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
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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Summer Walker's 'Caresha Please' Interview Shows Why Yung Miami Is The Ultimate Girl's Girl
As one-half of the City Girls, Yung Miami (born Caresha Brownlee) has always used her voice to empower women, whether it’s telling them to boss up or leave a relationship that’s no longer serving them. And with her Revolt podcast, “Caresha Please,” Miami continues to uplift other women but in a more intimate setting.
The “Act Up” rapper’s latest interview with Summer Walker proves that she not only raps about it but she practices what she preaches. The interview covered everything from the “Unloyal” singer’s dating life to being a mother to her music career. When the conversation shifted to Summer’s anxiety, Miami used the moment to praise the Billboard music award winner’s qualities and talent.
Summer has been vocal about her anxiety in the past and explained that it sometimes affects her when she’s performing. While talking to Miami, she also shared that she struggles with being herself in public because she fears being judged.
“They be judging ratchet b--hes, like they really be judging ratchet b--hes,” the “Pull Up” singer said. “People be like, ‘oh, she look dirty, she look dusty, she’s ghetto, like dadada…so I be tryna just keep it together, and then I know it’s also hard for people to like understand the concept of multifaceted people like people that have different sides of them, like it’s not just one way, and it be confusing people, and they be like, ‘well, how she sing about this but she act like this.”
Summer continued by saying that that’s why she is generally quiet on stage because she doesn’t want to say anything “stupid.”
Miami quickly chimed in to let Summer know that it’s okay to be herself, and that’s why people love her. “Anybody that knows me know like I’m a big Summer Walker fan, and I feel like when it comes to R&B artists, we don’t have a R&B artist that’s showing their personality or showing a different side,” she said.
“When we see R&B artists, we just see like their music and just the reserved them, so I kinda feel like to have a new R&B artist that’s ratchet, that’s themselves, that’s what we need. That’s what’s missing, and that’s what make you, you, and that’s one of the reasons why I fell in love with you because when I found out who Summer Walker was, it was “Girls Need Love,” and then I remember, I saw like a twerking video of you on the pole, and I’m like, ‘I love this b--h.’”
She continued, “Like I never saw that from a R&B singer, and I feel like from one artist to another, I don’t feel like you should bury your personality or not be true to yourself because of perspective.” The “Jobs” artist ended her response by saying that people love others who are authentic.
Summer admitted that everything Miami said was true and that she never thought of it like that. “People just be in their head for no reason,” she said.
We love seeing women give other women their flowers and provide safe spaces. At the end of the interview, both Summer and Miami expressed how much they like each other and how they should hang out more.
Miami’s interview with Summer is the true definition of sisterhood.
Summer Walker Talks Realizing Her Self-Worth, London On Da Track, Lil Meech & More | Caresha Pleasewww.youtube.com
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Feature image by Robin L Marshall/WireImage