Cold rain pelts the plastic party tent erected in the parking lot of a Westside office park. Inside, chilled Champagne flows, and a crowd of music industry types mingle. Never mind that it’s two o’clock on a Monday afternoon; everyone’s dressed to be seen in designer denim and stilettos. Standing at the tent entrance, Atlanta city councilmember Kwanza Hall is probably the most recognizable face—that is, until rapper Rick Ross saunters in (an hour and 15 minutes late) wearing a black fur-collared pea coat with gold buttons and followed by a burly entourage. But neither Ross, a Miami hip-hop star turned record executive, nor Hall is the most important person in this room—at least not today.
That honor goes to Dina Marto, the petite, dark-haired woman in the modest black dress who slides past the star-struck guests to greet Ross and his crew. Hall is here to deliver a city proclamation extolling 31-year-old Marto for contributions to Atlanta’s music scene, including creating hit songs for Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus in the low-rise building, Twelve Studios, adjacent to this tent. Ross has come to announce that Twelve Studios will be the new hub for his Maybach Music Group label.
Growing up in Marietta, Marto—who was born in Amman, Jordan—sang Mariah Carey ballads into a hairbrush microphone for an audience of stuffed animals. But her pragmatic Jordanian mom and Palestinian father were less than enthused about her dreams of stardom, urging her to pursue law, medicine, or finance. Marto enrolled as a communications major at Oglethorpe University, with plans to go into PR.
While at college, Marto took a vocal class and spent her off hours at clubs and events trying to network her way into Atlanta’s music scene. But it was volunteering to book acts for school functions that opened the door to the industry. She recruited then-new ATL performers like Killer Mike, T.I., and Cee-Lo for shows at Oglethorpe. At 19, she cofounded a PR firm, recruiting clients such as Rico Wade and Sleepy Brown of Organized Noize and radio personality Ryan Cameron.
Attending a 2004 Georgia Music Hall of Fame event, Marto met R&B mogul and former Atlantan L.A. Reid and told him about her desire to be a singer. Reid told her she was too smart to be an artist. She took the comment as rejection, and a year passed with no further contact from Reid until, seemingly out of the blue, one of his lieutenants called to offer Marto a job at Island Def Jam. For six years, she ran the company’s Atlanta office, helping with L.A. Reid Music Publishing and serving as A&R coordinator for LL Cool J, Nas, Young Jeezy, and other Island Def Jam artists.
Marto, who credits her success to “risk, work ethic, relationship building, vision, and seeking out mentorship,” left Def Jam in 2012 to open Twelve Studios and Twelve Productions. Now she’s the mentor. Marto has put out hits but mostly develops young talent. This year she and Ross launched Artists First, a publishing company for emerging artists and producers.
There are few female execs in the music business—and fewer Arab Americans. “I do believe it’s harder for women,” Marto says. “But there’s no sympathy in this game. The music business doesn’t give people of any gender or ethnicity a pass.”
Twelve Studios, Twelve productions
Founded by Dina Marto in 2012. Clients include Polow da Don and Rock City. Biggest hits: “Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj and “We Can’t Stop” by Miley Cyrus, both No. 2 on Billboard Hot 100
Founded by Rick Ross in 2009 and relocating to Atlanta in 2015. Clients include Meek Mill and Wale. Biggest hit: “God Forgives, I Don’t” by Ross, No. 1 on Billboard 200
This article originally appeared in our May 2015 issue under the headline “Like a Boss.”