A crowd that included musicians and actors filled the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue earlier this spring to hear the poet and community organizer Aja Monet speak about the subtleties of Black love, joy and uncertainty.
But for Monet, there was only one celebrity in the room: Bonnie Phillips, her former college adviser, who sat rapt in the front row.
“I remember her suggesting what schools to go to and it wasn’t Harvard, you know what I mean?” Monet said in a recent video interview from her home in California. Recalling her high school years in New York, Monet said she asked a lot of questions in class but didn’t have the best grades: “I think I was way more just opinionated and outspoken.”
She remains both on her debut album, “When the Poems Do What They Do,” a fluid mix of jazz and poetry out Friday that evokes the spirit of 1990s spoken-word scenes. Featuring a who’s who of instrumentalists she’s known over the years — Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah on trumpet, Samora Pinderhughes on piano, Elena Pinderhughes on flute, Weedie Braimah on djembe and Marcus Gilmore on drums — the LP is a nuanced exploration of Blackness.
“Joy is a song anywhere,” Monet declares on “Black Joy,” a sprightly, soulful track. “Joy is a six-block wheelie through traffic, with no handlebars, in the rain.”
The poet Saul Williams, who has known Monet since she was 14, praised his longtime collaborator in an email. “Aja stands out because she stood up for poetry, for magic in language, for spell-casting and patriarchy-bashing,” he wrote. “She’s still standing.”
Chatting from Los Angeles, where Monet, 35, has lived for almost three years, she roamed from room to room, showing off a few album covers (at least, the ones that could be seen through the still water and dhow ship that served as her artificial backdrop). “That’s my Zanzibar life,” she said, smiling. “It was a beautiful experience. It was the first trip I ever did fully by myself, not knowing anyone anywhere.”
Monet grew up in East New York in Brooklyn and started writing poetry when she was 8 because she was “fascinated by typewriters and people who would sit at typewriters,” she said. “The first thing I ever asked my mother for Christmas was a typewriter,” she added, recalling an early interest in “stories and storytelling, and the ways that people tell stories.”
An English teacher at Baruch College Campus High School in Manhattan was an early inspiration. “She would read and recite one foot from one desk to the next, and give us encouragement to really see what was happening in the language and what was going on in the stories,” Monet said.
At home, she listened to a different kind of poetry: the R&B singers Sade, Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige, and the rapper Tupac Shakur. She knew they were each saying something profound, even if she couldn’t fully process what it was yet. When she won the school talent show with a poem, “I just remember all my teachers in tears in the front.”
Monet didn’t find much community for burgeoning poets like herself, though, so she created her own club: SABA, or Students Acknowledging Black Achievements, a space where others at her high school “with the weird obsession of poetry and art” could convene. After a classmate encouraged her to check out Urban Word NYC, a program that teaches creative writing to minority students, she attended her first poetry slam there and was hooked.
“To this day it’s probably one of the most pivotal memories in my life,” Monet said. “Because it was the beginning of me being introduced to a whole world, legacy and tradition that I now found myself called to. It deeply felt like a home that I had been waiting to return to.”
The poet Mahogany L. Browne remembered a 15-year-old Monet at Urban Word. “From that moment, I could see the power of her purpose,” Browne said in a telephone interview. She invited Monet to a poetry workshop at a group home for pregnant teens in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood, which opened the young writer’s eyes to what poetry and community activism could accomplish. Later, as a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., Monet organized a poetry potluck to aid those affected by Hurricane Katrina.
“I just remember feeling so powerless, away from the community of poets that I knew understood what that meant and what it felt like,” Monet recalled of her response to the storm. “It was just jarring to see Black people being killed literally by neglect of this country.”
Those themes and concerns stayed with her, and inform “When the Poems Do What They Do.” The album blends poetry Monet has written over the years with vigorous live instrumentation. “The Devil You Know” pairs dark, psychedelic jazz with searing observations about America, and “Yemaya” centers upbeat, polyrhythmic percussion with words about the cleansing power of water.
Monet uses a similar approach on an earlier stand-alone track titled “Give My Regards to Brooklyn.” Throughout the sprawling nine-minute cut about coming up in the borough, a mix of collaborators discuss their impressions of Monet. “Ever since I’ve known Aja,” a male voice says, “she’s been just this bold force reflecting back beauty in the world.”
Monet is quick to pay homage to voices that came before her: Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka and the Last Poets, among many others. “She’s speaking with the guidance of her elders,” Browne said. “She’s never separating herself from the legacy of the work.”
Making art as part of an ecosystem of music, writing and grass-roots activism remains central to Monet’s project. “I know that I’m a part of a collective of many people who are working every day in their own way to create a world that is more equitable and just for all,” she said. “So, ultimately, everything I do is rooted in a deep place of love, an overwhelming obsession with love.”