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  • Aja Monet: Our story begins like all great, young love stories.

  • Phillip Agnew: She slid in my DMs ...

  • AM: He liked about 50 of my photos,

  • back-to-back, in the middle of the night --

  • PA: What I saw was an artist committed to truth and justice --

  • and she's beautiful, but I digress.

  • AM: Our story actually begins across many worlds,

  • over maqluba and red wine in Palestine.

  • But how did we get there?

  • PA: 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.

  • AM: 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.

  • (Applause and cheers)

  • 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 ...

  • PA: 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.

  • AM: Oh, we disagree.

  • PA: But we quite quickly and unsurprisingly fell in love.

  • Exhibit A:

  • me working my magic.

  • (Laughter)

  • AM: Obvious, isn't it?

  • Four months later, this artist --

  • PA: and this organizer --

  • AM: moved into a little home with a big backyard, in Miami.

  • PA: (Sighs)

  • 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.

  • (Laughter)

  • Our first few months were like any between young lovers:

  • filled with hot, passionate, all-night ...

  • AM: nonstop ...

  • PA: discussions.

  • (Laughter)

  • PA: Aja challenged everything I knew and understood about the world.

  • She forced me --

  • AM: lovingly --

  • PA: to see our organizing work with new eyes.

  • She helped me see the unseen things

  • and how artists illuminate our interior worlds.

  • AM: 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.

  • PA: 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.

  • AM: 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 were 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.

  • PA: This became Smoke Signals Studio.

  • AM: 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 ...

  • PA: 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 --

  • (Applause)

  • 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 ...

  • AM: "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.

  • PA: 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 --

  • (Applause)

  • 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.

  • AM: 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.

  • PA: Four years ago, this artist ...

  • AM: and this organizer ...

  • PA: found that we were not just a match.

  • AM: We were a mirror.

  • PA: Our worlds truly did collide,

  • and in many ways ...

  • AM: they combined.

  • PA: 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.

  • AM: For the wizards --

  • (Applause)

  • AM: 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