Brooklyn, NY poet Aja Monet this week released a follow-up to her 2010 album Scared To Make Love / Scared Not To. Courage is a five track EP of songs produced by Shayfer James, with musicians Thomas Senator, Justin Thompson and Jae Ko.
These songs take Aja somewhere completely different to the 2010 hip hop and r’n‘b beds, into rock territory, and it works so, unexpectedly, really – it works on you. It takes some listens. But it works on many, deep levels of poetics and soul. And it’s refreshing, for me anyway, to hear poetry taken into rougher, more analog, arrangements in this era of super-slick electronic production.
Aja said this week: "I titled this EP “Courage,” because I was inspired by Maya Angelou’s description of one of the greatest of all virtues during a conversation she shared with Dave Chapelle. All art demands of us courage, to risk, to delve into complete self."
The quote from Maya Angelou is featured on the EP: “Love is a condition so powerful; it may be that which pulls the stars in the firmament. It may be that which pushes and urges the blood in the veins. Courage: you have to have courage to love somebody because you risk everything – everything.”
Aja has always been eloquent when writing about finding, losing, regaining, courage in love. In tracks like the recent “You Make Holy War“ she cut right into the adrenalin rush of fear/courage. Her first album Scared to make love / Scared not toexplored these themes from a more electronic, hip hop and soul platform. Something about the tracks on this album feel darker, deeper. Maybe it’s the drive of guitar, drum and piano and the more rock ‘n’ roll vibe, in contrast with Aja’s restrained vocal. Maybe it’s the influence of a year performing and travelling and feeling the possibilities of performance deeply. Whatever it is, this progression is strong and I love the challenge this EP presents.
Handful of Hurricane (being a standout for me, but all of the tracks here) combines rock and r’n‘b in a satisfying way, Aja’s voice trembling through the story with an intriguing kind of restraint, energy just barely held back. This tension, she maintains throughout - swinging on the edge of the spoken and sung. It is, as Aja says below, the space Gil Scott Heron claimed. What Are We? showcases Shayfer James’ cleverness playing with light and shade, delay, rhythm and freeze - I love the multiple moods of this track, the energy like adrenalin rushing under the skin. “We inherited a hell of a world..“ starts Blue Eyes, a blistering poem of generations of hurt, driven by a passionate and painful soundtrack … “they left blue eyes in brown faces…” Be Brave is just one of those tracks that needs to be played LOUD on a highway drive with the windows down and the moonlight shining on your knuckles and the car wheels. Those moments, you know, when you do feel BRAVE, invincible, absolutely completely your own self.
More from Aja:
"I am learning the range of my voice and to see it’s uniqueness as it translates to someone who has the ear for it or not. This project furthers the interest and it makes the writing process less lonely. Typically, writing poetry is a solitary act or sometimes too crowded with all those inner selves. Collaboration encourages surrendering and sincere dialogue. Gil Scott Heron was a poet but he was also a singer. His voice permeates your being when you hear him. He worked with incredible musicians and made classic songs with his poems. I would hope to continue in that legacy of those who don’t see their work as a poet separate of their voice, body, and musicality.
The more I learn about other languages and cultures and even my own Afro-Cuban heritage, I learn the power of inflection and tone, sound and vibration—I love the poetic liveliness of it all. The experiential process of poetry, the living of words and the movement of saying. These are devices in many cultures. It is often belittled in the Western world especially when it comes to poetry. If I tell you, how you say a thing is as important as how you write a thing, then you call me a spoken word poet. I am a poet. I say a word as I sing and I sing as I say. When you hear my voice all my ancestors are there with me too, writing. It is what we pass on to our children, the heirloom of heirlooms."
Reaching back and gathering ancestral inspirations and spirits of courage, bringing them together with her own imagination and need to tell, Aja Monet combines the artist’s spirit of experimentation and the poet’s still centre. She is mercurial, changeable, and at the same time instantly recognisable. Courage is – just that – courageous. A brief but strong collection, coming from deep within the living art of storytelling and informed by all of the things – thought, sound, language, music, movement – that storytelling is.