TORONTO THE GOOD WITH ROOKZ (SANDBOX & MANIFESTO)
Certified B Corporations @GladstoneHotel and @RampAgencyTO launch an inspiring bi-weekly blog series #TorontoTheGood. The series sparks thoughtful conversations through interviews with influencers, social entrepreneurs, and innovators who are shining a light on the city’s toughest issues and championing change to make Toronto, and the world a better place.
Have you always lived in Toronto?
I was born in Toronto. In my formative years, I lived in Scarborough and Brampton. I moved out at 14 and I’ve lived everywhere from Ajax, Parkdale, downtown, to the east side, and Leaside, everywhere. I was still young and trying to figure it out. Having lived all over the city makes me feel really connected to Toronto.
Has the city changed since you grew up here?
It has, dramatically. Growing up, my mom was an entrepreneur and my dad was an aerospace engineer. We were considered upper middle class. People from the upper middle class are moving to the surviving middle class. Many have transitioned to multiple sources of income. An accountant might drive for Uber on the weekends. The only way to make it in Toronto today is if you’re a business person but there’s a gap in knowledge and business acumen. There are so many buildings too and many of the things that made Toronto, Toronto, has changed.
I travel a lot. In America, your socio-economic status is tied to your zip code. If you live on the north side, you’re rich, if you live on the south side you’re poor. If you live on the east side you’re an artist. Identity there is very territorial and that hasn’t happened in Toronto. We have mixed spaces where different people blend together. Riverdale has expensive property but you have to cross through Regent Park to get there. Kids from different areas grow up together and go to the same schools. As we push out community housing and create homogeneous spaces, we’ll see less knowledge exchange. The multicultural city that we’ve grown to become will look very different in the future.
What excites you about Toronto? What do you think should improve?
Toronto is the youngest major city in North America. We’re late to the party and that means there’s an opportunity to create spaces that never existed before, to create legendary status. It’s like the NBA starting on television for the first time. It can be frustrating for people who want to fit into a mold. Right now, we can create the mold and as an entrepreneur, innovator, and someone who’s always forward-thinking, I love Toronto because there’s opportunity everywhere.
Knowledge transfer isn’t done well for new Canadians. My family immigrated from Jamaica and there’s been discussion in our community about the gentrification of Eglinton. It’s the home of Jamaican culture in Toronto and many of the shops are closing down. In Jamaica, you don’t buy land, you inherit it. The buying process is not common so there’s a gap when it comes to buying a home and starting a business. Many immigrants don’t vote because they don’t vote where they’re from. What you need to win in this environment are things new Canadians might not know.
I always wonder how we can level the playing field and create a common understanding. Instead of creating programs for young people, we should create programs for all people. We can connect with and meet diverse people but people also congregate within their own communities. If we don’t have a common conversation and something that connects us, it’s challenging to form a Canadian identity.
How did you find your purpose?
Being queer is an important part of my identity. When I ‘came out,’ my family didn’t respond the way I expected them to. I was on my own at 14 and I felt like a failure. Being the first person in my family who didn’t graduate with post-secondary education was hard. I went back to high school. I wanted to play basketball and I got involved with a nonprofit called East Metro Youth Services. I started volunteering at a recording studio and improving my public speaking skills. One day, the man who ran the studio said I should be a music manager. I was like, “I don’t even know what that is.” He said, “trust me you can do it.”
I’ve always loved music, it’s what I’m truly passionate about. I reached out to my nonprofit network and it was ‘the year of the gun’ so there were many events and performances happening. I started working with an artist who got very popular, she collaborated with Drake and Raekwon. That’s why I’m big on equipping young people with transferable skills. I had diverse skills and I got my first win in music so I stayed there and I never left.
Tell me about your role.
When I became a music manager, hip hop and rap were considered black music but there was a lack of knowledge around R&B. I took an artist to one of the nicest, most expensive recording studios in the city. She added bravado to her vocals and the sound engineer asked her to sing the note straight using a rock singer reference. I was blown away that he didn’t understand the genre. I saw a gap and I created something to close it. Sandbox was born out of my frustration for the lack of urban music spaces in Toronto and my love for R&B. Six years later, it’s become a staple recording space in Toronto.
In addition to being the CEO of Sandbox, I’ve also taken on the role of executive director at Manifesto Festival. While working in the non-profit sector and sitting on various boards, I’ve noticed that knowledge transfer is missing from Toronto’s arts community. There’s funding available for creatives but artistic professionals aren’t necessarily business professionals. Publicists, talent managers, and bookkeepers need to exist for artists to exist sustainably. You’ll never meet a multi-million dollar recording artist who doesn’t have the same administration as a large product company. I want to shift Manifesto’s focus from creating showcase opportunities to becoming the collective of all collectives and a hub for urban arts organizations. I want to mentor smaller collectives to become sustainable, viable organizations that have the capacity to outlive their founders. In Toronto, we fund founders, not the idea or problem they’re trying to solve. Once founders move on, movements die.
How do you incorporate knowledge transfer into your work?
When I started Sandbox I joked that I would be poor forever. Artists wanted to pay us for a mixtape and I’d tell them to spend it on vocal development and a website. I tried to equip them with the tools to have the longest run in the race. Money is an exchange for what you anticipate getting. I don’t want anyone’s money if they don’t get what they anticipated. That’s how Sandbox became well known as more than a recording studio, it’s an artist development facility. We make studio time affordable. Cardi B recorded here but we still only charge $50/hour. I won’t raise the price because I want artists to have access to building their passions and careers here.
Everything at Sandbox and Manifesto is about sharing information. I spent two hours this morning breaking down governance for small incorporated arts organizations. My goal is to teach people the art of business and everything that supports the creative because Toronto can be very siloed. I worked with the People Project, a collective that creates space for young, queer people in the school system. There were a lot of other collectives working in the same building and it enabled different communities to connect and work together. I witnessed amazing things happen in that space.
At Sandbox, we try to tackle the challenges we see in our community. We host ‘Sunday Sessions’ to give audio engineers a place to practice. A lot of black engineers have difficulty finding work because they only get hired to work on urban music. Unless it’s a rap artist, they’re not being assigned to a client. We also host workshops on how to receive funding and I do as many one-on-one consultations as I can. I took a course at the Rotman School of Management at The University of Toronto on generative thinking. I always ask myself, how can we create something new? How can we make something from nothing? I want to connect people and bring them together to have conversations. Knowledge transfer is so important because if you don’t know, you don’t know. I want to find a way to get people to know.
What approach do you take to inclusivity?
I prioritize hiring and creating opportunities for women. In the urban music industry, there aren’t a lot of women in recording studios. We have a staff of six women and two men. Without this studio, many people would not have a safe space to talk about their lives and career paths, regardless of how they choose to identify. A queer person doesn’t have to do queer-specific work. Being seen in spaces where people don’t expect to see you and being open, loving, and warm invites others who look like you but also those who don’t, to the table. That opens doors for marginalized communities.
I’ll never forget when a young man came to the studio last year and he started crying after his session. I asked why and he said, “I’ve never come to a studio where I’ve felt this safe, I never once felt gay here. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt this way as an artist.” I wasn’t even the one working with him, it was a husband and father of three. A black, queer artist did a Christian gospel project here. The fact that those things can intersect and people can be the truest form of themselves here is what I’m trying to foster.
I’m not trying to create a queer space or a black space, I’m trying to create a human space where people can show up as themselves and feel safe. When you leave your biases at the door, you open yourself to new experiences. Creating safe spaces means people who create unsafe spaces can be themselves and in those moments, they change. I think that’s the most beautiful thing.
Did you always think you’d be doing this?
No, never. I always thought I would be a basketball player or a lawyer.
Or a basketball playing lawyer?
Exactly, on the weekends with my own court in my house.
How can Torontonians help foster safe spaces?
Allyship. We need to see each other’s value. Let’s start from there to have conversations that create the kind of Toronto we’re branded to be. The Million Man March and other social justice movements had diverse people working together. Men marched beside women, straight people marched with queer people and their situations changed. Everyone should be part of the conversation because identities overlap. I like that I don’t fit into one identity. I’m conscious of including queer people in black spaces because those two marginalized groups don’t necessarily overlap. There’s a lot of quiet homosexuality in the black community. It’s not that people are homophobic, it’s just seen as taboo and not always welcomed. That’s frustrating to me. As a young, queer, black person I hear conversations about being black inclusive or queer inclusive and there’s still a lot of people who won’t be recognized in either of those spaces.
I’m happy when I get opportunities to be featured, speak, or be in the paper because I can be visible for others and open up those conversations. When people like somebody they didn’t expect to like, it opens the door for others. I’ve seen it in my own community. People respond to the queer identity differently because they’ve interacted with me. I haven’t had as many challenges being queer as I’ve had being black in Canada. I always consider myself to be black-first and my fight is to continue to be a champion for other young, black people in Toronto. I’m committed to making sure black youth are equipped with the skills they need to succeed.
Has anyone influenced you to get to where you are today?
My mother, Jennifer Eastmond. She’s an entrepreneur and she was very involved in politics. She was on Alvin Curling’s street team, a prominent Jamaican-Canadian politician. Growing up around them, Dudley Laws (a civil rights activist), and so many other successful black changemakers really inspired me. I never had the perception of being black as being marginalized. I didn’t grow up in a needs improvement area and I never saw myself in that way. Now that I’m older, I spend a lot of time mentoring young people and I’ve diversified my peer group. I see how detrimental and damaging that narrative can be. Making sure that young people have access to people they can look up to and see themselves in is very important.
What’s one thing you learned while developing your brand?
Success is not what you say ‘yes’ to, it’s what you say ‘no’ to. Last summer I said no to over $100,000. A cannabis company wanted to engage me as an influencer and I turned the offer down. I don’t smoke cannabis, not because I’m against it, but because I’ve seen the impact it’s had on the young people I engage with so I don’t actively promote its use. I’ve learned to say ‘no’ to what doesn’t align with my personal values, beliefs, and politics and that can be really challenging. A well-known production house wanted to do a film about my life. In it, I started out as a drug dealer and my mother was a crackhead. That’s the story they wanted to sell and they offered me hundreds of thousands of dollars up front. I said ‘no’ because that’s not my story.
While building your brand, remember to stay absolute and committed to the problem you’re trying to solve. That means missing out on cool things sometimes. I was invited to the Grammys and NBA All-Stars put me on the list for every game but at the same time, Manifesto was about to close on a property. Creating a space to teach transferable skills in Toronto is more important to me than taking my picture at the Grammys.
I meet so many influencers who are interested in ‘the look’. They say, “that’s a good look” but is it the right fit? I don’t care how good clothes look on me if they don’t fit right. If the wrong company wants to give you $100 million dollars then the right company will too. Having transferable skills means being able to decide because you know you’ll get that money again. As your brand grows and more people want to engage with you, you need knowledge and skills to navigate your brand and differentiate between good and bad business.
Have you had any marketing successes?
Telling my own story in an open, honest, and vulnerable way has been my biggest success. People are often superficial online. It’s harder to say, this is who I really am, this is what I’m struggling with. I partnered with Google, American Express and so many brands but that’s not what matters. What I care more about is what I’m trying to build here at Sandbox and Manifesto. I stay true to myself and make content when my spirit moves me to make it. I’m not trying to make being ‘rookz’ a business but I feel really blessed that my brand inspires others. The #CreateFate hashtag I started grew into a movement. I see people posting #CreateFate when they’re talking about being vulnerable, overcoming something, or a win they’ve had. To me, that’s amazing.
What tips do you have for people who want to follow their purpose?
You lose until you win. When a kid learns to ride a bike, they fall off, a lot. Before opening Sandbox, I was a high school dropout. As the Organizational Brand Manager and Director at Nia Centre for The Arts, I was making $35 an hour, more than I ever made in my life. I had an apartment, a car, and a dog and I was training to become the Executive Director. I let all of that go because I saw a gap in Toronto and I wanted to close it.
Before I got to where I am today, I lost everything. I lived in the studio, had no money, walked everywhere, I didn’t always get to eat. I became a music manager in 2009, opened Sandbox in 2012, and it’s 2019 now. People say, “rookz you’re killing it,” but it took 10 years for it to all come together. What people don’t see is that I’m drowning in work.
When you level up (I loved playing Super Mario Brothers as a kid), there’s a new problem, a new boss, a new princess to save. It never stops. If you solve the problem, there’s a new one waiting at the next level. You lose until you win and when you’re in love with your purpose, you’re comfortable with that. You know that you’ll eventually get there. In Silicon Valley, there’s a mantra called ‘fail fast.’ Fail fast, as fast as you can. Don’t get caught up in your losses. Learn from them, stay open, and keep it moving.
Thanks for continuing to inspire us, rookz! Keep up the GOOD work.
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