Deep in the heart of Little Haiti, in the backyard of a poet and an activist, artists, musicians, and locals come together to create.
This is Smoke Signals: part recording studio, part performance space, and part single-family home. Completely a homegrown community space for local art to thrive.
It’s the lovechild of Brooklyn-born, Afro-Cuban poet Aja Monet and Dream Defenders leader Umi Selah. The couple met last January, while on a trip to the West Bank to foster interchange between Palestinians and Americans. Selah represented Dream Defenders, a Florida-based activist group, while Monet joined as an artist.
After their 10-day trip, Monet moved from New York to Miami to work alongside Selah and bring the idea for Smoke Signals to life.
Monet grew up in a culture where it was normal to go to into the homes of artists, meet other creatives, and collaborate to create something meaningful. It was common practice to open up your home to the artistic community in Harlem, where she spent a lot of her time, Monet explained.
These moments of open dialogue and community building were a crux of African American poet Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts Movement, a significant transformation in black literature that pushed artists to engage with and reflect their struggle in the work that they produce.
While living in New York, Monet was mentored by Abiodun Oyewole, a celebrated poet, teacher, and founding member of The Last Poets, a spoken-word group now considered to be one of the “grandfathers of hip hop.”
Every week he used to host an open house in Harlem, open to creatives from all walks of life to come and collaborate. She considers that sense of community and shared purpose critical to her development as an artist. It helped her realize that especially in communities of color, it’s important to organize and talk about “how we’re experiencing the world, because no one [else] is talking about these issues collectively,” she explained.
A space for black artists to collaborate, rather than compete, was something Miami was missing, Selah told her. Limited opportunities to get ahead leave people wary of sharing their ideas, explained Selah.
Together, they’ve begun to change that.
Earlier this year, the couple raised more than $15,000 through an IndieGoGo campaign, garnering support from everyone from local community members to famous musicians like Talib Kweli and David Banner. That money paid for a full blown recording studio in their home that artists are free to use. For those who can afford it, they ask for a small donation to compensate the sound engineer for their time. And those who can’t, they can barter.
In exchange for free use of the studio space, an artist can do community service or attend a workshop on using art for activism or a class on how to get involved in the political process. The goal is to “get involved with artists during the creative process and inform them of their role of what it does and how it affects people,” Monet explained.
They’ve also set up a stage in their backyard available for performers to showcase their work at a monthly community open house where everyone is welcome and encouraged to jam with them, so that people feel connected and accountable to each other.
The Smoke Signals Studio and open house offers something many locals aren’t used to — it’s in an intimate space, with no other motives than fostering collaboration and community.
“What do you use a smoke signal for? To create awareness, to communicate a message to folks who can’t converse with you. You want to send messages to each other. We want music to be more intentional about the message it sends,” Monet said.