Poet, singer, and performer Aja Monet has performed at the Apollo Theater, on Broadway at the Town Hall Theater, and across the world in the U.K., Belgium, the Netherlands, Bermuda and Cuba. She has charmed audiences of diplomats at the United Nations and hordes of twenty-something New Yorkers at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where she was the youngest poet to win the Grand Slam at the age of 19 in 2007. Monet has encouraged listeners to reflect on how they interact with global issues, and educates New York’s youth about the importance of creative outlets. This week, Camille Allamel got the chance to sit down with Monet and discuss what inspires her, her idea of love, and a transformative trip to Cuba.
Do you think you could tell us a little about the creative process that goes into writing and finding inspiration for your poems and songs?
I guess it’s a bit different with each piece and each experience. For the most part, I think writing comes to me in moments where there seems to be a flow, where things come a bit more fluidly. And there are moments where it’s a bit more difficult because whatever I’m experiencing internally or whatever emotions I’m trying to process, there aren’t always words. The words aren’t always very easy to find. So I think it really ranges.
Something I’ve found to be really helpful for me lately has been to go walking a lot. There’s something really meditative about walking, at least when the weather is manageable and somewhat decent enough to do that; I find that to be really helpful and inspirational in different ways. But I guess because I write from whatever place I’m in, and whatever space I’m experiencing, it changes as I change. I would hope that the work continues to change because I’m doing the work on myself that needs to be done.
So I think there is a whole host of ways that writing or pieces come to me. Sometimes I think with the music that there will be lines, or words, or phrases, or conversations that I write down, and I look back on them and something will stick out to me when I review whatever notes are in my journal, and somehow it fits together, and it feels like it’s organized in some kind of divine way.
What is the meaning of your album title scared to make love/scared not to? How does this relate to the individual songs on the album?
I’m working on new music, so that project feels ancient when I think about where I am now. But at the time when I made it, I was in grad school, and I was in Chicago, and I always wanted to work on music. I was around a lot of musicians, a lot of up-and-coming musicians that are really successful right now in Chicago. I was actually in a studio with this kid at the time who was like a mentee of mine, Vic Mensa, who is now a really huge MC, and we were both working on our projects at the same studio at the same time. I was in grad school, so there was this other intellectual aspect to creating art that was fluid throughout the song. So I wanted it to have meaning, I wanted there to be depth to the songs, and I think that in that project there was a lot of meaning, but I want to say that maybe I thought too much about how I wanted things to be.
The way the title came about was because I was actively trying to engage in literature by women of color because I felt really displaced by my MFA program, and I didn’t really think that the professors that I was talking to knew how to talk about women of color’s work or even had references for me to look to. We rarely looked at people of color’s writing at all in grad school. The title came from a book of essays that I read by Alice Walker, and she was talking about this generation with the current epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases and all of these things that really made young people at her time—there was the whole free-love movement, and so there was a different way that people dealt with sexuality, and that dealt with making love. And now she was saying that there was this feeling of apprehension within young people and they weren’t allowed to make love freely because there was this fear of what that meant. And even though it seems like a very basic biological thing, it manifested spiritually and emotionally by this generation of young people that weren’t allowed to essentially participate in free love.
I thought about how that affected me in a way, and I was coming out of a really, really hard relationship. When I was in Chicago, I was really lonely, and there were a lot of moments when I really had to define for myself what love was. So I had these songs that were just rooted in my ideas of love and what I wanted love to be and what love was.
The album starts with “I’m not yesturday,” which was like a declarative thing that felt like I’m not only my past. A lot of women who might feel trapped in the idea of what their past is, to still reinvent and feel ‘OK, we’re doing that.’ There was a song called “Us,” and a friend of mine produced that, and it was basically a sample of Aretha Franklin talking about “they say that it’s a man’s world,” but it’s not really. That was an ode to all these women before.
And then there is a range, because there’s the song “American Fruit” which talks about love. I always had this idea about what it meant to fall in love, what it meant for two slaves to fall in love, and how powerful that love had to be, to be able to overcome the experiences that they were subjected to. I imagined what it must have been like. I romanticized it in a way, but I also realistically wanted to imagine it, if that’s possible. What it might feel like to be chained up in the belly of a slave ship and not be able to hold the person you love, and to still persevere, to still aspire to a life that can be considered somewhat happy or somewhat fulfilling. For love to be so strong that there is something that we have to understand about each other. I say that to say the diaspora, people who have gone through the slave-trade experience, and that can be anywhere, not just in America.
I also really enjoyed “Querida Revolución, Soy Tu Nieta.” How did traveling to Cuba, to learn about your family history, affect your poetry?
It’s amazing, I don’t think I have been able to fully process what that trip has meant to me still. But it was very telling because I went to Cuba and I found family that I didn’t know existed because my grandparents fled in ’61, after Batista fell and Fidel took over. They came here to America, and my grandfather passed away, he was a sandhog worker for the union. He was one of the people that was responsible for the largest water tunnels in American history, or at least in New York history, that is not said to be completed until 2020. He died around ’71 building that, and we never got the full story, as young people, as my mom even, her generation, my aunts and uncles… We never got the full story of what Cuba was like and why they left. My grandmother was very secretive, maybe not consciously, but she was to herself, a very stern woman, and very strong, and never let anybody see her sweat. So we never knew, and I think that lately I was trying to get closer to her because I know she’s getting older and understand a bit more of myself.
I felt that because I had no awareness of my past, there was this disconnect for where I was going in my future. I felt very lost; I felt uncertain. I think that that’s the truth for most immigrants in America, all over the world, all immigrants. We’re all trying to create culture and a history, and we’re trying to figure things out. But we haven’t really reconciled the fact that we’re not all from here and that there is something for here. So, for me Cuba was part of that journey to try to access that information about my family. My grandmother was, on the surface level of it, “Oh, I think I have a brother there, I don’t know, I haven’t heard from him.” I got invited from this grassroots poetry organization, so we went out there, with my boyfriend at the time, and it was very intense. I was very stern on going to Guantanamo because the event was in Havana, and my family was from Guantanamo, and I really wanted to go, but he had to take a 16-hour bus ride. It was very long, and everything happened divinely by some grace of perfected organization.
It was so interesting how one person led us to another, to another, to another. I found family that I never knew existed. I found my grandmother’s brother, and I came to find out he was a poet. Something about it was nice because my family here was so disconnected and so broken apart, after my grandfather died, because of lack of finances and stability and home, that make it difficult in urban living. Our family’s not very connected in the States, but it was interesting to me to go to Cuba and still see this sort of love there that was very different than anything I had ever experienced. To meet people who did not know me longer than a few hours, who are looking at you saying, “You’re family. You don’t sleep in a stranger’s home, or in a strange hotel, you come stay with family.” They said, “We don’t have much, but we have love. That’s what we have.” I just broke down. That’s enough, that’s more than enough.