Musician and social activist umi selah has always wanted a studio in house. With the help of his partner, educator and poet Aja Monet, selah’s dream to live together as innovative artists has blossomed into a movement that is sure to change the atmosphere of the artist community in Miami for years to come.
As one approaches their modest, two-bedroom house centered in Little Haiti, a scene of lush plants and trees set the mood for any unsuspecting, music virtuoso looking for inspiration. Upon walking through the front door, their beautiful humble abode transforms into Smoke Signals Studio, a visionary space that any artist would feel comfortable in.
“Your home is a very intimate place,” said selah after giving us an informative tour of their property. “It’s a place where, to a larger degree, you can control the vibe and create a culture. We wanted that for the studio space. It’s a community studio space where we believe really powerful things can happen and most of those things happen around the kitchen table or in a home environment. It’s actually a really cool place.”
The lovestruck activists began to construct their dream after Monet migrated to Miami from New York City to help launch their exciting studio and embrace umi’s work in the community as the face of his communal activist group, the Dream Defenders. As a native of Brooklyn, an educator and a skilled poet, the Afro-Cubana knows the struggle aspiring musicians go through in order to properly embrace their artistry.
“Growing up in Brooklyn, you don’t have space,” said Monet. “When you think about the power of art, our art has been the place where folks who are frustrated or outraged by the injustices that are taking place, often times that’s where people go. That’s where they find solace.”
In a city where homemade studios are the norm, musicians, visual artists, poets and other creators in Miami will find more than solace on umi and Aja’s sacred stomping grounds. Inside the studio, the walls are covered with legendary vinyl covers and visual works of art from local artists like Marcus Blake. Along with a soundproof recording room, Smoke Signal Studios also includes a living space to brainstorm, a kitchen to cook up any nutritious substance, and a backyard equipped with a stage ready for live performances.
Although the studio hasn’t officially opened to the public yet, top-tier artists like David Banner and Monet’s previous mentee Vic Mensa have already paid a visit. Banner allowed the couple to hear songs from his upcoming album The God Box, while the Roc Nation signee played them unreleased music that has yet to surface the ‘net.
Music enthusiasts may quickly fall in love with the couple’s outstanding contribution to Miami’s indie music scene, yet skeptics are left scratching their heads. What’s the catch? The “catch” to use their “shrine to sound-cology” is more revolutionary than one might assume.
“One of the things we want to do is transform the value system,” explained Monet. “So how do you do that? For every hour that someone spends in the this studio to record to make music, we hope for them to give an equal amount of time doing radical, political education or giving a training or workshop to other folks with the same skill set that they can provide. Let’s say you’re a really good guitar player, and you’re here for an hour to use the studio. You could give an hour of guitar lessons to the community or to our young people.”
The couple’s plan to rework the barter system for artists definitely calls for a celebration. Last week, umi and Aja held their first communal event at Smoke Signal Studios and welcomed everyone to probe inside their musical safe haven. Their spacious backyard was populated by members of the Dream Defenders, musicians, visual artists and photographers, all of whom could be seen networking and socializing in honor of their new creative space.
In between impromptu live music sets, Monet broke the ice by delivering her impactful words over the mic, which further encouraged others to step up and perform their own pieces. As the crowd began to gather to listen in sync, the ultimate meaning of the name of their communal studio manifested itself.
“The name is a way to signal to people that there is a community of people that are either in danger or have something to say and other people haven’t taken notice for a very long time,” said umi.