aja monet's 'when the poems do what they do' Is a Roadmap to Somewhere Greater

BY Tom BeedhamPublished Jun 5, 2023

In a 2017 interview with gal-dem, aja monet said, "I don't share things for you to understand or feel me, I'm sharing something so that we can change the conditions we are living in and we can do something about it."

A surrealist blues poet, storyteller, and organizer who won the 2019 Marjory Stoneman Douglas Award for Poetry for her cultural organizing work in South Florida, monet's debut record is framed in similar terms of action, a title like when the poems do what they do promising as much mechanical industry as emotional import before the record itself delivers both on multiple levels.

A free association inventory of being informed by traditions of Black oral consciousness spanning ancient Egypt to chattel slavery to present day, album opener "i am" sets the dialogue in crystalline motion. Fragmentary gestures to the essences of Billie Holiday, Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey, Miriam Makeba, La Lupe, and Nefertiti glisten between references to grassroots meetings in the basements of brownstone apartments, southern skies and thrones, the tensions of their juxtapositions summed up in the final line: "I am / Because we are." 

An evocative list poem fuming over a simmering djembe drum, the piece demands that listeners behold the album via a materialist lens of interdependence, teaching them how to listen to it at the same time as it instructs how to reevaluate connections.

Celebrating moments of relief and emancipation ("Having the rent when it's due / Or having no rent at all"; "Making it overseas or making it over the mason-dixon line") as much as continuity and resilience ("A recipe passed on / A language that survives"), "black joy" follows by pouring over the history of Black marginalization under colonial capitalism, counting wins and identifying new targets. A six-minute suite driven by Marcus Gilmore's urgent drum patterns and clouded by Samora Pinderhughes' ominous keys, danger looms over monet's vision, but it insists justice is within reach. 

On tracks like "the devil you know" and "unhurt," monet offers actions we might follow to achieve it. While the former serves up a searing 10-minute indictment of strategic voting and status quo politics alongside dive-bombing trumpets and atmospheric instrumental breaks, "unhurt" preaches a more spiritual path, insisting over the hush of a repeated double bass figure and ambient keys that the only way to heal pain and suffering is with care and compassion. "You will love," monet declares, "And that will unhurt us / All."

Rather than retreading or summarizing the messaging of the 12 tracks that precede it with more words, on closing track "for the kids who live," monet steps back from the mic and stations herself behind a percussion instrument, as if to remind listeners that poetry isn't enough and that Black joy is the true engine driving resistance. At the tail end of a record ripe with breathlessly complex expression, it's a rare moment of play, sure, but also an important reminder to shed the codes we embed ourselves in and trust the people around us to take care of us. And as monet explores her instrument, the band joins her like a rising tide, everyone uplifted.
(drink sum wtr )

Latest Coverage