Poems from manuscript “My Mother Was A Freedom Fighter”
Of Cuban-Jamaican descent, Aja Monet is an internationally established poet, performer, singer, songwriter, educator and human rights advocate. “Education was the village that raised me,” she stated. “I care about it because I recognize the difference it makes in my life and the impact it has on fine-tuning my vision.” Last spring, Aja relocated from her native Brooklyn to Miami, FL to open up Smoke Signals Studioalongside her partner umi selah.
Art can be entertainment, a relief from the struggles of our day-to-day lives. But it can also be a tool to make sense of these same struggles. Often there is an inherent tension in trying to reconcile the escapist qualities of art with its transformative power. In an age when the day-to-day has become life or death for many Americans facing systems that are inherently, and too often silently, discriminatory, where does art end and activism begin?
This is a question that Aja Monet, an Afro-Cuban poet, educator, and activist from Brooklyn, has been giving a lot of thought to in recent years. “If you’re reinforcing that money will set you free, that’s only oppressing our people more,” she tells me over the phone. “Let’s stop supporting the things that are hurting us and use music for a spiritual reckoning of our ancestors.” Last spring, Monet relocated from Brooklyn to Little Haiti, Miami and went from pondering to acting. The result is Smoke Signals, a music studio where art and community can come together.
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In her first poem, Aja Monet tackled the question: why do we write?
Aja Monet was in class at Baruch College Campus High School in Manhattan when a terror attack brought down the World Trade Center. The day awakened her to the “interconnectedness” of people and brought her a new perspective on her place in the world, she said.
“For me, language was always about trying to articulate my own truth,” she said. “It was the beginning of me starting to feel valuable in the human narrative.”
Monet, a Brooklyn-based poet of Cuban and Jamaican descent, soon began writing and performing with the organization Urban Word NYC and performing in talent shows at her high school. In 2007, she became the youngest-ever poet to win the Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam Champion at the age of 19.
Last month, during a rally in Union Square, poet Aja Monet took the podium dressed entirely in black, looking somber and resolute like a woman in mourning. A banner fluttered in the wind behind her head as she gripped the microphone, a flag adorned by photographs of the black women and girls who have lost their lives to police violence over the years. “I am a woman carrying other women in my mouth,” she began, her voice forceful and clear. “Behold a sister, a daughter, a mother, dear friend.”
But as Monet reached the crescendo of her poem in which she calls out the names of the dead — Rekia Boyd, Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Aiyana Jones, Kayla Moore, Shelly Frey and countless others — that voice started to tremble and shake.