenna said. “We want it to be more inclusive and more of a dance place. There are still people that are coming to watch a baseball game, so it’s finding that balance.”

Finding that balance started with the search for new DJs. The team conducted interviews over Zoom during the heart of the COVID-19 lockdown over the winter of 2020-2021, asking applicants what music they’d play in specific situations — say, in a tie game against the New York Yankees in the bottom of the ninth, or during a cold, rainy game in April with the Red Sox trailing.

“[It is about] making it more exciting for younger people, making younger people want to go to games,” Dulong said. “A Sunday afternoon game, you’re not going to play the same music as a Friday night game. It’s different demographics. The team wanted us to look at who’s gonna be at the games and what kind of music they’re gonna want.”

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Blair, a Bostonian, dreamed of DJing at Fenway Park as a kid, but as the son of two Jamaican immigrants, he said he wanted to make going to Red Sox games a more welcoming experience for people from a wide range of backgrounds.

“My Boston experience has been that I’ve been the diversity my whole life,” Blair said. “I can relate to someone coming to Fenway Park for the first time and I can relate to people who were born and bred in Boston and the people just coming onto the scene just seeing what it’s all about.”

Jackson said the trio of DJs wanted to blend their personal musical tastes. Last season, the group found a formula that worked for setting the tone, playing hip-hop and Latin music during batting practice while weaving together genres like pop, country, indie rock, rap and house throughout the evening. In close, late-inning games, they turn to house music to get the crowd amped.

While Jackson said he’s seen some fans complain about the changing soundtrack on social media, the group stressed the importance of change.

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“We all kind of joked that K-pop had never been played at Fenway before [last] year, so we really focused on bringing artists like BTS, Blackpink, Super Junior, artists like that to Fenway that had never been played before,” Jackson said. “I see on places like Twitter that some of the older fans are complaining about playing Latin music, but those people, they’re old-school. They just don’t get it. They’re stuck in the 1970s or 1980s. They’re saying we’re playing too much Latin music, but the players were loving it and the crowd was loving it.”

For many kids growing up in a more diverse Boston, this will be what they associate with their childhood trips to Red Sox games. For Jackson, it’s a necessary step in the evolution of baseball, not just in the city, but across the country.

Even if that doesn’t quite happen overnight.

“People don’t like change, but at the same time, change needs to happen,” Jackson said. “Baseball is an evolving sport, but if we don’t change with the times, it’s gonna pass us all by. It’s not going to be good for our fan base. It’s not going to be good for the city. To change with what’s going on in the city, there are going to be some growing pains, but those growing pains are going to pay off in dividends in the future.”

Still, old-school fans needn’t worry too much: The nightly tradition of playing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” before the home half of the eighth inning isn’t going anywhere.

“We’ve never once talked about ‘Sweet Caroline’ in meetings,” Carter said. “If I go down and Fenway Park goes down, that song will still be playing.”