Smoke Signals Studio Hopes to Be a Voice for Miami's Voiceless

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When Aja Monet and Umi Selah were first tossing around the idea of building their own recording studio, a lot of decisions needed to be made. First, a name.

It was Aja who came up with Smoke Signals. Umi Selah (formerly known as Phillip Agnew) explains its significance like this: "A smoke signal is something that someone sends up when they're stranded, when they have lost all hope and they're looking for somebody to take notice and rescue them.”

And that’s what the two wanted this studio to represent. They weren’t quite sure what — or even if — this studio would be, but they knew they wanted it to be a beacon, a platform for Miami’s untapped potential.

"We always wanted to create a space for other people to join in and create with us,” Selah says. “And the studio idea came out of that."

Now, one month and more than $10,000 later, Smoke Signals has gone from a vision to an impending reality.

Selah and Monet met for the first time last January. Monet is a Brooklyn-born poet of Cuban-Jamaican descent. The youngest-ever winner of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café Grand Slam title, she’s also a musician, visual artist, and social activist. Selah, originally from Chicago, is a graduate of Florida A&M University and cofounder of the activist group Dream Defenders. Monet and Selah bonded over a mutual love of arts and social activism, and when the two found a house together in Little Haiti with extra space, they knew they wanted to find a way to use it to the community's advantage. 

"I've been in studios in Miami, and I don't think there's any shortage of music spaces in Miami and South Florida,” Selah says. But both Monet and Selah envision Smoke Signals as something beyond a traditional recording studio, something more encompassing and inclusive. They also see this as an opportunity to give Little Haiti — a burgeoning neighborhood threatened by gentrification — its own voice.

"In many ways, this studio is a place for people to be free, to get free,” Selah says. There really are no strict guidelines for what will go in inside Smoke Signals. Monet and Selah anticipate everything from podcasts to mixtapes, from the political to the artistic.

"I'll give an example real quick of the other night, where we had an event kind of like a house-warming/welcoming/birthday party thing,” Monet says. “There were folks from all different walks of life. A lot of organizers, friends of organizers, people from that whole South Beach Miami scene, folks from just all over that I think would never have found themselves at the same space. And at the beginning of the night you're just trying to drink and be welcoming and inviting and folks are a little apprehensive. But by the end of the night there was a full jam session that just organically became something we weren't prepared for. And I think it was beautiful. And I think we want to create a space where people feel like they can do that.”

There are three days left to go on Smoke Signals’ Indie GoGo campaign, and it has already surpassed its original goal of $10,000. Once the campaign ends, Monet and Selah plan to get to work on the construction phase of the project.

"The whole need for the money is to just be able to have the resources to make the space actually usable and something that is up to par with what we think people deserve,” Monet says. The duo is hoping to have the studio operational by fall.

The success of the Smoke Signals campaign has been both surprising and inspiring for Monet and Selah. When they created the Indie GoGo campaign, neither knew what to expect. But support has been steadily flooding in, from both big and small donors.

Selah says their campaign has seen support from a slew of national names. Musicians Talib Kweli and David Banner, playwright Eve Ensler, artist Carrie Mae Weems, actor Jesse Williams, and author Michael Eric Dyson have helped push funding along by either donating or sharing online. But Monet is also quick to point out the importance of Smoke Signals’ smaller supporters. The first donation the campaign received was a $20 contribution from a single mother and longtime Dream Defenders supporter. "I think what's really beautiful and amazing about this campaign is that it's really revealed to us what our community can do when we come together to support something, and even a donation of $20 goes a long way,” Monet says. "I really can't wait for folks to see it come to fruition, just so that they can feel like they were a part of making it happen."

Donations to Smoke Signals will remain open until Wednesday, July 22, via Indie GoGo. If you’re interested in recording or helping Smoke Signals in any way, you can contact Monet and Selah by emailing smokesignalsstudio@gmail.com

Keep up with Smoke Signals' progress on Twitter and Instagram at @soundcology. And listen along on the Smoke Signals Soundcloud page.

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