Safe Space Sessions: Fighting Sexual Assault in the Music Industry

Val Varela, posing on a diner bench. (Photo courtesy of Val Varela)

Three months ago, Val Varela, a Miami punk rocker with short pink hair and a profane mouth, was scrolling through the internet when she came upon a series of horrendous stories about sexual assault, pedophilia and grooming in the music industry.

She decided she had to do something. So she came up with the idea for Safe Space Sessions, a regular series of concerts to be streamed from a variety of studios across Miami and featuring diverse lineups of local artists. She immediately organized an Instagram page and an official website. Then, she began planning future events with help from her musically-inclined friends: Lee Sanchez, Will Tramm and Melanie Cruz, as well as a few others.

“Whenever I think of an idea, I immediately set up an Instagram and an e-mail, whether or not I’m gonna use it, it’s always good to have those things, and a Facebook,” said Varela. “The website I did in like two or three days.”

Over the last month, Varela, together with Sanchez and Cruz, organized three streaming sessions on Twitch with 12 bands, including pop-punk band Hometown Losers, and pop-rock band San Libelle. Their latest livestream on Sept. 25 raised $115 for Forge, a transgender anti-violence organization based in Milwaukee.

Previous shows were streamed from Choice Blend Studios in Kendall on Sept. 11, and at The Cabin in Little Havana on Sept. 18. Together, they raised $665 for Mujer, a local organization based in Homestead that fights sexual assault and helps those traumatized by it, and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the United States.

Pictured is a local band, Bruvvy, playing the first ever Safe Space Session at Choice Blend Studios. (Photo courtesy of Safe Space Sessions)

Born and raised in Miami, Varela first got into music at 7 years old, when she took music lessons after finding her father’s guitar in the closet. Her parents always played a wide range of genres and she grew to love the way the music made her feel.

Prior to the pandemic shutdown, Varela worked at Getbent, a radio station started on June 25 and originally named F**k U Radio, where she played music from local artists. However, it lacked a large enough audience and she was unfortunately unable to afford to keep it up, which eventually led her to create Safe Space Sessions.

Varela and Sanchez quickly located musicians and venues for their event. The first location was Choice Blend Studio in Kendall, owned by Michael Peña.

“I hit Michael up saying, ‘Hey, we want to do a livestream event from your location,’ and it was fine,” recalls Sanchez. “We told him about all the protocols and how we’re going to make sure that everybody’s safety is in check, you know, masks, hand sanitizer and what-not. He was very down for the idea.”

Peña said, “For our part, it didn’t really take that long. It all went really smoothly and there were no obstacles or anything that came up.”

“I had no idea how to run a livestream, I just YouTubed the s**t out of everything, as I always do,” says Varela. “I knew I wanted to stream through multiple places like YouTube, Facebook and Twitch, and then I found Streamlabs which, for like $20 a month, lets you stream to all three. Then, I didn’t know anything about cameras or the switchers so I looked it up; I bought a switcher, bought some extra 40 foot HDMI cables, a camcorder, so now we have three cameras.”

Despite the few technical errors with sound on the livestream, the first Safe Space Session was a success, accumulating 664 views on YouTube and raising about $350 for RAINN. These donations were raised through online viewers donating via the various livestreams on Youtube, Facebook and Twitch, as well as through online fundraising pages. 

Many local artists played at the first Safe Space Sessions event, including The Old Youth, Bruvvy, Glass Orange and Woolbright. The event lasted over two hours, starting at 7:30 p.m. until around 9 p.m.

The next sessions became more and more seamless, as Val continued to understand and adapt to her broadcasting program, Streamlabs OBS, and continued to learn more about her equipment for running cameras for the livestreams.

Pictured is Koali’i Cuyno (left) and Dylan Samaniego (right) of Young Fiction, a pop-punk band from Jupiter, FL, playing the second Safe Space Session at The Cabin in Miami. (Photo courtesy of Safe Space Sessions)

During this pandemic, Varela has not only provided music but brought awareness about sexual abuse plaguing the music industry. Through Safe Space Sessions, Varela, Sanchez, Tramm and Cruz, together with various local musicians, have joined in the fight.

Ingrid Hernandez is currently pursuing her Bachelors in Communications, Journalism. She also works as an Undergraduate Tutor at the Center for Excellence in Writing at FIU and wants to work as a music writer/editor in the future. Outside of her studies and work, Hernandez writes for the music news website Genius.