“Melissa Williams,” Aja Monet reads, “Darnisha Harris.” Her voice is strong; it marches along, but it shakes a little, although not from nerves. She’s performing a poem that includes the forgotten names of girls and women who’ve been injured or killed by the police. She finishes forcefully, then pauses, exhales. “Can I do that again?” she asks. “It’s my first time reading it out loud, and ... ” she trails off.
Monet had written the poem — a contribution to the #SayHerName campaign, a necessary continuation of the Black Lives Matter movement focusing on overlooked police violence against women — earlier that morning. That evening, she’d read it at a vigil. Now, she was practicing on camera, surprised by the power of her own words.
As a poet, Monet is prolific. She’s been performing both music and readings for some time — at 19, she was the youngest ever winner of New York City’s Nuyorican Poet’s Café Grand Slam — and her work has brought her to France, Bermuda and Cuba, from where her grandmother fled, and where she recently learned she still has extended family. Next month, she’ll return to visit them. But first, she wants to contribute to a campaign she believes in.
Though she’s disheartened that a hashtag is necessary to capture people’s attention — “I think #SayHerName is the surface level of the issues but beneath that there is the real question of, ‘Why?’” she says — Monet wields her art to achieve social and political justice. While discussing political poetry with a fellow artist in Palestine, he observed, “Art is more political than politics.” “I feel him,” she says. “I think he’s right.”
Can you explain #SayHerName in your own words?
It is us calling out the lack of attention on women of color also affected by state violence. We recognize the power of our voices and so we raise the spirits of our sisters by daring to utter their names.
A Washington Post write-up said it’s difficult to even quantify police brutality against black women. How will #SayHerName honor those whose stories are lost?
I can’t speak for what a hashtag will do in the actual hearts of people but I know that anything worth paying attention to these days in America has to be sold and marketed as if worth buying into. We recognize that the attention span of our generation is so short: How else do we make the issues we care about accessible and also relevant? This is what activism has come to. This is where we are at in the age of the Internet. We must be honest with ourselves about how human interaction is now only affirmed or confronted based on the projected world we live in through screens.
I think #SayHerName is the surface level of the issues, but beneath that there is the real question of “Why?” Why do I need to make saying her name a hashtag for you to pay attention? The goal is to use this as an opportunity to redirect the attention of people, to hopefully get folks researching the names and stories of all the women we’ve lost. To educate themselves so we are all more informed on how policing works. Black women’s bodies are the most policed bodies in this country.
Also, I didn’t read the Washington Post write-up, but it seems silly to me. Like, of course it’s difficult to quantify any brutality against human beings. It’s not more difficult when it comes to black women, I think it’s just easier for us to ignore them because if we acknowledge them then we must acknowledge all of the women affected by violence and brutality, not just by police but by an entire patriarchal, racist system. We keep scratching the surface of these issues and neglecting the root, which is this country never loved black people, and of course that meant black women. We who birth the men they also hate. We are an extension of each other.
What inspired this poem, and what inspires your poetry in general?
I was at an event where I read a poem in solidarity with my Palestinian brothers and sisters, and Eve Ensler was in the audience. We spoke briefly after and she admired the poem I read. I was honored and she gave me her email. I followed up immediately the next day and informed her that if she ever needed a poet at any point, I’d be there, no questions asked.
She responded with this vigil for #SayHerName and asked if I’d be willing to read a poem. I have been meditating on this issue of women of color affected by police brutality, but the poem hadn’t quite come to me yet. I started writing a piece for Rekia Boyd but it just isn’t ready to be done yet. So I woke early the morning of the vigil and forced myself to write this poem. I sat with all the names of the women and I asked them that I may find the words to do justice. They came to me hours before I had to meet with you all to record.
And maybe they’ll change, but the process of inspiration is a strange thing. For the most part I call on my ancestors. Not to be all, “I call on my ancestors,” but it’s true. I know I’m not the only one writing when I write. I also know that more times than not inspiration is subjective. You can find inspiration in anything if you pay attention. If you’re careful enough to notice how divine this world is and we are, to be here together, creating.
Obviously you appreciate overtly political art — why do you think political art can be powerful?
I met an artist in Palestine who said “art is more political than politics.” I feel him. I think he’s right.
I think being an artist, you are in the business of telling it like it is. You create of the world you live in, unapologetically. What that means is you aren’t catering to an eye or group or specific niche so much as your own truth as you see fit. Politicians, on the other hand, are constantly determining their worth and issue relevance based on approval ratings and polls. They are always campaigning, which becomes less about the issues we need to be dealing with and more about who can be bought to speak about what you want them to speak about. It’s an ugly game I want no business in.
Art that addresses the business of politics recognizes its power and influence. It unveils the mask of “politics” and gets to the people we are fighting for. It does the difficult work of reaching people’s hearts and minds. No great change takes place without art. It’s necessary.
Who are some fellow poets you currently admire?
Since we are in the spirit of saying her name, here’s a few names: Jayne Cortez, Wanda Coleman, Carolyn Rodgers, June Jordan, Audre Lorde and, of course, my sister, Phillis Wheatley.
Monet’s two books of poetry, Inner City Chants and Cyborg Ciphersand The Black Unicorn Sings are available online.