(Photo courtesy of Lion’s Roar)

Late on a Friday afternoon, right before things were sure to get busy, Zaida Soler-Williams and Roberto Williams welcomed me into their East Williamsburg apartment, which is also their place of business. The living space is furnished simply, with a couch, house plants, and a few black leather lounge chairs; less expected are the large speakers tucked in seemingly every corner, the dominant screen along one wall, and the disco lighting everywhere, illuminating even the countertops in phosphorescent blue. “We go all out,” Roberto told me. “We’re not the type to do things halfway.”

The Williamses run Lion’s Roar Karaoke, which is much like any other private karaoke lounge—reservable by the hour, atmospherically lit—except that it’s very clearly a living space. It’s located on the ground floor of 187 Meserole Street, in the bottom half of the duplex that Zaida and Roberto call home. Karaoke enthusiasts must buzz to get in; Zaida and Roberto usher you in when you enter, introduce themselves as the hosts for the evening, and set the tone for a karaoke night that’s fun, but respectful and mature (it is their home, after all. They’re laying down the house rules). 

The couple has owned the apartment building on Meserole since 1999—have lived there and leased the other units, have borne witness to and participated in some of the neighborhood’s major changes (Roberto told me, with seeming pride and the air of an unelected mayor, about his successful door-knocking efforts to get trees planted along the street back in the early 2000s, when this now-prime part of Brooklyn was neglected by city hall). It’s only been since 2016 that the couple opened the Lion’s Roar lounge, that less-predictable addition to their otherwise-straightforward real estate venture. 

The couple has a typically ambling New York story. Zaida has had a long career in television. Roberto has worked, at different times, in education, in law enforcement, and in the singing world semi-professionally (not to mention in the subways, as a reportedly successful busker). On both their resumes, additionally, is karaoke DJ: in 2003, the music lovers started working together in a side hustle that, at the time, had them co-facilitating karaoke nights in venues across the city, bars and cafes and lounges, even the occasional bar mitzvah. “I remember trudging through the snow with our equipment,” Zaida said, looking back on that first foray into the karaoke world. “Just the two of us, schlepping all over like that.” 

It’s a little hard to imagine, because the two are middle-aged and business-casual, he in a tie and she in wedge heels on the day we sat down to chat. They seem, at first glance, much more like the owners of a building than the musical facilitators of drunk bachelorette parties—of course, over the years, they’ve served as both. By 2013, they felt they’d had their fill of the latter. They were tired of the schlepping and the snow, the frustrated waitstaff and the scant pay. They had none of the freedom and flexibility they had as landlords; as DJs, they were subject to the whims of venues. They disbanded their for-hire duo after ten years, and set out to focus, professionally, on other things.

But they didn’t take their website down, which proved fateful. Right after ending their DJ careers, what they believe was a change in Google’s algorithm prompted a lot of unprecedented and confused calls to their home phone number. “People would Google ‘Brooklyn karaoke,’ find us, and make the incorrect assumption that we were a lounge,” Zaida explained. They would call the Williamses at home and try to make a reservation. Or they’d show up at the apartment building, hoping for walk-in availability. The requests became so frequent that on Friday and Saturday nights, Zaida and Roberto—who quickly became tired of explaining—would just take their landline off the hook.

But the weirdly persistent hope for a karaoke space on Meserole Street eventually got them thinking. What if they were a lounge? So much had changed since they’d first moved to the neighborhood, karaoke wouldn’t be out of place at all. They’d be able to do their old thing—facilitating karaoke nights, which they had once loved—and answer to no one. They could curate the kind of space they’d always dreamed of, something more grown-up, “elegant and upscale” than the dive bars they used to work in. And because the ground floor of their building had once been a grocery store, the bottom half of their unit was already zoned commercially. It seemed meant-to-be.

(Photo courtesy of Lion’s Roar)

There were, of course, the potential issues associated with welcoming groups of singing strangers into their home. But by 2016, Zaida explained, Airbnb had changed the culture significantly enough that it didn’t seem so crazy. “We had already been doing Airbnb in units on this property,” she explained. “We had evolved, just like everyone else, around inviting strangers in” (they report very few issues in this vein, apart from the one time someone took a shower in their bathroom, which was a strange but harmless incident). They made the necessary reconfigurations, going truly “all out” on “klassy-oke.” They thought about how best to run karaoke in a home; they would act as hosts, they decided, hands-off but still present enough to keep an eye on things. Zaida would float around to answer questions and bus empties. Roberto would DJ all the music live. 

In not much time, Lion’s Roar became a lucrative venture—enough so that Roberto now focuses on it full-time, and Zaida is able to take only the TV gigs she’s most passionate about. When I was there, they were gearing up for multiple back-to-back reservations, which they said was not atypical for a Friday night. Theirs is the quirky and successful product of chance, passion, and a changing culture: the shift toward Uber Pool and Taskrabbit, gig-based businesses and space-sharing, is a key piece of this story. But for Zaida and Roberta, it’s mostly been fulfilling, a way to be entrepreneurs and landlords about a fun thing they’ve long loved. “This is a reinvigoration of what we were trying to do [as DJs],” Roberto summarized. “Creating an environment where people can come together. But now, we call our own shots.”