St. Louis Creative Cami Thomas Discusses The ‘Smoke City’ Docu-series

At age 22,  St. Louisan Cami Thomas relocated back to her hometown after receiving her bachelor’s degree from Loyola University in New Orleans. She’d anticipated being home only briefly before moving to Los Angeles, where she had already secured a lease. Instead, she immersed herself in the culture of St. Louis, balancing her career in marketing with companies like Tesla and now Red Bull. Now 24, she also curates a streaming platform titled “For the Culture TV” (FTCTV) which includes a handful of online shows, such as “The Movement,” “Backseat Freestyles” and “Smoke City.” The latter is an impressive docu-series focused on introducing viewers to the various neighborhoods of St. Louis in an effort to challenge assumptions.

Thomas also balanced growing up in the suburb of Florissant with attending a prestigious private high school, which introduced her to the realities of the city’s racial and socioeconomic divide. As she says in the opening of each episode, “essentially our city’s division is exactly what’s stopping the smoke from clearing.”

st louis documentary film creative writer artist cami thomas

How did you decide on the name “For the Culture TV?”
St. Louis-based hip-hop artist Mvstermind, along with his girlfriend Savis, and I did a guerilla-marketing campaign for his song “Mali Moolah,” and one thing we kept saying was, “this is for the culture.” At the end, we had captured it all on video and didn’t know where to put it. We didn’t want to just put it on our personal accounts. Mvstermind was like, “You should make a website or blog,” and the first thing to pop in my head was “For the Culture.” It was a blog at first and then “For the Culture TV.” Now I just go by “FTCTV.”

And “For the Culture” is the platform upon which you host different shows? 
Yes. I have “The Movement” series, which is a dance series. There’s also “Backseat Freestyles,” in which someone hops in the backseat of my car and literally freestyles. “Smoke City” is one of the first documentary series. Everyone I talked to felt like they knew everything about everybody else. When I say where I went to high school, I get one reaction, and when I say I grew up in Florissant, I get another reaction. What do you think you know about Florissant that makes you think you can paint a picture of me? It’s strange, the way we’re like: “Here’s the bad side of town, and here’s the good side of town.” I thought that was weird and decided we needed to reintroduce ourselves.

So far in “Smoke City,” you’ve covered Ballwin, Ferguson, Florissant… 
…South City and Walnut Park. That was Season 1. That was so people could contact me and say “Hey, I want to show you my neighborhood.” Next season, I’ll probably start in the summer and try to go to Chesterfield and Hazelwood.

The Delmar divide is also a good example of cultural assumptions: the assumption that anything north of that street is bad. I went to Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School (MICDS), which is in the wealthy suburb of Ladue, but I had my sweet 16 in Florissant. I lived a normal, middle-class suburban life. I remember a lot of folks told me “Oh, my parents won’t drive me out there. They don’t think it’s safe for me to be there.” That really frustrated me. You can be frustrated with it, or you can try to start a conversation. Some people don’t want to listen to the conversation—that’s fine. Some folks mean well and don’t have preconceived notions. They just don’t know where to start. The goal of “Smoke City” is to help start a conversation that could encourage someone to think “Maybe I’ll drive to Florissant for lunch.” Why are some areas worth going to and others aren’t? It’s been an interesting project.

st louis documentary film creative writer artist cami thomas

I noticed in each episode, you focus on one subject. How do you find one person to talk to for each neighborhood?
Honestly, I did it with referrals. I sent a mass text to people asking if they had connections in the neighborhoods I wanted to cover. I try to interview a wide range of folks from different walks of life, different ages, different high schools. I want to challenge what people think. With Florissant, I noticed that people in my high school thought that Florissant had a majority-Black population when really it’s much more diverse. Why is it bad if it’s 90 percent Black? That’s not a bad thing.

What was your experience growing up in St. Louis, leaving for college and then coming back? What was it like to re-experience your hometown as an adult?  
I had a pretty standard upbringing. But I will say there was contrast. I felt like I was going between two worlds: one of the most expensive private schools in the city and then going back home to my own middle-class roots. That contrast taught me about classism and the differences. I was really adamant about leaving. I didn’t really have a lot of experience in the city. I didn’t really get to know St. Louis until I came back. I moved Downtown and fell in love with this place. It made me so defensive when people said, “I don’t know what to do.” You’re not looking. There’s plenty of stuff here. It was like having a high-school sweetheart and leaving because the timing wasn’t right and then coming back and realizing it’s perfect. I also see my time leaving and coming back as pre-Ferguson and post-Ferguson.

I feel like the love for the people around me and my community has grown. It’s hard to walk alongside someone and get teargassed and get shot by rubber bullets and then the next day not look at them like, “You really had my back.” The connection I have to the city now is unbreakable.

st louis documentary film creative writer artist cami thomas

In your episodes, you say that you’re trying to make people neighbors. It sounds like you’re challenging people to be accountable, that you’re putting it in the hands of St. Louis residents’ to assuage their differences.

How do you balance that approach with realistic factors that shape the city and are beyond the residents’ control? There’s a lot of racial, social and economic dissonance that’s shaped by city officials and history, and impacts how people are divided. 
Not easily. It’s tough because there a lot of factors. It’s not easy to ask, “Why is St. Louis segregated?” There’s been tons of research, books written and documentaries made that probably still don’t get to the root of it. I just think that everyone can play their part. You never know if who you’re talking to might be the next city official or might be the one who redraws these literal lines that we have separating us. What’s done is done in the city. Racism is at the core of our DNA. It’s how it was built, much like the country. I realize that there are some aspects of that that are going to be really tough to challenge. But, on an individual basis, we can create more conversations that can challenge someone’s misconceptions. It’s a mountain to move, but we have to start pushing at some point.

Even with the “Smoke City” series, there’s stuff that I cut out where I go deep into the data. I interview folks about why things are the way they are. It’s more for people who think they know St. Louis and are comfortable with the segregation. I’m not going to hold your hand and say, “This is what’s wrong with St. Louis.” I’m going to give you an introduction and say, “There’s something wrong here. So after you watch this seven-minute episode, go do the work.”

Photo credit: Trina Rager

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