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Aja Monet's debut album fuses art and advocacy, poet and performer

<em>when the poems do what they do</em> puts Aja Monet's incisive poetry at the head of a taut and multidisciplinary band.
Fanny Chu
Courtesy of the artist
when the poems do what they do puts Aja Monet's incisive poetry at the head of a taut and multidisciplinary band.

In Black American folklore, music and poetry share the same soul. The poets of the Black Arts movement, particularly Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde and Amiri Baraka, were in touch with jazz as if it were of the same coterie, and they opened the door for the more music-driven spoken-word artists of the 1970s — Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets, jazzmen who inspired hip-hop. All understood that poems not only could be music, but had an inherent musicality: that performance merely brought its natural rhythm and voice to the ear, and that poetry could "lift the veil," as Percy Bysshe Shelley put it, and see clearly when music couldn't.

The blues poet and activist Aja Monet is careful about upholding that tradition. In 2021, as the co-founder of the Smoke Signals collective, she released The FREE Tape, a hip-hop-forward, self-described "soundtrack for liberation" made in conjunction with the group's many singers, poets and multi-instrumentalists. Her 2020 poetry collection, entitled My Mother was a Freedom Fighter, is full of lessons on the continuum of activism, one that, for Monet, extends to her great grandmother. It is also full of verses about language and speaking as song, and its pages include a revision of Jay-Z and Kanye's "N****s in Paris" and a plea to recognize all the women who have been muses to songwriters in album credits. On the poem "my parents used to do the hustle," Monet writes, "i gravitated toward turntables and cyphers / disco and latin freestyle / watchin over / enveloped in the cool / jazz of their joy." Her performances carry all of that motion in them — the instincts of cypher and freestyle.

Monet's wondrous debut album, when the poems do what they do, is actively thinking about performative poetry's purpose, and her place in the continuity. Among many other things, on opener "I Am," she is the djembe drum; the gardenia in Billie Holiday's hair; a Bob Marley dreadlock; Marcus Garvey's last microphone. But, most importantly, she is a reflection of community: "I'm only possible because we are," she exclaims. This is not the first time her poetry has been staged with music, but it is her first recording, the first time she has felt like part of an ensemble and the first time her poems feel like songs. Here, she is not only a bard but a bandleader, one tapping the smoothness and urgency of soul to deliver restorative messages at a time when they're much needed.

Gorgeously meditative and potently groovy, when the poems do what they do brings many of Monet's most deeply considered ideas into perfect focus, executing thoughts about solidarity in the process. Produced alongside Chief Adjuah (Christian Scott), with Marcus Gilmore on drums, Elena Pinderhughes on flute and Samora Pinderhughes on piano, the album's arrangements range from soft-simmering jazz ("why my love?") to ambient boogie ("for sonia") to blues epics ("yemaya"). Monet, for her part, is responsive to the band's internal tension. Her performances can be fiercely lyrical or gently intoned; dictating flow or wading into the current. Her voice is a balm and barb, both soothing and piercing, but definitive. Songs build around her climactic execution, yet she also knows precisely when to let the music breathe and speak for itself.

The added dimensions of voice and cadence lend Monet's poetry an authority: On the page, they can be evocative, but in song, they are emphatic, wielding the composure and command of a hypnotist. As upright bass snaps around her and keys chime at a distance on "unhurt," her words reverberate into the open space between, and every "it is time" before the call-to-action on "the perfect storm" feels like shooting an espresso martini. Her very mastery is electrifying. "Silence is a noise too," she says clearly into the frenzied trumpeting of "the devil you know"; it's a line about the choice not to vote, but she could just as easily be speaking about process, about the chosen empty spaces between the words that bring her phrases into greater relief. If blue notes are the ones between the cracks, Monet's verse operates at a similar frequency.

The most powerful moments on the album feel fixated with the capacity of language and eager to demonstrate its impact. When the poems do what they do, this is the result: a rousing, nearly transcendent experience, putting the unfamiliar into text and making familiar words seem sacred. "I did not wish to speak of what should not be spoken / So silence breathed into all the words / A haunting / I come from a language that does not write itself," she says on "castaway."

Spoken word is often thought of as a blemish on the literary community, but Monet sees beyond its (white-defined) scholarly context to its social one. In this sense, "for sonia" is the album's centerpiece. It is an ode to Sanchez, but, even more so, it is a tribute to poetry's ability to galvanize. In it, Monet explains how even community organizers shrugged at poetry's usefulness in the face of state violence, so she introduced them to the canon — Sanchez, Pat Parker, Carolyn Rodgers. As she articulates their efficacy in song, as only she can, she becomes an avatar for all of the movement's ambition and grace.

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Sheldon Pearce