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Kiana Rookz Eastmond is breaking barriers in the Toronto scene
Kiana 'Rookz' Eastmond (Photo: Tanja-Tiziana)

Interview: Q&A

Kiana “Rookz” Eastmond is breaking barriers in Toronto’s scene

HipHopCanada sat down with Kiana “Rookz” Eastmond, founder and director of Sandbox Studios. Like most successful entrepreneurs, Rookz has a come-up story you could write a book about, but what separates her from the rest is her intent to be accessible to the community without getting caught up in Toronto’s elite.

Rookz is definitely a woman about her business – savvy, headstrong, unapologetically honest and every word she speaks is with conviction. At the same time, her humble beginnings have shaped her to move with empathy and humility.

On a Friday morning, Rookz had only a few hours to spare before catching a flight to Boston for the Black Alumni Conference… at Harvard. Yet she still gave us over a solid hour’s worth of gems. Trust us when we say it wasn’t easy to break this all down. Check out what she had to say, and be sure to take in the track “IMONA,” which came out back in September.

Humble Beginnings & The Power of Belief

Rookz: KR Moore is the root story of everything to do with me and music. I do genuinely believe that someone has to believe in you and see something in you that you don’t see in yourself until you do. When I was younger, I was homeless at 14. My mom kicked me out of her house when I came out as queer. I have a very conservative, traditional Jamaican family – very involved in politics and very religious. So as much we’re close right now, back then it was a more of a “don’t do this!” type of thing. I think people often confuse that with homophobia but it wasn’t, it was about class and pride. It was the fear of “you can’t be gay or you can’t live here.”

I’m a Leo, I’m very headstrong. My mom kicked me out the house to scare me, so I just left. I dropped out of high school, and mind you I came out of the gifted program, left basketball which I was most passionate about. My whole life I wanted to go to the WNBA.

My mom was an entrepreneur, I watched her open many businesses and buy properties. This was not a women who was handed anything, my first five years of life was spent in government housing. So from government housing to watching what she did for my sister and myself – I never made excuses.

I didn’t have a job – this is why I genuinely believe you got to open for anything. I started doing security for this random, random place in Scarborough! (Laughing) They had some open mic night and around the time KR had just graduated from Trebas and was like, “Yo, come by the studio.” And mind you, this guy is not my friend, it was my childhood friend’s boyfriend. One day we had a conversation and just kind of clicked. He just randomly asked me to come by the studio – this is why I say everyday that being open is so important. He told me I should go back to school, he asked me about my life. He believed in me and wanted me to figure myself out. ‘Cause literally, I was wild! (Laughing)

So when I was working security and I noticed there were artists [coming there] – because of his kindness I wanted to reciprocate it. So I was telling artists to checkout this studio [KR] just opened. I started sending him referrals, for example, Tory Lanez’s first performance ever I saw in this random place in Scarborough. And they booed him.

I’m gonna tell you something about believing in yourself – Tory Lanez is not even tall now but back then he was definitely not tall! He was doing a great job – they just booed him because they didn’t know him. He jumped up on the table and said, “I swear to God you guys are all gonna fucking regret this day! I swear to God you’re going to know my fucking name!” I’ll never forget that, he got up on that table and declared that in that space. I’ve never seen anybody do that.

I remember going outside to him after and said “Yo, I love the belief you have in yourself. Anything you need from me, ever, I got you. I support you.” For many years after that, KR and I would invite him to the studio.

Kiana Rookz Eastmond is breaking barriers in the Toronto scene

Kiana ‘Rookz’ Eastmond (Photo: Instagram)

In The Face of Adversity

In 2012, Rookz started managing Toronto neo-soul artist, Shi Wisdom. At the time, Shi became one of the hottest local acts in the city and Rookz had just purchased Sandbox (formerly named The Lab). After a very public fallout with her former client, Rookz was essentially blacklisted from Toronto’s music scene, leaving her [once again] in government housing, thousands of dollars in debt and spiraled into a deep depression. Out of respect for Rookz, we decided to leave most of the personal details out of this interview and focus on her triumphs after those events.

Rookz: We wanted to do an album for her. KR and I were always behind her from day one. KR was working a crap job that he hated, I was running an organization, even though it was good money, I wasn’t happy there. Shi was working at the bank. I sat us all down and was like “Look how far we got without really trying. I think if we all quit our jobs and really tried, we can do something.” And so we did. We all quit our jobs and ironically from there things fell apart.

Shi didn’t want to work with me anymore and I had to kind of pick up the pieces. I just opened up this studio for Shi to finish her album, she decides she didn’t want to work with me anymore – mainly because I’m helping other artists. I need this to be my job now, right?

HipHopCanada: You gotta eat.

Rookz: Exactly. KR had two kids at the time, I didn’t have kids but I had a car and my own place. I had my own responsibilities. It was different for her because she lived at home, her family was well off and supported her music career. We didn’t have anything, we had ourselves. Once she got wind that we had other people in the studio, she wasn’t too happy about it so she broke ties with us. That’s where everything fell apart, and for me, that’s where my story starts.

A lot of people – everytime I read my bio it’s “Oh you worked with Drake.” That to me is not where my story starts. It starts when nobody would work with me.

The Rise of Sandbox Studios and Moving with Intention

Rookz: I changed the name from The Lab to Sandbox. Sandbox is named Sandbox because I want it to be a place where everyone can create. Everything we do is about accessibility, I don’t want anyone to have the same experience I had where someone can keep you from experiencing yourself in the way that you want to. That was it. My whole goal was to never have somebody experience what I experienced in this city. We took it from there and from that moment until now we’ve just been killing it. We’ve had everyone come through the studio.

Realistically this studio isn’t about celebrities to come here, it’s about having people come here and having them feel acknowledged and appreciated and it not being a money-grab. One of the things that breaks my heart the most is when the most amateur artists come in and they had been to another studio, they paid them $500 and still never got the song. These are things that really irritate me.

I fell in love with music management and developing artists because some people aren’t themselves before they perform. Watching someone who’s shy or aggressive or frustrated get on the stage and become a different person – was why I fell in love with creating that space for other people. So when I see that other people get ripped off because other people know their vulnerability is their desire to make music, it really upsets me. Everything about Sandbox is about – “let’s not be like those guys, let’s not be elitist.”

I’m wearing no labeled clothes inside the studio. People would never know but I’m so intentional about that. I’m so intentional about no brands inside the studio. We have a rule – no shoes over $100. Everything here for me is that I want you to feel like you’re in a safe space.

HipHopCanada: So when people come in they don’t have to feel that they have to have all those nice things. They’re so impressionable.

Rookz: 100%. And we’re working with a market that is already very impressionable and the majority of what they’re sold on is “Dress like this! Look like that!” The majority of our population [when we first started] was young, marginalized people of colour. They’ll come in and be counting out their session in loonies and have on $600 Balenciagas. You know what I mean? And because I saw that happen so much, I really wanted to create a different narrative. That’s why I speak so much about not investing in clothes, invest in yourself. Don’t invest in cars, invest in yourself. That’s the kind of stuff I want to encourage people to do.

So where we’re at now – it’s really about being intentional. It’s not by accident that we’ve become one of the most reputable studios in the city. It’s really on purpose, I worked every single day, whether I’m working here or I’m speaking. My staff and I – if a not for profit calls us, whether they’re paying $5 or $500 we’re gonna do it. That’s the stuff that we care about. I love being a part of the Sandbox team. I’m not just the owner, I’m part of the team and we truly believe in the mission of Sandbox. It’s not about me, it’s about our mission and what we’re trying to create. The idea of infinite possibility. And not just in music.

Kiana Rookz Eastmond is breaking barriers in the Toronto scene

Kiana ‘Rookz’ Eastmond (Photo: Instagram)

Women in the music industry

HipHopCanada: So this piece that we’re doing [for HipHopCanada] is for International Women’s Day. So a lot of the content will be about women in the music industry. With you being as successful as you are and being a black female in an executive position, what are the challenges you face. Do you find that you’re treated differently?

Rookz: 100%. Not only am I a black female but I’m outspoken. I always joke with one of my guy friends, he can say whatever the fuck he wants and people accept it. But if I say anything, then I’m being a bitch or I’m being rude. I can’t tell you how many music businessmen [in this city] that told me to “know my place.” I can’t count how many people, who other people look up to and celebrate and adore in this city, that told me to “know my place.” Via text “Don’t ever think you can talk to me like this.” They said they were going to do something, I’m following up, and I’m not rude, but firm.

HipHopCanada: All you’re doing is asking for some accountability.

Rookz: That’s it.

HipHopCanada: And you’re the one that’s being difficult.

Rookz: I have this reputation in Toronto for being difficult because I’m not a dick rider. I don’t do elitist shit. Toronto is a very elitist place.

HipHopCanada: The Screwface Capital.

Rookz: If you do your research you’ll see that I’ve done a lot of shit, but you’ll also see that every other organization is insentious with each other. They all work together and Sandbox is outside of that. It used to make me really sad and disheartened until very recently. I’m actually really happy to be outside, because all of the other people who feel outside [of those spaces] feel like there is a space for them.

I’ve done so many things and I don’t get put on by anybody. Everything I get put on is because I did it for myself, I made it happen. People [in this city] know that Rookz is somebody. I do so many things, but people don’t know what I do because the spaces and the platforms that are created for other people [in this city] aren’t shared with me. I’m not a part of their clubs, not because I’m outspoken, but because I’m a girl and outspoken. I can not tell you how many men [in this city] that have told me know my place.

HipHopCanada: Even till this very day.

Rookz: (Laughing) I think they’re scared of me now. I’m part of so many successful business and legacies now, that a part of me doesn’t even care to be part of the boys club.

HipHopCanada: You’re doing just fine without them!

Rookz: If one of the many men who told me to “know my place” called me to do this interview, I wouldn’t. I don’t even want your platform. A lot of people don’t know that I get called on to do a lot of shit but I say no because I’m not going to reinforce creating power in the same spaces that were oppressive to me. Sometimes that means you take your L.

I could be the one of most popular people in Toronto right now but if being popular means rebuilding the same structures that made it very difficult for me to come up, then I don’t want it.

I know that as a woman, I run Sandbox very differently. I know that because I work with predominantly men.

HipHopCanada: It’s a male dominated industry!

Rookz: Yeah and men care about different things. And if it makes me “female” and “feminine,” because I do care about how other people feel.

We had a client come in and pay $200 for a mix and master and they didn’t bring their stems for the beat. They know they’re supposed to bring their stems and they want to have it remixed and mastered again – I gave them back the portion of the studio mix. To me, money is an exchange. You got what you wanted, I got what I wanted.

Even though you’re responsible, you know what you’re supposed to do, you didn’t do it but I’m gonna give this back to you. This is your only chance to do this right again. I can’t feel good knowing that I made money and somebody didn’t get what they expected. And I do think that’s very female of me, it’s nurturing.

HipHopCanada: It’s empathetic.

Rookz: And that’s how I run my business, entirely from being empathetic and remember I was in that place.

I’m humble, but don’t waste my time.

HipHopCanada: I appreciate how humble you are. Your hashtag, #CreatingFate, the way you activate your business is a lot about creating your fate and when you have that unwavering faith it’s only natural for bigger things to come. I appreciate your integrity, at the same time you are such a cultivator of ideas. You’re a visionary, do you find people take advantage of your time?

Rookz: 100%. One of the best things I’ve ever learned was in my last relationship. My ex always used to tell me, “Stop talking.” (Laughing) My brain works so fast that somebody will come to me with a big business issue and in two seconds I’m helping them solve it. There are so many businesses in this city that I’ve supported and helped cultivate, just from conversation. Then I see them put it out in the world without any recognition. And it’s not just the recognition, it’s the access. I help people build businesses and they won’t even – so many people only call me when they’re in a rut and when they’re on the up and up, never call me again. That does have to do with the fact that they don’t feel like they owe me that, because I’m not seen like some of those other guys. I’ve definitely been taken advantage of a lot especially because I move in a place of empathy. I’m learning to not speak as much, I can help you but this is my consulting fee.

HipHopCanada: Absolutely. You better pay me!

Rookz: Yeah! And that’s so hard for me because I remember being stuck, but I can’t let people take advantage of me.

HipHopCanada: I think it’s great! You remember where you came from and you wish that you had a Rookz that you could look up to, but at the same time you can’t let people take your ideas and run away with it.

Rookz: And that’s why it’s so important to have faith. Saying “no” doesn’t ruin your journey. People ask me to do things, and it’s not like I’m saying no, if you draw the line in the sand and tell them to meet me in the middle. That’s what I try to do with everybody, fairness is such an important part of my life.

Kiana Rookz Eastmond is breaking barriers in the Toronto scene

The Future of Toronto’s Music Scene

HipHopCanada: Just being the new person in Toronto, a common thing that I hear [especially from industry people] is “Oh way back when!” “Things were so much better, the scene was so much better, no one wants to work together…” Do you see hope for Toronto’s scene?

Rookz: People who talk about “way back when” had access way back then. Anybody who’s older than me that I’ve asked for help has never helped me. Gatekeepers don’t like being thrown out of the gate but what we forget is that we create our own monsters. That’s why what I’m trying to do is be accessible. I want to create another Rookz who’s all about opening doors. Yeah, nobody wants to work with anybody because of the fact that they come from a place where nobody wanted to work with them. Kardinal and Drake’s beef is the fact that Drake wanted your co-sign but you did shit on him.

HipHopCanada: I always wondered where the root of that came from.

Rookz: He didn’t care about him, then he blew up and made you less relevant. Now you can’t get a song with him because you never showed him love. Tory Lanez and Drake – Tory wanted Drake’s cosign, Drake never wanted to give it to him. Then they beefed until now they got to a place where – to be honest with you the hope is the fact that Drake and Tory Lanez connect. The hope is the fact as much as Drake only puts on his own artists, they’re from Toronto. The hope is the fact that the New Toronto, the OVOs – they’re way better. Jessie Reyez put Savannah Re on a show that got [Savannah] a deal.

To me, this Toronto is way better than that Toronto. Because that Toronto is what birthed the guys who told me to “know my place.” They worked so fucking hard for it, and by being empathic, I don’t hate them for it. I know from my own experience that I’ve reached out to everybody. I’ve been in music since I was 19 years old and nobody has opened the door for me.

I never talk poorly on anybody but I do think that they need to step up and embrace us. We’re not going to replace you, we need you to show us what’s poppin! You can’t let the information die with you. You need successors, a king spends his whole life grooming a prince. That’s a king’s only job, to raise a prince. I see it in the black community all the time, we don’t raise successors. Even black small business owners, we don’t raise our kids to take over the business. We don’t think generationally.

When you put me on, you elevate when I win. Now I owe you a W because you were a part of it. What happens with this disconnect in Toronto is that everyone has worked so hard. I worked so fucking hard for this Sandbox that it takes a lot for me to engage with people who did not fucking care. And that’s in my meditation and prayer everyday is to allow me to not be hard. Allow me to show up because if I don’t show up, then I’m doin the exact same thing!

HipHopCanada: It takes a lot of strength to do that.

Rookz: And you have to be so conscious of it. How we treat people. We have such an impact on other human beings that we have to be so cognisant. I’m so intentional of not creating class systems or elitist systems. It’s so important to me.

HipHopCanada: And going back to the Drake-Kardi-Drake-Tory; Drake didn’t really learn a lesson in humility [at that time] because he turned around and did the same thing.

Rookz: Because it happened to him. This is something we don’t talk about, especially in communities of trauma. When things happen to you, you cope by telling yourself it’s okay, so you do it to somebody else. That is something I don’t want to see. Tory Lanez isn’t putting anybody on, cause look how hard he fought to get there! But if we had made things just a little bit easier for everybody, it would be a different situation, a different conversation of “who else can I help?” Pay it forward. That’s what I want to see happen and that’s the movement I want to be known for. On my tombstone, I want it to say “Rookz broke the cycle.”

HipHopCanada: I think it’s brilliant. A big part of business is not just creating wealth and relationships, it’s about helping other people. No one does it on their own. I believe in being self made but at the same time, a lot of people were part of the process to get you there.

Rookz: If my girl wasn’t willing to work a job for a year and let me sit down in her bed and cry all day, I wouldn’t be here. If my mom didn’t raise me from the way that she did, I wouldn’t be here. If KR never believed in me, if that random girl didn’t give me that security job – everything single thing in my life brought me to a place to do this job.

For the next generation

HipHopCanada: What would you say to a young Rookz, aspiring to be like you right now?

Rookz: Every single day I work for the young Rookz. Everything I do in my life is to save the kid and be the person I needed to be. That little voice, that conversation you have with yourself is so important. So often we’re talking to ourselves through other people’s voices. We deny ourselves. The only thing I’ll ever tell a young Rookz is that you have to know fundamentally what your voice is, so that voice gets the loudest.

The 15 year olds who become celebrities and superstars, it’s because they believed in themselves. Justin Bieber really believed he deserved it, Rihanna really believed she deserved it. There’s a voice that’s inside of you, that you have to know the difference between that voice and this voice. Spend time with yourself, talk to yourself aloud. I’m big on morning routines, that first conversation with yourself in the first 30 minutes of your day is crazy. Listen to something positive – a motivational speech that reminds you that you’re awesome. If you have love for yourself, you’ll have love for other people. It starts with you. The louder you know your voice the easier for you to not compromise who you are.

Written by Rosa Jason for HipHopCanada

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