Interview by Tia Williams
InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black trans and queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each month ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This month, ELIXHER spotlights Aja La’Starr, a St. Louis native, hip hop/spoken word artist, author, and educator.
ELIXHER: For someone meeting you for the first time, what’s your elevator pitch?
AJA: Greetings, I’m Aja La’Starr, a poet, author, emcee and activist from St. Louis, Missouri. I believe in the philosophy of Passing It On; so, in everything I do, see and experience I aim to exhibit compassion, love and peace to mankind. Sometimes, I feel like a soul who’s misunderstood, but through my daily creative expressions, I pray that people see me for who I truly am.
ELIXHER: What are the biggest misconceptions people have of you?
AJA: That I cannot work well with others. Throughout the years, I have single-handedly achieved so much and sometimes it seems like I do not know how to allow others to assist me in accomplishing a goal.
ELIXHER: There are many who know about the Divine Nine Black Greek Letter Organizations. Can you tell us more about Alpha Psi Kappa Fraternity, Inc.?
AJA: Absolutely. Alpha Psi Kappa Fraternity, Inc. is a community service-based organization for dominant women. We are a national organization that prides ourselves on serving the entire community — both heterosexual and homosexual — and helping each other to reach higher heights. We have national initiatives that we partner with such as Habitat for Humanity and Stand Up for Kids, as well as local partnerships such as St. Louis Effort for AIDS and Gateway Greening. All in all, we use the fraternity as a platform to revitalize the image of the LGBTQ community, as well as network with one another to change the world in which we co-exist.
ELIXHER: You’re pretty active in the St. Louis community. You’re the regional coordinator for Poetry for Personal Power, an organization committed to helping people find their personal power to overcome adversities in their lives and the visionary behind a Black male initiative called “What About Us.” What do you feel calls you to do this kind of work?
AJA: I try my best to live a purpose-driven life and I believe that God called me to do this work. I have been fascinated with the power of words since I was in grade school. I have always loved the way my words made someone feel. I believe it was by fate that I was introduced to Corinna West, the visionary of Poetry for Personal Power, and I am so blessed that she allowed me to execute her vision and goals for the organization. We have spoken at women shelters, youth shelters, college campuses and our message has touched and literally transformed hundreds of lives since I have been a part of this program.
As far as “What About Us,” I have always had a strong compassion for African American men and youth. Throughout the years, I have listened to my students, my peers and even strangers speak of their experience as a Black man in America. My compassion for all beings is what calls me to do this kind of work. One of my favorite quotes states, “Be ashamed to die unless you have won some great victory for humanity.” So respectively, my desire to “not be ashamed” is a strong motivating factor as well.
ELIXHER: Being that you also perform hip hop, do you often receive any criticism for being a queer Black woman? Or for just being a woman in the hip hop world?
AJA: Whew. Interestingly enough, I would say the criticism has always been more about me being a woman than being queer. I remember the days in college when all the guys would be huddled up on the yard freestyling. I would try to get in on the action, but they were pretty aggressive and really didn’t value any bars a woman could offer. However, I always worked my way in and killed it every time. But every single time I had to “prove” myself again and again. In September 2011, I had the wonderful opportunity of curating an exhibit called “I AM HIP HOP,” which promoted the achievements and presence of women throughout hip hop. Because women are criticized and still do not receive their due respect, my goal is to use my influence and resources to educate, entertain and empower people about the contributions of women throughout hip hop culture.
ELIXHER: What’s one of the most important lessons you’ve learned as an artist?
AJA: One of the most important lessons I have learned is the importance of being business-minded. It can be difficult for creative spirits because we are so much about the art of things. We can tend to be too trusting of individuals who see our talent and want to monopolize on it. That is another reason why I am so grateful to the Poetry for Personal Power program because it taught me how to document things, collect data and feedback and understand the effectiveness of the program.
ELIXHER: Where would you like to go as an artist?
AJA: As an artist, I would like to be internationally recognized as someone who lives the words they put out into the universe. I would like to go beyond my own comprehension and see my words of change manifest in the lives of mankind.
ELIXHER: When you think about the Black queer community, what comes to mind?
AJA: Variety. I think about all of the professionals, artists, athletes and just regular individuals who just want to live the life they were given. I also think about the struggle. I think about how difficult it is for some queer folk to balance the life they want to live versus the life others envision for them — or even the life that God has destined for them to live. Empathy also comes to mind. I empathize with the ones who cannot find that balance and ultimately decide that neither life is truly worth living.
ELIXHER: What’s next for Aja?
AJA: I want to spend this year focusing on “What About Us” and turning it into a non-profit. So what is next for me is many more forums, performances and exhibits that speak to the positive image of Black men in our society.
Tia N. Williams is the woman behind The Buddha In Me, an agency of artists, speakers, poets, and activists based in Atlanta. The Buddha In Me specializes in providing quality programs to educate, enlighten, and entertain. Tia recently received her M.Ed. from the University of Georgia in College Student Affairs Administration.