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Meet The Set Designer Behind The Trap Music Museum

Marina Skye has the magic touch.

BOSS UP

Have you ever seen someone working in an industry, career, or business and wondered how they got there? When a new trend of pop-up installations became popular in Instagram culture, I wondered who created them. Going down several rabbit holes later, I was led to set design and all the ways you could exist in the world of interior design. From designing activations at a music festival to designing a set for a music video or a TV show, set design can look a variety of ways. My first taste of the magic of set design came during a visit to an Atlanta staple, T.I.'s Trap Music Museum. The sorceress behind some of that magic?

Meet Marina Skye, owner of Set By Skye.

Skye's business specializes in both set design and creative direction. Her passion and undeniable eye has led her in quite a few rooms and has caused her to be a name that's dominant in conversation surrounding the set design world. In addition to being a collaborator for the Trap Music Museum, she has designed projects like the interactive art exhibit Motel 21 with rapper 21 Savage. The Atlanta-based visionary also serves as the art director for Epic Records artist Jidenna.

After hearing Skye speak at the Trap Music Museum, I had to find out how she carved her space into some of the most recognizable and creative set design projects out there right now. Here's what she had to say.

xoNecole: How did you get started in set design?

Marina Skye: When I graduated from college, I was doing marketing and working at IKEA. [While] I was working at IKEA, my brother was shot and killed. He went to Morehouse while I was at Clark University and he was actually shot and killed at Morehouse a week after his graduation and a week before his birthday. Needless to say, that was heart-wrenching. When intense situations happen to people, it kind of slaps them in the face. It made me figure out life literally is too short. If I'm not doing what I want to do right now, I've got to figure out what that is.

So I started a clothing line. I started a vintage online store and things were going well. I was a new business owner trying to figure things out, but it was bringing money in and that was a blessing. A year into the fashion business, I realized at trade shows, I was paying more attention to the spaces I would make for my clothes to be presented, as opposed to actually paying attention to the clothing I'm supposed to be selling. Once I realized that was really what I was spending most of my time on, I started to research what that job was and it was creative direction and then set design. I never really looked back after that.

Courtesy of Marina Skye

"When intense situations happen to people, it kind of slaps them in the face. It made me figure out life literally is too short. If I'm not doing what I want to do right now, I've got to figure out what that is."

How did you build your current set design company?

I did a lot of photoshoots with my best friend who is a photographer just to create my portfolio. And from that, I started doing sets for parties in Atlanta and that's kind of how people started to hear about me. I became the set designer for an escape room in Atlanta and the business was literally me and the owner. Now I know God put me in that position so I could figure out how to be a small business owner. That job really helped me figure out how to be my own boss because I was working so closely with the boss of the company.

After that, I started my own business and it was probably a year and a half of trying to just figure out where money was going to come from. There was a lot of figuring out stuff but every project I had, I just made sure it was a little bit bigger than the previous project so I could work my way up.

How does your background in fashion play a part in your design aesthetic?

Honestly, unless I'm doing a set specifically for a fashion line, fashion doesn't really play a big role in what I do. However, I personally tend to wear extreme outfits, so people have kind of come to know that about me. It added to the brand because it was also an element of surprise, if that makes sense.

I have realized that I'm almost like a method artist when I'm into a specific job. I live my life in themes. I wake up in a different theme every day. I then have to categorize my projects by themes. If they don't have themes, I give them themes because that's how my mind works. I feel that my project reflects my fashion as opposed to my fashion reflecting the projects.

Courtesy of Marina Skye

"I live my life in themes. I wake up in a different theme every day. I then have to categorize my projects by themes. If they don't have themes, I give them themes because that's how my mind works. I feel that my project reflects my fashion as opposed to my fashion reflecting the projects."

What is a typical day or workweek like for a set designer?

Every day is very different because the projects that I have are so different from each other. That is because I do a few different things, like stage design and music videos. But everything starts out with a general concept that we have a conversation about with the client. If the project that we're doing is in the city, I meet them in person at the venue. We do a walk-through and I talk to them again in person about what they want. We bounce ideas off each other and then I go back home or to my office and I create a visual for them.

The visual includes a color theme board, basically a general mood board. All of my thoughts are put in something for them to see. Then I send that over to them and they let me know whether or not this is the kind of direction that they want to take. From there, I create a budget for them and my budget is extremely itemized. I'm very big on my clients knowing exactly where their money's going. I am very upfront with every single thing that's going into the project. Once I buy, my team and I come in and then we just get to work.

How did you combat imposter syndrome as you began to work on bigger projects?

I think I deal with imposter syndrome all the time. There's always a level of quick self-doubt. I feel like if my dreams don't scare me, they're not big enough. So I'm comfortable with it, and I'm getting more comfortable as time goes by. As my dreams get bigger and my accomplishments get bigger, I am getting more comfortable with the sense of being uncomfortable. The combination of not knowing what I'm supposed to be doing, mixed with the general, yearning to figure it out slapped any doubt in the face. But as the projects got bigger and the responsibilities got bigger, the doubt definitely got bigger as well. So I think imposter syndrome now is a bit more than it was in the beginning, but I'm also growing more comfortable with that.

Courtesy of Marina Skye

"There's always a level of quick self-doubt. I feel like if my dreams don't scare me, they're not big enough. So I'm comfortable with it, and I'm getting more comfortable as time goes by. As my dreams get bigger and my accomplishments get bigger, I am getting more comfortable with the sense of being uncomfortable."

What was the toughest setback/obstacle that you overcame while pursuing your career?

Not having the funds that I would have liked to have in order to create the projects that I wanted to create. In the beginning, I was doing a lot of stuff for free just to create my own internship. It was very stressful and sometimes depressing, when I'm trying to focus on being a creative, but also trying to figure out how I'm going to pay my rent. The biggest obstacle was just having to balance being an adult while trying to pursue dreams. I literally worked my ass off for this. I had no choice but to be strong for myself and just keep moving. It built this thick skin for me and that's invaluable honestly.

What is it like being a black woman working in male-dominated environments?

I want to make a very particular, very specific note that my general personality is very bubbly. I say all that to say being a woman in a very male-dominated sector has been a very interesting journey. Sexual harassment is very real. It's something that I think a lot of my friends are also in with their specific industries. We talk about it behind closed doors, but I think it's time for us to make these things known so people really know what's happening.

I've had very difficult situations. I've been in very uncomfortable situations being the only woman in groups of men at random hours. I've been in situations where things could have gone very wrong, but the men are respectful. At times there have been difficult situations where clients clearly did not respect women. And I had to figure out how to woman up and make sure that they understood that my opinions matter just as much.

Courtesy of Marina Skye

What was your favorite project to work on to date and why?

I will definitely say that the Trap Music Museum was my most challenging project. It wasn't just because of TMM, it was because I was in a relationship that was extremely difficult. I was dealing with someone who had mental health issues, and I didn't know until after. It was a very difficult time for me because we were working so hard on TMM, 13 hours a day for three months. We were not even paying attention to the fact that T.I. would come in with C-SPAN in the middle of the day and do an entire interview, or CNN would come in and we were not even paying attention. But the culture was being created as we were literally creating the culture. So my favorite and challenging project would be the Trap Music Museum.

My other favorite would probably be working with Jidenna. He is one of my closest friends and he's so funny. Working with that team on 85 to Africa, it challenged me in different ways. It challenged my mind in different ways. I think the Trap Music Museum challenged my set design capabilities and my body but working on 85 to Africa definitely made me have to think in different ways. Jidenna was a very easy person to work with because unlike a lot of artists, he knows what he wants. He also is open to collaboration and understands that his team brings him places.

What is your dream project/set that you want to work on?

I want to experience the space of high-end fashion. I'm very interested in the creative process that happens for runway shows. I also am addicted to music festivals. I'm fascinated by Coachella and Bonnaroo. These festivals not only have the stages where you can see live music, but they also have activities. There's a lot of art and culture that goes into three-day music festivals. I would love to just be a part so there are more people that look like us being represented in these music festivals.

Then there is a goddess by the name of Ruth Carter. She's phenomenal. There are a few women that are creatives in general that inspire me. She is in the top three. Just because of the projects that she has worked on, the fact that she is unapologetically black, and the way her mind works is fascinating. I would love to work on a couple of movies or films where I'm the set designer, the art director, or production designer for a film and she's the costume designer as well.

What can we look forward to from Set By Skye going into the future?

There are a couple of businesses that I'm thinking about bringing to life. I will say that I would love to, specifically for Atlanta, create an ongoing interactive-themed experience for the city. Something people can go to and every month it changes to a different theme. I would love to do something that is more like Candy Utopia but with my own spin.

For more of Marina and Set By Skye, follow her on Instagram.

Featured image courtesy of Marina Skye

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

Featured image by Shutterstock

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