art activism equity
Through many conversations and much reflection, Aja Monet and phillip agnew realized that artists and activists share a common bond of seeking to make a positive impact on society. Photo courtesy of phillip agnew

Equal Voice

A Union of Art and Activism Drives Equity and Change

December 3, 2019

By Claire Goforth

In a Florida recording studio, artists and organizers are showing the power of connections among art, activism and movements for equity. At Smoke Signals, musicians, poets and other artists come together to change the world.

phillip agnew has an ear for speaking truth. In his TED Talk with partner Aja Monet in 2018, he summed up the power of art this way:

“Data rarely moves people, but great art does.”

The TED Talk was a spoken word duet that detailed the founding and purpose of Smoke Signals Studio.

Smoke Signals, located in the couple’s Miami home, is a community-based artistic space that’s equal parts studio, artist incubator and gathering space for activists.

phillip agnew and Aja Monet knew that "artist-activists could create art about issues like gentrification, climate change, education and justice. They could distill big topics into ... things that lighten rather than weigh down."

In an interview with Equal Voice News, agnew said artists and activists aren’t so different.

“There are a lot of similarities,” agnew said. “We both see the world differently, want to make an impact on the world, want to share experiences and make people feel better.”

At first blush, opening a studio seems a drastic departure for the man who cofounded Dream Defenders to effect “powerful change” in response to Trayvon Martin’s death. But agnew’s purpose hasn’t changed so much, as his method has evolved. He’s still a grassroots organizer, but now those roots include musicians, poets, spoken-word poets and other artists performing their craft to change the world.

agnew, Monet and the artists they work with are adding to the contributions of artist-activists Emory Douglas, Nina Simone and June Jordan.

agnew grew up playing music, but his professional path led him to activism. In 2006, while attending Florida A&M University, he formed the Student Coalition for Justice after a 14-year-old died at one of the state’s juvenile offender boot camps. Video showed the Black teen being beaten and asking for a break before he collapsed. Their public pressure campaign is credited with helping persuade the state to do away with boot camp facilities.

After Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, agnew cofounded Dream Defenders. When George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder the following summer, Dream Defenders began what would be a month-long sit-in in the Florida Capitol. They demanded that lawmakers repeal the controversial Stand Your Ground law that provided the basis for acquittal – one of several goals focused on restorative racial justice.

Posted by Smoke Signals Studios in January 2019.

While Dream Defenders fell short of these aspirations, they influenced the national conversation and attracted thousands to the cause, including civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond. The efforts also earned agnew widespread recognition.

He met Monet, a well-known poet, in 2015 when a Dream Defenders delegation went to Palestine. As their friendship blossomed into love, a late-night conversation led to the epiphany that launched Smoke Signals Studio: Art and activism aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, art can be activism. It was a revelation.

The idea was partially inspired by Agnew’s experiences – what Monet referred to in their TED Talk as the “despair and depression” that can plague activism.

“[I] realized many of our artist and organizer friends were often lost in these cycles of sadness, and we were in movements that often found themselves at funerals,” agnew said in the talk. “We asked ourselves what becomes of a generation all too familiar with the untimely ends of lives streamed daily in our timelines.”

art activism equity

phillip agnew, who cofounded Dream Defenders and Smoke Signals Studio, is seen with friends in Arizona. Photo source: Instagram account of Smoke Signals Studio

With a space like Smoke Signals Studio, they theorized, artist-activists could create art about issues like gentrification, climate change, education and justice. They could distill big topics into moving, revelatory, beautiful and accessible things, things that lighten rather than weigh down.

“This is a space where individuals in our community invested in using sound and music as a meeting place for transformation and liberation can come to create together,” they wrote in a 2015 Indiegogo campaign launched to help pay for studio equipment.

The idea resonated.

“This is a conversation that people are really open to,” said agnew.

The idea of art as activism isn’t new, but it is novel in today’s world. Some artists can look at activism as work separate from theirs, and vice versa. With Smoke Signals Studio, agnew and Monet are turning that idea on its head.

“It really has brought together artists and organizers, and it’s shown artists that they are organizers,” said agnew, who stepped down from Dream Defenders in 2018.

Smoke Signals Studio aims to uplift artists, create community and work on specific issues, such as their initiative last year encouraging people to speak out against a large development planned in the historic Little Haiti neighborhood where the studio is based. agnew and Monet also seek to inspire great societal and economic change – a revolution, in fact.

Asked to explain what this revolution would entail, agnew described an economic system that affords individuals greater agency over their labor and time, a society where people’s hearts and minds are less individualistic and more community-focused, and representatives in government who consider how their decisions impact all people instead of a select few.

“It’s a place where people are able to achieve self-actualization,” he said.

Ideas such as these have earned Smoke Signals an eager audience. Hundreds often show up for gatherings, which are mostly free and consist of fellowship, music and performances by famous, emerging and local acts. Artists who’ve visited the studio include rappers Vic Mensa and Mos Def, R&B singer-songwriter Eryn Allen Kane, poet-emcee James Klynn, and spoken-word artist and activist Calvin Early.

Early, who met agnew and Monet when they were developing the studio, described a Smoke Signals event as “one of the most eclectic places that you can find.”

Early said: “The art is one thing. But there could be no art, and it would still be this wonderful experience.”

The gatherings are about having fun, appreciating art and getting to know people. But they’re also intended to inspire and uplift.

“It’s an open-air church,” said agnew. “This is where I come to be fed and rejuvenated.”

This type of experience isn’t a break from activist work. It is the work.

In the TED Talk, Monet started a sentence: “What people see as a party–”

“–is actually a movement meeting,” agnew finished.


Claire Goforth is a journalist based in Jacksonville, Florida. In October, Goforth wrote the Equal Voice story, “Desmond Meade Made History but Housing Was Still Out of Reach.” Follow Goforth on Twitter at @clairenjax. Note: phillip agnew uses all lowercase letters in his name. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original Equal Voice content can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.

A Union of Art and Activism Drives Equity and Change