Name: Aja Monet
Swank: Performer/Spoken Word Artist
Check her out this Saturday at 7pm along with Robert Glasper and Talib Kweli at Celebrate Brooklyn.
Described by Civil Rights pioneer Harry Belafonte as “the true definition of an artist,” this week’s Family Swanker continues to develop her craft day in and day out. 26-year-old poet, performer, educator, and Brooklynite Aja Monet, best known for being the youngest individual to win the Nuyorican Poet’s Café Gran Slam title at the age of 19, captivates audiences around the globe. From the U.S. and France to Cuba and Belgium, her spellbinding flow, fashion sense, and fearlessness has made her one of my favorite spoken word artists of today. Read on as Aja waxes poetic on her inspirations, the importance of telling your story, and her definition of beauty.
Aja Monet: I feel grateful.
MA: How does that compare to when you became the youngest individual to win the Nuyorican Poet’s Café Grand Slam title at the age of 19. How did that experience impact you?
AM: It’s very different. When I won the Nuyorican, I was mostly concerned with the poetry community. It was important to me to be considered, among them, accomplished and worthy of the title “poet.” The Nuyorican is legendary, and I have always admired those who won the title prior to me. I looked to all the poets coming through the Nuyorican as ordained voices; something about the energy in that venue harvests a certain kind of air around the poet. It somehow legitimizes your craft and also creates a standard. Everyone who has won the title has gone on to do great things. This was at a time when the Nuyorican published books for poets and gave grants to local artists. Now, essentially, you have to take the title and run with it: nothing is given to you except the title.
I worked to bring meaning to that title. Everywhere I go, I mention it because it gave me the permission to say, “I does this. I’m about this life.” At the time I was coming up, there wasn’t any degree for spoken word— the Nuyorican was my degree. Now, that is changing thanks to some of the movements made by many of the poets that came through the Nuyorican: Saul Williams, Sarah Jones, Mayda Del Valle, Paul Beatty, and others. The venue was created with a certain spirit, and it is important to preserve that spirit in the midst of commercialization and gentrification. I worry for that with New York changing so much and the way everything is commodified. The Nuyorican is a place just as much as it is a title, and I like to remind people of that. It’s my home. I come from somewhere. I speak of stories that weren’t welcomed in the literary circles of academia not too long ago and we still aren’t, stories that aren’t told or written. I wanted to live up to the magic I believed in when I was a young teenager about this place. I hope I make the greats proud.
MA: When did you first start writing poetry?
AM: I started writing poems in high school.
MA: How did being bred in East New York, Brooklyn inform your art?
AM: It gave me confidence, charisma, and street savvy. It made me fearless.
MA: What does performing spoken word do for you that solely writing poetry doesn’t?
AM: It allows me to hear myself, and through that I mend meaning. I get to connect to people on a vibrational level: I get to speak how I feel. I get to talk from my gut and say words how I feel em, not how some messed up education system tells me I should say em. But, I learn that too, so I can show them I respect the value in both. There’s skill in both and I think it’s important to articulate that because it has a long history and heritage. Storytelling is also about the voice as much as it is about the story.
AM: Always. I dreamt of all of this long before it came into fruition.
MA: What have been the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome as a spoken word artist today?
AM: I think I get frustrated at people who belittle the work and effort. I also don’t like how often people diminish me to looks whereas with male poets it’s rarely if ever mentioned. Talk about the craft or if you don’t feel like there is any craft, say that. My biggest obstacle has been myself. I have had to learn to trust myself in spite of the stereotypes and judgments that come with the idea of spoken word and all the ways it’s been horribly promoted and sold. I struggle to create my own lane and I demand respect for that regardless.
MA: Earlier this June, you received the “One to Watch” award from YWCA of the City of New York for being a dynamic and game-changing young woman at their 10th Annual Summer Soirée. Talk to me about that.
AM: I am not sure what to say about it except that I am grateful. If it means that I will be able to have more opportunities to do the work I love and that more people will honor the choice I make to write poems, then that is all I really hope for. It takes someone of importance or an organization deemed important to honor you so that you can continue to do that work. I recognize that and it makes me feel honored that anyone would choose to give me an award, let alone such an incredible organization such as the YWCA of the City of New York. I am grateful for the foresight and also the courage that Danielle Lee had to honor the passion I have for poetry as an medium of transformation in society.
MA: Off the top of your head, who are your top three biggest inspirations?
AM: Love is the only important one.
MA: One of my favorite pieces of yours is “What I’ve Learned;” in it you speak on beauty. To you, what does it mean to be beautiful?
AM: When someone is radiant of self-preservation and self-love. To be intuitive.
MA: You also touch on the Devil, the Church, santeras, and La Caridad. Does religion and/or spirituality play a significant role in your life?
AM: Each physical action has an equal and opposite spiritual reaction. I recognize the power of the thing behind the doing, the intention of one’s heart and the spirit that guides us; it’s how I was raised. I was raised sensitive to feeling the spirit.
MA: You work as a Teaching Artist for Urban Word NYC as well as Urban Arts Partnership to help push creativity and help your students establish a better sense of self. How did education become a passion of yours?
AM: Education gave me perspective on my circumstances and it fueled my imagination by providing me with teachers that made the difference where my parenting may have failed. Education was the village that raised me. I care about it because I recognize the difference it makes in my life and the impact it has on fine-tuning my vision.
MA: If you could talk to a group of young aspiring female poets worldwide, what is one piece of advice you’d give them?
AM: Write your story.
MA: You independently published your first book of poetry, The Black Unicorn Sings, in 2010, collaborated with Saul Williams on a book entitled Chorus: A Literary Mixtape in 2012, and last month released new music and an ebook called Inner-City Chants & Cyborg Ciphers. What’s next on your to-do list?
AM: I am sort of holding onto the ebook for a little while as I map the vision I have for those poems. I want to publish a book on a press soon and record/perform more music. I’d like to some day be respected enough in what I do that I have more options to collaborate with people who inspire me. I am working on new music to be released sometime in the fall with a friend of mine, Shayfer James. We will be performing all new songs from that project at Celebrate Brooklyn this Saturday. I am looking forward to it.
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