Poet, singer, organizer, artist, aja monet is many things. Born in New York City, she has been part of the local poetry scene at The Nuyorican Poets Café for more than a decade and published the collection of poetry “My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter” (2017). when poems do what they do is her debut LP and combines her spoken-word and storytelling craft with carefully orchestrated jazz and blues arrangements. Drawing from two traditions, the record is a powerful political statement of resistance and change-making, a connector to ancestry, and an endeavor to center joy.

“I am a poem handwritten by La Lupe
A meeting of Orishas in the basement of a brownstone
I am the one that got away.
I am the mirror I am the root and the end.”
– aja monet “i am”

 Realms of Dreams and Revolution

You have been described as a “surrealist blues poet”. What does that title convey and how do you consider your poetry and art or yourself to be surrealist? 

There are many poets who have existed throughout the course of the story. For me, not all poets are alike and there are very important distinctions to be made about what we are doing in our work. When I describe myself as a “surrealist blues poet” what I’m attempting to do is to deepen the context for my work and to point to a lineage, a tradition, and a deep reverence for the movements I’m a part of. No one will understand if what I’m doing is effective unless they have a reference for who I’m in conversation with and how I’m experimenting.

Photo by Fanny Chu

There’s a science and a method to my craft that pulls from and speaks to the ideals and values of both the surrealist movement and the blues. It’s a merging of a political ideology and a musical lineage which then situates my poems more deeply and intentionally. If one endeavors to understand then one will see that my poems are not JUST poems, they are sheet music, they are imaginings and they are possible because of values and ideas I struggle with.

I am surrealist in the sense that my poems are created in an effort to expand my imagination, I dwell in the realms of dreams, revolution, and I write from an automatic, intuitive place.

The blues is what informs my process with language and the sounds of words and the ways I say or organize them. Some may say Surrealism and Blues are redundant because the blues is quite surreal. But when I pair them together, I am making a claim to lean on two very specific traditions in art history and cultural work.

“I did not wish to speak of what should not be spoken.
So, silence breathe into all the words
A haunting
I come from a language that does not write itself.
Our ancestors speak hurricane.
– aja monet “castaway”

You have published a book of poetry and now you are releasing a record, which accompanies your recital of poems with jazz. Some poems from the book (unhurt and black joy) are part of the record as well. What was the experience of giving the poetry and musical context like? How much were you involved in the composing of it?

I consider what I do with words music. So, in some ways, I guess you could say I’m a word-musician. All great art bends, disrupts, and challenges categories and definitions. When I write I am also concerned with the sounds of the words, words are symbols of sound, energy, and vibration. One of the most crucial and critical poetic devices we all use naturally is tone. Tone is a big part of my process. It’s a musical cue.

Photo by Fanny Chu

I was very involved in the composing of the instrumentation. It was a truly collaborative process in the best sense of the vision. We pulled from the tradition of improvisation which means we moved with the spirit of the room, and I guided a lot of that with the poems being the driving force of all sonic decisions. The musicians are responding to and in conversation with the words and I sent a lot of references to help better articulate the ideas I wanted to create with the music. I did not know a lot of the technical formal music education and that’s where I leaned on the musicians. They are all giants in their own forcefield and when we came together it was really special to be in a position where I could share what I wanted to hear and for the musicians to quickly and instantly get it. They expanded and deepened the vision. Also, I was in every single mixing session making all the decisions about what sounds went where and how.

All of the post-production choices were things I wanted to contribute, and it wasn’t until after that I learned what that meant as a producer. It gave me space to sit with the takes and select the ones that felt sincere to my voice and the energy of the words. I got great feedback and input from my friend Def Sound and his support gave me the courage to make some very important decisions that deepened the composition.

I wanted the poetry to be not just in the words but in everything. I learned a lot about what it means to lead and witness and find my voice. It’s extremely rare for women to lead in these sorts of projects, it’s even rarer to be a poet. So, I take pride in that. We made something that is sincerely different for so many reasons. There are levels to it.

“My Love Be Collective”

Historically, jazz and poetry have been appropriated by the dominant white male modern/capitalist art scene. But there has been a lot of reclaiming of the art forms – like in the NYC Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, Afrofuturism, and the increase of contemporary Black jazz musicians calling out the appropriated understanding of the genre and taking it back. How do jazz and poetry intersect, in your opinion?

Well, for many of us “jazz” isn’t a term we self-identify with. It’s what the industry has deemed identifiable for something I don’t think they actually fully understand. Titles and genres are all about marketing. It’s capitalism trying to strangle the soul out of the thing, exploit it, put it on a shelf, and sell it.

In terms of African musical traditions and meaning-making? It’s always been a thing. We come from a long, long tradition of poets and musicians who are poets collaborating and organizing together. You can look to so many like Gil Scott Heron, Jayne Cortez, Sekou Sundiata, and Linton Kwesi Johnson. There are many ways the art forms intersect. Generally, it’s because we are around each other. Artists tend to be the misfits of society and so we frequent each other’s orbits and when we hang long enough or vibe, we create. It’s a natural part of the ecosystem. Collaboration is where we thrive. We shoot the shit, we discuss, we question, we imagine, and we create off that funk.

Jazz bends conventions and relies on improvisation and the dynamic interplay between musicians. You have described social movements as jazz – as needing these attributes of jazz. Could you elaborate on the connection between jazz and social movements?

I make the case that our social movements should be like jazz, and we ought to lean into that approach as it can greatly inform our struggle. Poets tend to be organizers of the interior world. I think so much could be done if art was integrated more into our lives and not just sold to us as entertainment. Many people in [the US] don’t engage with art beyond the entertainment of it. They see art as an escape from reality rather than a subversion or reflection of it. Many people want art that doesn’t make them feel and confront themselves but that further distances them from what they are grappling with.

This is why I love the blues. The blues is all about wading in the water of the soul and emotion. It’s not passive. It’s deeply engaged in the being of life. If I can entertain you, I can sell you something. Popcorn, soda, a new phone perhaps? But if I can get you to feel alive, to deeply connect to yourself, the first thing you think to do is question and expand your living to demand more beauty and love in your life. What you possess becomes less relevant, it’s more about how you live after that experience. How will you love after hearing Sade or Nina Simone or Billie Holiday? Who listens to them and is the same person before as they were after? Who experiences a fresh glass of water and then says, you know what, I rather die of thirst? That’s a sick person. And a lot of us are not well. We rather die of thirst chasing junk than protect our natural springs.

“Joy Is Rhythm and Repetition”

The song black joy is dedicated to exactly that. How do you incorporate and center practices of joy in your art and music? How can it be used as a tool of resistance against a white-supremacist world that tries to make Black existence struggle?

Photo by Fanny Chu

Being Black isn’t the struggle. Existing is the fun part. Being Black is actually one of the most joyous experiences, to live and love with a rich tradition and culture so influential and fluid, and expansive. I mean, it’s a joy every day just to wake up and know I’m a part of a people who create and love and laugh and inspire and demand more of life. It’s what gets in the way of that existing that we struggle with. It’s important to know that it is a joy to just live and whatever gets in the way of that living, that’s the struggle we are up against.

What is the relationship between joy and resistance, in your opinion? 

It depends on what sort of resistance we are speaking to. I am not speaking to the kind of resistance that is born of a refusal to change or evolve, heal or grow. The resistance that leads to deep profound joy is a willingness to push back against that which takes away from our joy. To choose the state of joy which is a kind of meditation often in this society a way of resistance. The kind of resistance which sparks great social movements of change. The joy comes when we resist the urge to hurt another because we are hurting, joy is contagious and necessary for living. To choose the state of joy is to resist the obsession with suffering and therein shift and shape one’s heart as a source of great love and compassion.

“Joy is together
It’s together unified on the frontlines
Our joy, our joy will astonish the world
Because joy, true joy has always been
And will always be

– aja monet “black joy”

Something Greater

On the record, you connect to Cuban Santeria and Yoruba tradition. One song is titled yemaya – the Mother of the Oceans – and on i am you describe a grassroots meeting of Orishas in a Brownstone. How does that tradition influence your writing?

It is how I was raised. It’s the culture of the people I come from. I am a part of those people in the in-between. We practice and conjure, and we know that behind every action is a spirit. I deeply respect the spirit. And ultimately, I know that nothing I’m doing is “ME.” When I’m at my best, I’m a vessel and in service to something far greater than me. I have a lineage in flesh and in spirit and everything is in homage to that. I will always pay my respects because I could not do anything I’m doing without their blessing.

What does radical imagination mean to you?

Freedom dreams.

when the poems do what they do is out now via metaphor mermaid under license of drink sum wtr.