Miami poet Aja Monet makes us cry — and wants to help others do the same

Miami-based poet Aja Monet
Miami-based poet Aja Monet Courtesy of

There’s an inherent romanticism in a waving palm tree, and this past February 26 — the one-year anniversary of Smoke Signals, a recording studio, community space, and home — the wind was blowing strong in the backyard, trees bending at the breeze’s will. Folks from all over the country gathered to sing, play music, share poetry. “RIMIDI” (pronounced “remedy”), a poem about self-empowerment, asked us to recognize the power and beauty in ourselves. Local singer and songwriter, Yoli Mayor, made us cry, her rich voice belting out songs of unrequited love and, in turn, self-love. Honey Rose’s poem referenced the simultaneous damage and appropriation of black culture by white folks, both dangerous in different ways. The art, essentially, became “the word,” for which host Aja Monet asked us to simply hold space and be present.

Her partner, Umi Selah, co-director of the Dream Defenders, stepped up to the mic, recalling the moment his stomach began to churn after he’d learned what happened on February 26, 2012. A young boy in Sanford, Fla., put on his hoodie to stay dry on a rainy walk back from the store. The details are blurry, but one thing, Selah stated, is clear: the boy, who was killed after being followed, was never given the right to return home, safe and breathing. The death of Trayvon Martin was the impetus for Selah’s formation of the Dream Defenders, an activist group, and they hosted a month-long sit-in at the office of Governor Rick Scott to protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Martin’s murderer. But, Selah reminded us, Martin belongs to a tragic, ever-growing lineage of people killed for being brown or black in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That night, Smoke Signals was a safe space for people of color, for the community, for those concerned as hell about the institutionalized oppression of friends and strangers, for people who wanted a place to dance and listen. Using their own residence to foster art-making and communal empowerment, Monet and Selah are kindred spirits of every artist and revolutionary who’ve turned their home into a salon, a free zone, a temple of refuge.

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▪ Aja Monet: The Miami poet performed her work, “My Mother was a Freedom Fighter,” at the Perez Art Museum Miami’s Ambassadors for Africa American Art event in February; see the video at Her book was released in May at the Brooklyn Museum. Information:

▪ Smoke Signals:,

▪ Dream Defenders: