Art can be entertainment, a relief from the struggles of our day-to-day lives. But it can also be a tool to make sense of these same struggles. Often there is an inherent tension in trying to reconcile the escapist qualities of art with its transformative power. In an age when the day-to-day has become life or death for many Americans facing systems that are inherently, and too often silently, discriminatory, where does art end and activism begin?
This is a question that Aja Monet, an Afro-Cuban poet, educator, and activist from Brooklyn, has been giving a lot of thought to in recent years. “If you’re reinforcing that money will set you free, that’s only oppressing our people more,” she tells me over the phone. “Let’s stop supporting the things that are hurting us and use music for a spiritual reckoning of our ancestors.” Last spring, Monet relocated from Brooklyn to Little Haiti, Miami and went from pondering to acting. The result is Smoke Signals, a music studio where art and community can come together.
The seeds of Smoke Signals were sown in January 2015 when Monet joined a group of activists and artists, including representatives from Black Lives Matter and Ferguson, for a ten-day solidarity visit to Palestine. The trip was organized by the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based activist group formed after the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. The idea was to foster understanding and deepen connections between the Americans and their Palestinian counterparts living under Israeli rule. On her return, Monet felt “a sense of urgency” and was inspired to act “in light of the horrible things happening in our country.” While in Palestine, she’d met umi selah, mission director for the Dream Defenders, who would become her partner and the other founder of Smoke Signals.
"As poor, young brown folk doing work, we’re not used to space. We don’t realize the value of space for imagination and creation. What can it be like for our communities to have space to do what they want?"—Aja Monet
In Brooklyn, Monet had been constrained to a tiny bedroom, but in Little Haiti she found a lot more room to breathe, and think. “As poor, young brown folk doing work, we’re not used to space,” she says of the new home selah had found for them. “We don’t realize the value of space for imagination and creation. What can it be like for our communities to have space to do what they want?” To find out, Monet and selah began holding parties and jam sessions in their new spot. On one such occasion, Monet witnessed an energy she couldn’t ignore. “People just got free that night, no matter the tragedies of their lives,” she says. The joy of the moment, “what great live art has always done,” convinced the couple to transform part of this new home into a studio where their interests in art and activism could combine.
Turning the idea into reality was another matter. “We had no money,” Monet says with a laugh, “but we had a community,” and so they set up a crowdfunding campaign for the studio in the spring of 2015, asking for $10,000. When it closed in July, they’d raised close to $16,000. Another six months later, and having learnt some lessons along the way about the logistics and technical requirements of a professional studio, Smoke Signals is ready to open its doors to local artists this February. “There are fancier studios than ours but they’re not always available to the community,” Monet explains. “This is our home, but everywhere should be your home. It’s a professional recording space with an intimate vibe.”
During the construction period, Monet and selah tested the potential of the space with visits from well-known friends and acquaintances: Chicago rapper Vic Mensa, whom Monet first met in the early 2010s; St. Louis rapper and activist Tef Poe, a friend of the Dream Defenders; and Mississippi rapper David Banner, who played his new album at the studio-in-making after appearing on a panel with selah in Miami. These are the type of artists—aware of the power of their message and reach, and intentional about it—Monet hopes will gravitate to the studio.
"There are fancier studios than ours but they’re not always available to the community."—Aja Monet
The idea of being intentional with your art is at the heart of what Monet hopes Smoke Signals can be. “Through struggle [black people] create,” she says. “Our art, the stuff that makes up the entertainment world today, is part of our methodology of becoming free. So how can we be more intentional about the power and influence of art?” While studying for a Master’s degree in Chicago, Monet met a young Mensa and Chance The Rapper, back when they were local kids on the come up. Monet—who was mentored by Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets—became a mentor of sorts to Mensa. One day, while Mensa was browsing her books, she gave him a copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X, as well as Cane by Jean Toomer, a prose poetry book. It was her way of saying that there was more that could be done, especially from a position of influence. “When I mentored Vic no one was going to come out of Chicago, supposedly,” says Monet. “And now they have a hip-hop renaissance there. I think Miami today has a lot of that too. This why I love mentoring, and where the studio can fit into.”
While attending a lecture by R&B singer D’Angelo in 2014, Monet heard him speak of the importance of the church as a place where musicians could come to understand what it means to play with soul. “You can’t teach certain things but you need to foster a space for it,” she explains, looking back on it today. Historically, churches have been a space for black people in America to come together and get free, a place of “learning, sharing, and strategizing.” Today, with churches no longer central to community life, Monet knows we need new physical spaces to replace them—places like Smoke Signals where people can get free, create, and be intentional about it.