Kiana “Rookz” Eastmond, founder of Sandbox Studios and executive director of Manifesto, on her come-up story, building community and leading with love.
The doors of Toronto’s Sandbox Studios open to a space where creative ideas come to life. To the right is an empty 21x18ft white room, that plays host to photo shoots, events, galleries and film sets. Straight-ahead past the small lobby area and through a sound proof door is a recording studio, which acts as a creative playground for rappers, singers and producers. To the left is the in-house office used for administrative tasks, graphic design work, meetings and consultations. That’s the first place Sandbox founder and director Kiana “Rookz” Eastmond heads upon entering the studio.
“The name Sandbox [for me] means to come, be creative, play and explore,” says Rookz, looking cozy in a black hoodie and camo pants, her freshly cornrowed hair accentuated by a pristine line-up. Her vision for the space is simple: a one-stop-shop where artists can design, plan and execute their creativity through film, photography, music, branding and a solid business strategy.
In the seven years since Sandbox Studios first opened, the space has seen celebrated musicians such as Tory Lanez, Joey Bada$$ and Grammy award winner Cardi B walk through its doors and has pushed out numerous records like “Time Flies” by rapper Lil Berete. The hub has also held workshops like American producer !llmind’s Pass the Aux Tour and the Deydreamers program put together by Rookz and singer Leila Dey to help educate young women about the business side of music.
The livelihood of Sandbox is a direct echo of the effervescent character of its founder and her desire to help cater to passionate artists who are looking to optimize their talents and potential. Rookz carries that same energy over to her 11K+ social media following where she often encourages others to achieve goals by utilizing the resources available to them. It’s her continuous promotion of positivity and forward thinking despite the odds that keeps her audience engaged. Often using the hashtag #CreateFate she drives this message home. In one of her Instagram posts from earlier this year Rookz is looking straight at the camera with a fierce intensity, seated and leaning slightly forward with her left arm propped up on her thigh. It’s the cover photo for an article on her success as a leader and visionary within her community. The photo caption:
“I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not supposed to wake up to find out I am apart of a major music story. […] Sometimes we never make it out of wilderness because we’re so busy filled with anger and regret that we forget that it’s going to be an important part of the story if we can just GET THROUGH IT. That sh*tty thing happening right now is preparing you for your crown.
At the tail end of 2018 not only was the young entrepreneur selected to be part of a North American wide Nike campaign and recognized for being one of Toronto’s unsung heroes, but she also announced that she would be taking on the role of executive director for the non-profit organization Manifesto.
“Manifesto, outside of 2012 I have no relationship [with],” says Rookz. “I haven’t spoken on a panel or been a part of anything, but when I was coming up watching [the co-founder] Che Kothari and what they did with Manifesto really inspired me. I didn’t take the Manifesto job as a power play, I didn’t take the job for money. I took the job because as a young manager in 2012 my artist opened up for their headlining artist, their international act.”
Rookz reaped the intangible wealth of that opportunity and believed it legitimized her and her team, setting her up to be on the path she’s on now. One of her major aspirations in this new position is to re-create that same kind of opportunity for others.
“I think that one of my biggest visions for Manifesto is going back to our three pillars of ‘Educate, Elevate and Incubate.’ I really want to help people and educate outside of the festival … I want Manifesto to be hyper-plugged into the community. Open dialogue. We have a new space … I want it to have presence, I want it to feel open and the vision is just to bring community back into it,” explains Rookz, an audible passion tangled into her words.
Rookz not only shares her accomplishments, but also mixes in the side of her journey that’s unfiltered, unpolished and vulnerable. These are the experiences that have helped expand her growth and no matter the uncertainty of what the day will bring, Rookz believes in the importance of leading with love.
“[I grew up] with lots and lots of love,” she says.
“My mom was very into education and us reading and learning stuff. It was always so serious for her for us to always be educating ourselves. Her being an entrepreneur, that’s a big part of why I think I’m an entrepreneur too.”
Watching her mother grow her business and own different properties was one of Rookz’ most impactful examples of entrepreneurship growing up. But at age 14, when Rookz came out as queer, her relationship with her mother collapsed. Barely into her teens, she made the decision to leave home and worked odd jobs for a number of years before meeting her current business partner KR Moore.
“I was actually picking my wife up, we were dating at that time, and she asked, ‘can my friend get a ride?’” remembers Moore, who is Sandbox Studios’ senior engineer. “From then we just started having conversations. I liked how she carried herself.”
I was living there on this tiny ass couch pretending that everything was still perfectly fine and trying my hardest to work in an industry that didn’t want to work with me.
Moore had a recording studio in Scarborough and at the time Rookz was working as a security guard at an open mic night in the same part of the city. The duo would hang out at the studio discussing music and soon Rookz started networking and bringing artists she’d meet at her job to work with Moore.
“I’d see him working 12 to 15 hours [a day] so I wanted to help him just because he was nice to me. I learnt how to record and then a lot about production and engineering,” remembers Rookz.
The partnership propelled Rookz into the music community where she found fulfillment in helping creative minds refine their music and branding as an artist manager. In 2012 Rookz says she poured all her investments and finances into launching Sandbox Studios to help produce a project for a client that, after years of business together, decided not to work with her.
“I don’t think anyone really knows this, but in that moment, I thought if I give up right now my career dies here. I will never work in music again … So, I made other sacrifices,” Rookz shares. “I lost my car, I lost my apartment, I got extra jobs, I moved into Sandbox. I was living there on this tiny ass couch pretending that everything was still perfectly fine and trying my hardest to work in an industry that didn’t want to work with me.”
Even so, she remained unapologetically devoted to the business she put her heart into. Both Rookz and Moore continued to work diligently with intention and began to form lasting partnerships within the industry.
It was in 2014 that Dymika Harte, founder of female-powered branding and design agency UNSGND, met Rookz in a business incubator program at George Brown College.
“Every Monday we were working on our business plans. I think we were just networking in class and I just went up to her and said, ‘yo your shoes are really cool.’ Then we started talking from there,” says Harte.
“It was a vibe. We understood a lot of the same things like the way we saw business … I found that we had a lot of things in common.”
Rookz introduced Harte to Sandbox Studios and the two merged their talents to provide artists with both a space to create music and the resources to produce branding materials such as a website, logos and promotional merchandise.
Do things with love; lead with love. That’s the way I’ve always lived.
One of Rookz’ next big moves came in early 2018 when she relocated the studio to its current space in downtown Toronto. Now, with both photo and recording studio spaces, an office and a team that ranges in skills from music engineering and management to photography and graphic design, Rookz has truly been able to provide a space where artists can not only create, but also grow their brand..
“I think that’s one of the biggest things I took away from working with her for the past four years and being friends with her,” says Harte. “understanding how to solve problems and deal with people and think about putting people first.”
With Sandbox in the hands of her trusted squadron, Rookz is charging full-speed ahead in her new role at Manifesto. She plans to re-direct the focus to educating and incubating through workshops and classes in the future. She has also taken her #CreateFate philosophy on a motivational speaking tour, emphasizing the power of exercising your strengths and taking advantage of opportunities.
“Do things with love; lead with love,” Rookz says, looking to the future. “That’s the way I’ve always lived and it’s actually the Manifesto mantra. I’m excited for Sandbox to continue leading with love, for Manifesto to continue leading with love and for that love to evolve me into a leader.”
Photos © Isa Miguel Ransome + Urbanology Magazine