Our story begins like all great, young love stories.
She slid in my DMs...
He liked about 50 of my photos, back-to-back, in the middle of the night—
What I saw was an artist committed to truth and justice—and she's beautiful, but I digress.
Our story actually begins across many worlds, over maqluba and red wine in Palestine. But how did we get there?
Well, I was born in Chicago, the son of a preacher and a teacher. My ears first rung with church songs sung by my mother on Saturday mornings. My father's South Side sermons summoned me. My first words were more notes than quotes. It was music that molded me. Later on, it was Florida A&M University that first introduced me to organizing. In 2012, a young black male named Trayvon Martin was murdered, and it changed my life and millions of others'. We were a ragtag group of college kids and not-quite adults who had decided enough was enough. Art and organizing became our answer to anger and anxiety. We built a movement and it traveled around the world and to Palestine, in 2015.
I was born to a single mother in the Pink House projects of Brooklyn, New York. Maddened by survival, I gravitated inwards towards books, poems and my brother's hand-me-down Walkman. I saw train-station theater, subwoofing streets and hood murals. In high school, I found a community of metaphor magicians and truth-telling poets in an organization called Urban Word NYC. Adopted by the Black Arts movement, I won the legendary Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam title.
At Sarah Lawrence College, I worked with artists to respond to Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake; I discovered the impact of poetry and the ability to not just articulate our feelings, but to get us to work towards changing things and doing something about it, when a friend, Maytha Alhassen, invited me to Palestine...
We were a delegation of artists and organizers, and we immersed ourselves in Palestinian culture, music, their stories. Late into the night, we would have discussions about the role of art in politics and the role of politics in art. Aja and I disagree.
Oh, we disagree.
But we quite quickly and unsurprisingly fell in love. Exhibit A: me working my magic.
Obvious, isn't it? Four months later, this artist—
and this organizer—
moved into a little home with a big backyard, in Miami.
Listen, five months before this ever happened, I predicted it all. I'm going to tell you—a friend sat me down and said, "You've done so much for organizing, when are you going to settle down?" I looked him straight in the face and I said, "The only way that it would ever happen is if it is a collision. This woman would have to knock me completely off course." I didn't know how right I was.
Our first few months were like any between young lovers: filled with hot, passionate, all-night...
Aja challenged everything I knew and understood about the world. She forced me—
to see our organizing work with new eyes. She helped me see the unseen things and how artists illuminate our interior worlds.
There were many days I did not want to get up out of bed and face the exterior world. I was discouraged. There was so much loss and death and artists were being used to numb, lull and exploit. While winning awards, accolades and grants soothed so many egos, people were still dying and I was seeking community. Meeting Phillip brought so much joy, love, truth into my life, and it pulled me out of isolation. He showed me that community and relationships wasn't just about building great movements. It was integral in creating powerful, meaningful art, and neither could be done in solitude.
Yeah, we realized many of our artist and organizer friends were also lost in these cycles of sadness, and we were in movements that often found themselves at funerals. We asked ourselves what becomes of a generation all too familiar with the untimely ends of lives streamed daily on our Timelines? It was during one of our late-night discussions that we saw beyond art and organizing and began to see that art was organizing.
The idea was set: art was an anchor, not an accessory to movement. Our home was a home of radical imagination; an instrument of our nurturing hearts; a place of risk where we're dared to laugh, love, cry, debate. Art, books, records and all this stuff decorated our walls, and there was lizards—walls of palm trees that guided our guests into our backyard, where our neighbors would come and feel right at home. The wind—the wind was an affirmation for the people who walked into the space. And we learned that in a world—a bewildering world of so much distraction—we were able to cultivate a space where people could come and be present, and artists and organizers could find refuge.
This became Smoke Signals Studio.
As we struggle to clothe, house, feed and educate our communities; our spirits hunger for connection, joy and purpose; and as our bodies are out on the front lines, our souls still need to be fed, or else we succumb to despair and depression. Our art possesses rhythmic communication, coded emotional cues, improvised feelings of critical thought. Our social movements should be like jazz: encouraging active participation, listening, spontaneity and freedom. What people see as a party...
is actually a movement meeting. See, we aren't all protest and pain. Here's a place to be loved, to be felt, to be heard, and where we prepare for the most pressing political issues in our neighborhoods. See, laws never change culture, but culture always changes laws. Art—
Art as organizing is even changing and opening doors in places seen as the opposite of freedom. Our weekly poetry series is transforming the lives of men incarcerated at Dade Correctional, and we're so excited to bring you all the published work of one of those men, Echo Martinez. In the intro, he says...
"Poetry for the people is a sick pen's penicillin. It's a cuff key to a prisoner's dreams. The Molotov in the ink. It is knowledge, it is overstanding, it is tasting ingredients in everything you've been force-fed, but most of all, it's a reminder that we all have voices, we all can be heard even if we have to scream."
In 2018, we created our first annual Maroon Poetry Festival at the TACOLCY Center in Liberty City. There, the Last Poets, Sonia Sanchez, Emory Douglas and the late, great Ntozake Shange, performed and met with local artists and organizers. We were able to honor them for their commitment to radical truth-telling. And in addition to that, we transformed a public park into the physical manifestation of the world we are organizing for. Everything that we put into poetry, we put into the art, into the creativity, into the curated kids' games and into the stunning stage design.
Our work is in a long line of cultural organizers that understood to use art to animate a radical future. Artists like June Jordan, Emory Douglas and Nina Simone. They understood what many of us are just now realizing—that to get people to build the ship, you've got to get them to long for the sea; that data rarely moves people, but great art always does. This understanding—
This understanding informed the thinking behind the Dream Defenders' "Freedom Papers," a radical political vision for the future of Florida that talked about people over profits. Now, we could have done a policy paper. Instead, artists and organizers came together in their poetry to create incredible murals and did the video that we see behind us. We joined the political precision of the Black Panther Party and the beautiful poetry of Puerto Rican poet Martín Espada to bring our political vision to life.
Now thousands of Floridians across age, race, gender and class see the "Freedom Papers" as a vision for the future of their lives. For decades, our artists and our art has been used to exploit, lull, numb, sell things to us and to displace our communities, but we believe that the personal is political and the heart is measured by what is done, not what one feels. And so art as organizing is not just concerned with artists' intentions, but their actual impact. Great art is not a monologue. Great art is a dialogue between the artist and the people.
Four years ago, this artist...and this organizer...found that we were not just a match. We were a mirror.
Our worlds truly did collide, and in many ways...they combined.
We learned so much about movement, about love and about art at its most impactful: when it articulates the impossible and when it erodes individualism, when it plays into the gray places of our black and white worlds, when it does what our democracy does not, when it reminds us that we are not islands, when it adorns every street but Wall Street and Madison Avenue, when it reminds us that we are not islands and refuses to succumb to the numbness, when it indicts empire and inspires each and every one of us to love, tell the truth and make revolution irresistible.
For the wizards—
For the wizards and ways of our defiance, love-riot visions of our rising, risen, raised selves.
The overcoming grace—fires, bitter tongues, wise as rickety rocking chairs, suffering salt and sand skies.
Memories unshackled and shining stitches on a stretch-marked heart.
For the flowers that bloom in midnight scars. How we suffered and sought a North Star. When there was no light, we glowed. We sparked this rejoice, this righteous delight. We have a cause to take joy in. How we weathered and persisted, tenacious, no stone unturned. How we witnessed the horror of mankind and did not become that which horrified us.