In a sense of oversimplification, poetry is to language as jazz is to music. These respective artistic pursuits hinge on an artists’ courage to abandon established formalities, a nature of creative rule bending that forges the bridge between art and activism with poetry and jazz resting at its center.
An artist combining the two seems intuitive yet impossible at once—attempting to simultaneously present boldly eclectic misfits with cohesion but not reduction. Aja Monet—known by many titles from poet to organizer—endeavors upon this merger in much of her work. I attended the release show for her debut album titled “when the poems do what they do”, which demonstrated live that organization for the arts and social advocacy fuel each other, paralleling the reciprocity between the art forms comprising her work itself.
Monet hosted the album release party at Pasadena’s Presbyterian Church, forcing a group likely cynical of institutionalized religion to sit before a massive cross awaiting the start of the show. This choice of setting implies intentionality, of course, with Monet potentially striving to unveil the interconnectedness of religion and art that’s become muddled despite their historical uniformity.
Unannounced, Palestinian writer and poet Mohammed el-Kurd enters the stage. I knew their familiarity with one another because Monet wrote the foreword for Kurd’s debut poetry collection Rifqa, but Kurd opens the night by nuancing the roots of their relationship extending back to when he was 15, visited by Monet in Jerusalem on a trip organized by the Dream Defenders. Noticing his love of poetry, Monet gave him her book of poems The Black Unicorn Sings. Monet consistently incorporates Palestinian advocacy into her work, and this choice of opener and narrative sharing exemplifies the importance of Black and Palestinian solidarity in America.
He finishes by introducing the next opener, Saul Williams, an American rapper, songwriter, musician, poet, writer, and actor known for his blend of poetry and hip-hop and, in Kurd’s words, taking “poetry into the places where it has not been before. For that we are very grateful.” Williams is as genreless as they come, also writing, directing, and producing one of my favorite films Neptune Frost.
Saul Williams dives instantly into an extended spoken word piece, with impressively—almost unintelligibly—paced prose dispersed by softer, slower utterances separated by the phrase “tik tok”. My favorite line was “We put language in zoos to observe caged thought and tossed peanuts and p-funk at intellect. Motherfuckers think these are metaphors I speak what I see.”
He stops abruptly in the middle of reciting a second piece.“I’m sorry, but I prefer being present than getting lost in words written long ago. Aja, I met you when I was 15. I met Aja when she was 15. [pause] And that’s how it works.”
That is how it works, as this mentor-mentee succession underscores (poetic coincidence that both stories of meeting share the age of 15). Saul Williams, Aja Monet, and Muhammad Al Kurd are each intellectual forces who employ poetry to inspire advocacy. Witnessing them literally pass the stage from one to the other symbolizes the role that each played in empowering their younger counterparts to share louder, to write themselves into spaces because others could not, whether that be as a Palestinian or Black American pursuing acts of creativity that resemble the novelty of their survival and success. They each individually carried poetry into new, unknown spaces, including this unprecedented moment of Pasadena’s Presbyterian Church hosting a poetry album release party.
I was introduced to Saul Willliams and Aja Monet through New York’s Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a creative hub known for hosting an annual grand slam poetry competition that Williams won in 1996 and Monet in 2007 at age 19, the youngest poet to ever win the title. Monet was born and raised in Brooklyn, the heart of poetry, exceptionally reaching poetic opportunities in NYC from involvement with Urban Word to Brave New Voices. She published writings and collaborated on two albums while always dedicating herself to female and Black activism before independently releasing her debut album “when the poems do what they do” in 2023.
After Williams’ performance, the surrealists, the group of instrumentalists accompanying Monet on tour named after Suzanne Cesaire’s essay “Surrealism and Us”, set up. The surrealists—Justin Brown on the drums, Burniss Earl II on bass, Paul Cornish on piano, Logan Richardson on the saxophone and Nigel Suniga on the congas—are different from the original group featured on the album recording composed of renowned names in jazz from Grammy award-winning trumpeter Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah to drummer Marcus Gilmore.
As expected of an album release party, Monet remains faithful to the published order of the album. She quietly enters the stage to open with the poem “i am”, an exploration of the dichotomy between personal versus group identity, straight into the fiercely honest “why my love” which confronts the trials and tribulations of modern love.
She introduces herself after these two openers: “This is the first show of my first tour.” Monet’s work exposes the arbitrary nature of language applied to art that often reinforce genre and medium restrictions. This event could equally be referred to as a night of spoken word with jazz or a book tour featuring live music. ‘Tours’ are merely an opportunity to execute creative visions, an ‘album’ a presentation of any sonically communicated work—a ‘concert’ the immersive equivalent. Throughout the night, she says the next ‘poem’ instead of the next ‘song’, furthering this analogy.
Following the performance of ‘why my love’, she monologues about the overlap of politics and love. She repeats the phrase “why my love” with drastically varying cadence and tone (accusatory, flirtatious, earnest) to illustrate the malleability of language. She continues, “How we love each other is directly connected to the politics of today. Our lack of courage to express our love for each other is directly connected to the Supreme Court falling apart, to women’s rights falling apart, to Palestine not being free, to people being given the bare minimum low minimum wages, to people not being able to get a good education. It’s all connected to how we love…It’s literally politics. I said it.” I appreciate in this moment that Aja, and as an extension poetry more generally, encourages introspection of these sorts of banal truths that more often than not rest unarticulated.
And all of a sudden, the saxophonist breaks into a beautifully melodic solo that in its own right continues the conversation Aja just began. Jazz is known for turning instruments into voices, straying from strict classical notation to replicate the flowing sporadicness of everyday conversation through more free form instrumentation. We practice improvisation everyday through live conversation, and jazz allows music to replicate this. While relying on a few customary phrases and sentence structures—jazz standards, scales, and leads—, we creatively fill in the gaps to best communicate our experience—improvisational solos. This is why listening to jazz is active and not passive; the range within the genre is as idiosyncratic and difficult to generalize as each individual contribution.
Jazz songs are often a musical response to poetry (this is most clear on Spotify when a poem pops up as “lyrics” for a purely instrumental piece—for example, see the lyrics accompanying “All Blues” by Miles Davis). Jazz and spoken word also share common history surfacing during the Harlem Renaissance as a fusion between African and European artistic styles to bring expression to the African American experience. Aja Monet’s combination of poetry and jazz allows for non musician listeners to develop a sense of this meeting place between instruments and words as the music clearly carries the same overtone as her poetry. The saxophonist and pianist most frequently lead the solos, but the medium interaction is certainly clear in her live feedback with the conga as she often looks at Nigel Suniga after making a certain point and waits for his rhythmic response before continuing. Monet was blocked from my direct viewpoint for most of the night, and it created the beautiful illusion of her shadow projecting words harnessed by the tangible musicians.
In her poem “for sonia”—dedicated to poet and leading figure in the Black Arts Movement Sonia Sanchez—Aja addresses the importance of poetry in today’s world, a grappling shared by many modern poets. Speaking before its performance, she says “Our poets, our artists, what we’re doing is not just for entertainment. We are showing people how to practice freedom. We have no choice but to create. Whether you came here tonight or not I would be sitting somewhere writing a poem. It’s our gift and curse. What else could we create together if all of us saw ourselves as artists, as architects of our own imaginations.”
For some of the pieces, my focus faltered between the instruments and poem, one of the shortcomings of combining two narratives. But, “for sonia” is only accompanied by a soft, simple piano crescendo, allowing the listener to hone in on the force of its prose alone:
“When i first showed up to the community organizing meeting i uttered the word ‘poetry’/And their faces sunk with confusion/Who’s got time for poems, when the worlds on fire…/all the trauma piled up on their desks and all the campaigns ended with politicians/I offered, i offered/Poems in their palms/How every poem still pierces true/Like yesterdays battlefield is tomorrows front yard/Still/Still, all my hero’s is fighting depression/And when the poems do what they do/They get it done”.
These lines epitomize her artistry as a whole—creating space for the arts as a means to sustain everyday life and the activism it often requires. As el-Kurd described in his opening, “I think it is precisely poems that we need when the world is on fire—that isn’t to say that poetry or poets are miracle workers, but it is to say that those of us who write poetry, those of us who write the language of those going to work to do their office or service job, those are the people who are fueling us to do our work and to keep doing our work.”
This album release party revealed the careful intention expected from a poet responsible for curating a night of creativity—the attention paid to every punctuation and word choice now dedicated to an opener and venue choice. I succumb in this review to articulating the night through the many restrictive categories that Aja Monet defied in a genreless celebration and encouragement to stay committed to the arts and its greatest inspiration, love.