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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.
“Melissa Williams,” Aja Monet reads, “Darnisha Harris.” Her voice is strong; it marches along, but it shakes a little, although not from nerves. She’s performing a poem that includes the forgotten names of girls and women who’ve been injured or killed by the police. She finishes forcefully, then pauses, exhales. “Can I do that again?” she asks. “It’s my first time reading it out loud, and … ” she trails off.
Monet had written the poem — a contribution to the #SayHerName campaign, a necessary CONTINUATION of the Black Lives Matter movement focusing on overlooked police violence against women — earlier that morning. That evening, she’d read it at a vigil. Now, she was practicing on camera, surprised by the power of her own words.
As a poet, Monet is prolific. She’s been performing both music and readings for some time — at 19, she was the youngest ever WINNER of New York City’s Nuyorican Poet’s Café Grand Slam — and her work has brought her to France, Bermuda and Cuba, from where her grandmother fled, and where she recently learned she still has extended family. Next month, she’ll return to visit them. But first, she wants to contribute to a campaign she believes in.
Though she’s disheartened that a hashtag is necessary to capture people’s attention — “I think #SayHerName is the surface LEVEL of the issues but beneath that there is the real question of, ‘Why?’” she says — Monet wields her art to achieve social and political justice. While discussing political poetry with a fellow artist in Palestine, he observed, “Art is more political than politics.” “I feel him,” she says. “I think he’s right.”