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YOU CAN’T PRETEND A VIBE: A Conversation with Aja Monet of Smoke Signals Studio

Monica Uszerowicz

Photo credit: Ra Image
There’s an inherent romanticism in a waving palm tree, and this past February 26—the one-year anniversary of Smoke Signals, a recording studio, community space, and home—the wind was blowing strong in the backyard, trees bending at the breeze’s will. Folks from all over the country gathered to sing, play music, share poetry: RIMIDI (pronounced “remedy”), in a poem about self-empowerment, asked us to recognize the power and beauty in ourselves. Local singer and songwriter, Yoli Mayor, made us cry, her rich voice belting out songs of unrequited love and, in turn, self-love. Honey Rose’s poem referenced the simultaneous damage and appropriation of black culture by white folks, both dangerous in different ways. The art, essentially, became the word, for which host Aja Monet asked us to simply hold space and be present. Her partner, umi selah, co-director of the Dream Defenders, stepped up to the mic, recalling the moment his stomach began to churn after he’d learned what happened on February 26, 2012.

A young boy in Sanford, Florida put on his hoodie to stay dry on a rainy walk back from the store. The details are blurry, but one thing, selah stated, is clear: the boy, who was killed after being followed, was never given the right to return home, safe and breathing. The death of Trayvon Martin was the impetus for selah’s formation of the aforementioned Dream Defenders, an activist group, and they hosted a month-long sit-in at the office of Governor Rick Scott to protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Martin’s murderer. But, selah reminded us, Martin belongs to a tragic, ever-growing lineage of people killed for being brown or black in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That night, Smoke Signals was a safe space for people of color, for the community, for those concerned as hell about the institutionalized oppression of friends and strangers, for people who wanted a place to dance and listen. Using their own residence to foster art-making and communal empowerment, Monet and selah are kindred spirits of every artist and revolutionary who’ve turned their home into a salon, a free zone, a temple of refuge.

An Afro-Cuban poet, writer, and activist, Monet has a keen understanding of the power of self-expression, how it empowers the individual and the community, bearing witness to that which is revealed. Art, in this way, can inspire activism that questions—and exposes—personal and societal realities. The youngest poet to have ever become the Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam Champion (she was 19), Monet relocated from Brooklyn, New York to Miami two years ago, making a home in Little Haiti with selah. The two met on a Dream Defenders-organized trip to Palestine—an effort to cultivate empathy between the visitors and Palestinians suffering under Israeli rule. They bonded almost immediately.

After hosting jam sessions and parties at their new space, Monet and selah created Smoke Signals Studio, a recording studio and intentional community space where artists are invited to record their work, teach others, and share their voices. Smoke Signals understands that this work is naturally reciprocal. A recording artist might utilize the studio, then give music lessons to neighborhood kids; a famous act might perform, then pass the mic to an emerging poet. In James Baldwin’s 1962 essay, “The Creative Process,” he champions the duty of the artist—to whom he refers as “the incorrigible disturber of the peace”—to expose vital truths. “The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted,” he writes, “but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.” Smoke Signals, it seems, enables artists—each on their own sort of journey to drive to the heart of every answer—to commune with and enable each other.

MONICA USZEROWICZ: Tell me about your introduction to the power of expression.

AJA MONET: I was a cautious child. I observed adults closely and listened intently to how they used words. I spent a lot of time with my elders. I remember visiting the senior citizens’ community center with my godmother’s grandmother, one of the kindest women I’ve ever met. I think my youth brought out their inner child, and their wisdom brought out my old soul. I was fascinated by how people could hold so many stories in their head. I would say to myself, one day I am going to live a life so full of stories. I thought it was magic, so I absorbed everything. I studied the greats, too. I always strive to be better. I never feel content with language. I fight with words and I pray on them. Many voices come when I listen for them. I didn’t start to find my own voice until 18 or 19, when I began to compete in poetry slams and open mics; over time, I developed a following, and they were finding their voices too.

RAIL: How was Smoke Signals conceived?

MONET: We had an extra room in our home and wanted to create a music space, so that we could tap into our own creativity and host other artists. At first it was a radical idea we shared; then it became more realistic the more we talked about it. We thought of what we could call it, and after a few suggestions I mentioned “Smoke Signals.” It seemed fitting for the feeling we shared about our hopes for the space and our home. We wanted it to be an intentional creative space where messages were important.

Smoke Signals are a form of communication between tribes, and I remember being told stories of how, in certain southern states after the Emancipation, there were captured Africans held in slavery for as long as two or three years after they were legally granted freedom. Smoke Signals gave warning, signaled threat, and shared other important information. We have other forms of communication and ways of being seen or heard. I think it’s important to remind our communities of their power. Music is not just lulling entertainment; it can rouse spirits. Empowered people are more likely to question and develop new ways of being or seeing the world.

RAIL: Smoke Signals gives artists a voice and enables these same artists to give back. How does it work?

MONET: Let me begin by saying, this is our home. Yes, it’s a community space, but it is also our home. We are a part of a larger artistic renaissance in Miami, but this is nothing new. We come from a history of the home being a free zone, a safe space that reminds us of our love for one another when racist society threatens our livelihoods. We come from the tradition of Amiri Baraka and Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets, who opened and continue to open their homes for artists and activists to gather. This is important. If we have created a society where art is only a means of production and not a meeting place of human connection and transformation, then we lose its purpose. Smoke Signals is less about giving artists a voice and more about gathering those voices to commune and reimagine liberation together; it’s less a physical space than a liberated psychic space to manifest these principles.

We host recording and jam sessions, and facilitate workshops and tours of the city, too. It is a vibe. You can’t pretend a vibe. We don’t have monetary wealth, but we are wealthy in heart and spirit. There are other ways people need to be fed beyond food. Smoke Signals Studio is concerned with how to feed one another and foster deep connections. There’s enough for all of us. The illusion of scarcity is what creates envy and greed, the seeds of racism and colonization.

RAIL: Who participates in Smoke Signals?

MONET: Various artists and community members from South Florida visit and create at Smoke Signals. We have many friends, organizers, artists, and collectives that are a part of our larger family: the Dream Defenders, The Blck Family, Roots Collective, the Cool Creative Collective, Elements the Band, DJ Kumi, James Mungin, St James Valsin, Valencia Gunder, Vivian Azaelia, and so many others. We’ve had our fair share of well-known names come through the studio and we appreciate the humility of those who see value in local community spaces when they visit Miami.

RAIL: Will you discuss how you use art as a tool for empowerment?

MONET: It was Paul Robeson who said, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth.” An artist’s role is to show things not only as they are, but as they should be. I feel that’s not literal, but metaphorical. We remember feelings. Emotions tell our story. Artists work in the realm of feelings and meaning. If an artist can get you to tap into a feeling, then you can be moved toward connection and collective action about those feelings. Art, in and of itself, does not empower people; it’s what it incites in someone. A community cannot be changed until there is deep reflection, confrontation, and collaboration. Art recognizes the dream of peace and community. The Black Arts Movement did well to empower a generation of people into action and critical thought. I think no movement of change can happen without art shifting the culture toward new realms.

RAIL: How do you participate in Little Haiti without excluding its residents or histories?

MONET: We all have a lot to learn from the people of Haiti about resistance and resilience. The Haitian Revolution is a part of the African Diaspora’s history. In Little Haiti, we walk among this history and live with a sense of pride in the community. There is a wave of consciousness in our neighborhood. It is drastically changing and, in part, we are the change. We don’t own our home, and the possibility of losing it due to increasing real estate prices is something we grapple with. We are in constant motion. It is difficult, but we will fight back. Little Haiti will not be lost without a fight.

RAIL: Tell me about your collaboration with Dream Defenders—the beginning, and what’s next.

MONET: I fell in love with umi selah on a Dream Defenders Delegation to Palestine. We are kindred spirits. We love one another and want our communities to be free. We want to change the conditions of poor people in our country. Dream Defenders have a lot of artistic talent, and they have used it to help galvanize young people around issues central to our condition in the state of Florida. They sparked a wave of activism after Trayvon Martin was murdered, and they continue to set examples for how we can organize together. I am inspired by umi. We have intense debates and conversations about community organizing and arts activism. We push each other and try to see how the arts can be more integral in strategy, not just a prop for entertaining. We have many plans for new projects, visiting artists, workshops, and events. Smoke Signals Studio will be in collaboration with Dream Defenders on several arts projects including The Free Mixtape, TrapZine, and Voices: Poetry for the People.

If any artists would like to get involved with Dream Defenders or Smoke Signals, please e-mail artsandculture@dreamdefenders.org

Monica Uszerowicz is a writer and photographer in Miami. She is the Film and Performing Arts Editor of the Miami Rail.

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