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Make 2022 your best year yet and let this Moon Reading decode your destiny with precise wisdom you can’t find anywhere else!

For Aja Monet, there’s power in the poetry — Andscape

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Get This Before It Disappears!

Make 2022 your best year yet and let this Moon Reading decode your destiny with precise wisdom you can’t find anywhere else!

Before discussing her latest album, when the poems do what they do, Aja Monet needs to set something straight: She doesn’t do “spoken word.” Her medium is poetry — and when she described why the alternative phrase makes her cringe, you can’t help but agree.

“Just because I recite well, or I recite with some sense of passion and soul and heart, it doesn’t make it ‘spoken word,’ ” Monet told Andscape. “I would say what Obama does is spoken word. It’s like when people call Nina Simone a jazz pianist, and she would say, ‘No, I’m a classical pianist.’

“We’re writers, but we also love the sounds of words. We love the music of what we do, how it flows in our bodies,” she added. “The poet laureates and all of that stuff is often very literary, which is usually determined by a very elitist, white sort of experience.”

Monet’s dedication to her craft, her understanding of how systems oppress the humanity of Black people, and her will to use her art to fight against it have earned Monet a life that has seen her work performed around the world, given her a variety of awards and nominations, and landed her words alongside fellow accomplished creators.

Growing up in New York City, Monet constantly moved between the Queens and Brooklyn boroughs with her mother and two siblings. They also lived with her grandmother for stretches of time. Her mother worked as a secretary at a doctor’s office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and after realizing the disparity in educational resources, she maneuvered to get Monet access to quality schools. Even as a youngster, Monet had astute observations while taking the subway between boroughs.

“There’s so much that you could learn about the world and how it works, just in that trip from Brooklyn to Manhattan — people rushing in and out of their homes, women pushing their children down the street in carriages. Then you go up to the Upper East Side, and it’s nannies pushing kids in carriages and it’s businessmen walking,” she said. “Our teachers would take us on field trips. I was also influenced by museums, opera performances, and going to Carnegie Hall, and plays. It was so culturally rich to grow up in the city and to go to a school that was enthusiastically bringing children to see the city, and experience the city and all that the city had to offer for you as a kid.”

Monet recognized the power of words from listening to sermons at church and conversations in her family. (“Their words would slice a demon, OK?” she said.) But she embraced her own voice when she heard about a 9-year-old’s suicide on the news and realized that poetry was her only vehicle of expression. Monet would become the first student to win her school’s talent show with a poem, and she eventually joined a program called Urban Word NYC. After she began to perform live, she found a community of other teenage poets, and she eventually began to perform at the famed Nuyorican Cafe, where she was crowned the youngest Grand Slam Champion at 19 in 2007. Although Monet has issues with “what slam poetry has become and what it can do to the art form,” she valued the community she built while sharpening her skills with other poets.

“If you have good mentorship and good elders ushering in the generations coming after, [those communities] can be really healthy for one to strengthen and sharpen their craft. It allows for this sort of excitement and enthusiasm around what you’re doing,” she said. “There’s no real place where poets are awarded, at least what we do with language, which is an oral tradition.”

Monet attended Sarah Lawrence College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She also began to work with poet and actor (and fellow Nuyorican Grand Slam champ) Saul Williams. The two initially collaborated as part of a poetry project that Monet spearheaded with students at Odyssey House, a New York City nonprofit that provides treatment for youth and families impacted by substance abuse. Williams later asked her to co-edit Chorus: A Literary Mixtape, an anthology that collected works from 100 poets around the world.

“When I found out things he would say about my work to other people, it made me feel like I was doing something right,” Monet said. “My measure of success is when the people that I admire and find as great inspiration are able to look to me and say I’m an inspiration to them. That’s my Pulitzer Prize, having that approval of your work from the people you consider the greats. And I think Saul is one of those people.”

Monet hasn’t stopped working since. She released two chapbooks, The Black Unicorn Sings and Inner-City Cyborgs and Ciphers. She joined V-Day, a movement founded by The Vagina Monologues author V (formerly known as Eve Ensler) to end violence against women and girls, as the artistic creative director of the Voices Campaign. She also wrote a play that focused on Black stories, and launched it in Ghana with political activist Angela Davis as a special guest.

“No social movement has taken place without art being at the epicenter. You think about the songs and chants that come through movements to keep people’s spirits high, and to keep folks working through the struggle of it,” Monet said. As an example, she cites the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who was imprisoned for five months in 2018 for sharing a video of herself on social media reciting the lyrics “resist, my people, resist them” over footage of Palestinians protesting Israeli troops. “There are a lot of ways that fascist states have always attacked the artists first. If it’s just a painting or if it’s just a poem, why would anybody want to stop that?”

Monet’s debut album, when the poems do what they do, is the latest chamber of that expression. She enlisted FORM Arcosanti festival co-founder Zach Tetreault and jazz trumpeter Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah (formerly known as Christian Scott) as executive producer and musical director, respectively, and tapped new-age jazz musicians such as Samora Pinderhughes, Marcus Gilmore, Weedie Braimah, and more to provide the score to poems that she had already written. She called the musicians in for a session in Los Angeles, read her pieces to them, and let them call dibs on the poems they wanted to be a part of.

“It’s not like I’m an artist that doesn’t have direction, or that needs to be directed. I have a lot of vision,” she said. She knew which instruments were needed for certain records — congas, djembes, horns — and relied on Adjuah to speak in technical terms to translate her ideas to the musicians. “It was the most empowering, encouraging, humbling, heartful thing to experience: people sitting down with me, as a Black woman poet, saying, ‘What do you want to do?’ I’ve spent so many of the years prior creating and cultivating for other communities and other people. So having a moment where I could literally trust that someone was going to help my vision come to life for something I wanted to do was really, really, really special.”

The lyrics on when the poems do what they do offer a multifaceted illustration of the Black experience through the lenses of self-love, unification, and perseverance. “black joy” is a celebration that finds elation in everything from hopscotch and getting friends in the club to “yo mama” jokes (“Until it’s yo mama,” Monet quipped), over jubilant flutes and keys by Elena and Samora Pinderhughes. “weathering” illustrates the blissfulness of love with gorgeous, meandering strings by Adjuah, and “unhurt” digs for hope through the infinite dread of heartbreak and trauma. Songs such as “the perfect storm” and “devil you know” confront capitalism and mourn its victims, from humanity to Earth itself. And “for sonia” memorializes activists who have died by suicide while acknowledging the depression that comes from doing difficult community work.

The pains and joys on the album are equally palpable, but as the record closes, Monet repeats “thank you.” When asked how she maintains her own mental health through her pursuit of social justice like the fallen warriors cited on “for sonia,” she said embracing gratitude is essential — it manifests through listening to music, dancing at home by herself, traveling, and spending time with people who care about her. 

“There’s a lot of things you can totally point at and look at what’s going on that’s wrong,” she said. “No matter what is going on, no matter how the world is shifting and all those things, there can never be too much gratitude.”

William E. Ketchum III is a journalist who covers music, TV/film and culture. His writings have been featured in Billboard, Vulture, VIBE, Complex, the Guardian, NPR, Ebony and other outlets. He has also provided commentary on NPR and BBC radio, and has worked directly with record companies to tell their artists’ stories.


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