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Portraits of Darius Clark Monroe and Karen Smith

Fellow to Fellow: Darius Clark Monroe and Karen Smith on Artistic Legacy and Connecting with Ancestors

Pew Fellows Darius Clark Monroe, a filmmaker, and Karen Smith, a musician, discovered they had more than a few things in common as they spoke for our ongoing interview series. Both New Yorkers by birth, the two artists followed love to Philadelphia, where they put down roots and discovered their artistic and spiritual homes. 

In their conversation, the artists spoke about tapping into creativity at an early age, striving to extend their artistic legacies, and finding peace at the ocean’s edge. The conversation that follows was recorded and edited for length and clarity. 

Monroe’s (he/him) documentary and fictional films surface intimate, interior lives and under-acknowledged histories. Smith (she/her) is a self-taught percussionist who captures “the rhythm of a place and the cadences of people” in performances with a wide range of artists. Her creative practice extends to poetry, theater, healing, and teaching. 


Darius Clark Monroe
What's your personal definition of joy?  

Karen Smith 
My personal joy is the fact that I get to do what I do for a living and that I get to share it with as many lives as possible. I never thought that I could possibly do [music and art] for a living because it wasn't promoted growing up, but now I do. Besides doing it for myself, I get to do it for others, and that makes me feel extra good inside. I feel like I'm touching the ancestors and blessing the grounds and contributing to some kind of balance in this crazy, upside-down world. (The people are upside down. The earth is perfect.)  

I get to help people get in touch with themselves and help them recognize the importance of nature and self. My personal joy is really seeing that come to life. My rhythms are my daily prayer. That's my form of meditation. If I don't play my drums, I touch them. That's how I start the day. 

“My rhythms are my daily prayer. That's my form of meditation.” —Karen Smith

Pew Fellow Karen Smith stands playing drums.
Karen Smith, 2023 Pew Fellow. Photo by Neal Santos.

Do you touch the drums every day? Is that like a ritual that you have?  

It is a ritual. I don't even know I'm doing it, but I do [touch them every day]. If I don't touch all of them, because I have a lot of drums, I touch something. And sometimes I play too. But I tell that to my students: if this is something that you really want to do, touch your drums, even if you do nothing else. This is the original heartbeat. You should always want to touch your heart and the instrument itself. 

Who are your sheroes/heroes in the film-media world, independent, commercial or both? 

Initially, a lot of my sheroes and heroes were educators, so not even necessarily working filmmakers. I'm thinking about people who covered me, ushered me, and pointed me in the right direction. These are folks like Mrs. Lister, my high school English teacher. Another shero of mine is Sheril Antonio at NYU, who saw me 20 years ago, just a little pup sitting on the steps outside of school. She was a guiding force in my life. I think about Michelle Materre, who ran the “Creatively Speaking” series for almost a quarter of a century before she passed away. This is a woman who identified my early work when I barely knew how to put a film together, back in 2006. She literally supported my work up until the moment she left this realm. A local hero is Maori Karmael Holmes [of BlackStar]. She's also been someone who has supported my work for over a decade. 

These are folks who, we just spiritually, organically, and naturally poured into one another. A lot of them understood that I was away from my entire family—I'm from Houston—and so there's been a constant presence of people who feel like family, who feel ancestral, who have been carrying the baton and helping me at every chapter of my life. The film career choice is very chaotic and maddening. So having a lot of love and genuine support and kindness and guidance helps make it a realistic endeavor 

I would also add my grandmother, Carrie Lou Hood, as someone who identified [my creative potential] early and was never afraid to allow me to flourish in that capacity. She's been a huge, huge force in my life. 

Darius Clark Monroe with his grandmother, Carrie Lou Hood.
Darius Clark Monroe with his grandmother, Carrie Lou Hood, in 2017. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

“There's been a constant presence of people who feel like family, who feel ancestral, who have been carrying the baton and helping me at every chapter of my life.” —Darius Clark Monroe

Nice. Give it up to grandmas. Grandmas give the extra, I don't know, that “extra” that you need. Whatever that push is.  

Where do you see yourself in the next five to ten years in your genre? 

It's funny because when I first read that question, I had a knee-jerk reaction to say, “I'm not a documentary filmmaker. I'm not going to make any more documentaries.” I want to be doing something else, but I definitely see myself still working in a documentary capacity and also expanding out to feature films and television. I even have dreams of one day, hopefully, writing a play. 

I’ve just been slowly getting deeper and deeper into this study. I feel like I'm just now getting a handle on my interpretation of what it means to do documentary work, to do film work. But I would love to return to working with actors and collaborating with other artists, doing things that are more ambitious and personal. That's the dream. 

Production photo from Black 14 directed by Pew Fellow Darius Clark Monroe.
Production photo from Black 14 directed by Pew Fellow Darius Clark Monroe, 2018. Image courtesy of NBC News.

When you’re playing music, there’s often an exterior response to the beauty and spirit of your craft. I'm curious, what’s transpiring inside the mind and your body as you conjure these rhythms and sounds? 

I’ve been told, and then from footage that I’ve watched, that something happens. When I start playing, I hear the initial rhythm, but I do not know what occurs after that. Especially if I'm playing by myself, something truly spiritual happens. Some kind of ritual takes over, and I sometimes struggle to get back to “here,” to whatever's happening [in the moment]. I feel like it's so spiritual what I do. One of my cousins is a professional percussionist as well. He started me with my first drum. He said, “Once you start playing these drums, be aware it can be very spiritual,” and I never understood what he was talking about. Because he said that to me at such an early age, and at the time I was like, “What does that mean? It's just drums.” But it's not just drums. You are the messenger. You are the original cell phone. You are the communicator. Anything is possible to come in [through] those rhythms. Whether I'm playing the African drum or the steel tongue drum, or congas, I feel like I take on whatever language or culture is attached to that [instrument]. All that comes out in me. That's the authentic part about my rhythms.  

In my recent travels, I got a chance to go to New Orleans, and one place I got to go to was Congo Square. I knew it was spiritual because the person who took me on the tour told me that it was a very spiritual space, but I didn't know how spiritual until I came back and got a chance to play for an event. Something happened when it was my turn to play. There was a singer, and I was playing with her. We were just vibing out, and I really felt not here. I felt not only not here, but I really struggled to get back. It got really emotional. Tears came into my eyes, which had never happened before. I’ve played funerals, tributes, etc. and that's never happened before. But this time, whatever I brought back from Congo Square, I felt in my rhythms, in my heart, and it needed to be translated.  

You tapped into something really special. 

Yeah, somebody or somebodies needed to make some serious awakenings. And they did that day. Did I answer that question? 

You answered the hell out of that question. [Laughter] 

What do you fear? 

I hope that I'm touching enough lives in order for this legacy to continue. Whether it's through stories or drumming, or dance, or poetry. Because I feel like sometimes, it almost feels like it's going to stop right here in this century, or this decade. 

I feel that. 

The youth are not just getting it and running with it. At least, our youth are not. Their attention span, their focus is somewhere else. Who's going to tell our stories? That's my biggest fear, because none of us is going to be here forever, but will we still be telling our stories the way we have been telling them all these centuries? Because there's so much [history] constantly being dug up, but so much constantly being buried at the same time. Don't lose this race that's been running for so many years. Don't stop running with it. Don't ever be that tired. 

What does your downtime look like? 

I have to get better at that. For me, it’s just being at the house and chilling with the family. Quiet time. The best form of downtime is not being connected to technology; not in my emails, not on my phone. 

For me, downtime is like “slowing down” time, being able to slow down my response time to messages, to emails. It’s slowing things down and moving in a different cultural capacity and not always being on the Westernized clock. That’s my form of downtime.  

Apart from that, another form of downtime is going to the ocean.  I love being near water. To me, that’s always like a return. When I receive bad or good news, I love to go near the water. I also love a great nap. [Laughter] 

I agree with that. Just to listen to the water hitting the sand, there’s nothing like it. That's music. I've taken a drum right at the water a few times and played against it. I love playing against nature. That's my favorite thing. The birds, whatever sounds I hear. That's real downtime to me. It lowers my blood pressure for sure.  

Pew Fellows Darius Clark Monroe and Karen Smith enjoying time near the ocean. 
Pew Fellows Darius Clark Monroe and Karen Smith enjoying time near the ocean. 

We asked the two artists a few questions of our own. 

When did you know you were an artist? Was there a moment when you began to identify yourself as an artist? 

I feel like I knew very early. There wasn't the term like, “Oh, you are an artist,” but it was “You are artistically inclined.” And this was in elementary school, just doing doodles and drawings. I was also in a singing group with my cousins. My family was always gifted. We put on plays and performances, and so, artistry and being creative to me was something that felt innate and natural. My grandmother was definitely an artist. People in the family throughout the lineage have been doing art. It wasn't something that was shamed but embraced. 

It all started with just drawings. For years, you could find me in a corner drawing blueprints of fictitious houses and master-planned neighborhoods. I had a deep love for architecture. Some of these drawings started as a dream for what I wanted the house to be for the family, how I wanted us to be living in the future because we were struggling at the time. A lot of these doodlings and ideas were the foreground for what eventually led me into filmmaking. I want to say fourth or maybe fifth grade is when I embraced that part of myself. 

I can relate to the early elementary school [timeframe of] identifying as an artist. I love to doodle. I love to create characters. I love to pretend. Though I was the youngest of eight, everybody wasn't as close in age by the time I came around, so I didn't really have brothers and sisters right there because a lot of them were older than me. Besides, I was a shy kid, so I found myself being creative. I could create characters, imitate what I saw on television, do voices. That’s what I used to do to entertain myself and others. I loved to pretend. That’s what they used to say, “You’re a character, you’re an actor.” People would tell me things like that. I loved pretending and creating stuff. I knew early. I could go back to 5 or 6, because I used to like to doodle-draw, and my drawings used to get hung up on the wall in school. I grew up in Brooklyn, so I used to draw what I thought the neighborhood looked like. 

A school portrait of Karen Smith in elementary school.
A school portrait of Karen Smith in elementary school. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

Why do you choose to work and live in Philadelphia? In your experience? What makes the art seem distinctive here? 

We have a similar story because love brought me to Philadelphia. I’d come here for work, maybe 15 years ago, as a sound recorder for a documentary and that was my first time coming to Philly. I had a great time. But then, being in Brooklyn, I met my partner almost 13 years ago, and he's from Philadelphia. And so, meeting him, knowing him, and experiencing his city, his family, it really reminded me of Houston when I was coming up in terms of the close-knit community: Philly felt grounded and very genuine and very real. That's something that I have always appreciated about the city. But, yes, it was love initially that brought me here. And then also, since I started to make work professionally, this city has gone above and beyond, in terms of the level of consistent support and encouragement. The audiences here are insanely intelligent, incredible, and curious. 

I always feel cared for in Philadelphia. I don't know how else to describe it. There’s something very warm and inviting about the city and about the people in this city that I adore. 

I can really underline and say ditto to all of that.  

It was love that brought me here, but it was also burnout. As an artist with no money at all, and New York constantly reminding me that I had no money, keeping a savings account or any kind of account other than a checking account just to pay bills was almost [impossible]. I just got so tired of that. And I struggled with depression. And [the financial stress] was contributing to my depression as well. So I said, “There's got to be someplace else.” Then I met someone in Brooklyn who was visiting, and we were chatting, and she told me where she lived, and I said, “I'll come and visit sometime.” And though that relationship didn't work out, the journey did, as far as me looking at Philadelphia.  

I met a poet at an event, and I bonded with him. He's the one who took me around and showed me South Street and Center City. Once I started seeing [more of the city] and the Parkway and all the different creative things happening here, I was like, “Okay, maybe this is a place I can come to.” And it seemed like the rent wasn't high at all, but I didn't realize till I got here, neither was the salary that I was going to get, either. It was going to be a big, drastic change. But I still wanted to go. And I was determined, even though I didn’t get a whole lot of support from some of my friends and my family. Because at the time I was 33. And they were like, “What are you gonna do, leaving New York at 33?” And I was like, “Why not?" And 30-plus years later, I'm still here.  

Philadelphia became a place that welcomed me, and I appreciate the growth that I’ve learned here too, and the neighborhoods. I’ve connected with so many neighborhoods here, so many organizations, and I'm really amazed by the love that is given to the history here. I’m really happy to be here. I find myself saying this is home. 

Darius Clark Monroe
Darius Clark Monroe, 2023 Pew Fellow. Photo by Neal Santos.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? 

I had a hard time with this question, because I wear so many hats in the artist world, and I feel like, “Well, I love doing all those things,” and I really do from the bottom of my heart. I can’t see myself doing anything else because I get to do what I love full-time.  

But I love animals, and if I ever had a chance, I would own a farm for animals that have no place to go, almost like the land of misfits. I would have all kinds of animals. I love horses. I love pigs. I love snakes. I love all kinds. And I’m a vegan, so nobody would have to worry about anybody wanting to eat them, because everybody employed [there] would have to be a vegan as well. The animals could just run wild and do what they what they do. So that would be something I always have in the back of my mind. I would do that Dr. Dolittle kind of thing. 

Eventually, I would love to go into teaching. It’s something I did in the past, as a teaching assistant. I've done some teaching with high school kids in different capacities. But I always see myself eventually ending my career as an educator. I don't want to do it in the public school sector, but I want to do it in some capacity. I want to work with young folks. 

Because similar to what you were talking about, holding on to the lineage that comes with playing the African drums, I feel the same way about documentary and archival [work] and history and cinema and the studying of it. It is a real craft and I feel like there's something beyond just making the work that I can impart to young people.  

You know, I would love a cafe in the Bahamas. [Laughter] But as long as I continue breathing, there will come a moment when I can slow down being a “filmmaker” and start passing on some of the lessons and tools that I've learned and giving them to other folks. As much information as I have, I would love to leave it in the hands of the next generation.