Jamila Woods builds on legacies that shook the world | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Jamila Woods builds on legacies that shook the world

The Chicago singer and poet’s new album lovingly details how art can learn from the past as it shapes the future.

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Jamila Woods at the South Side Community Art Center, 3831 S. Michigan. Opened in 1940, the SSCAC was declared a “national treasure” in 2017 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. - LAWRENCE AGYEI
  • Lawrence Agyei
  • Jamila Woods at the South Side Community Art Center, 3831 S. Michigan. Opened in 1940, the SSCAC was declared a “national treasure” in 2017 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

UPDATED to add video of interview and listening party from May 9.

As soon as Black Chicagoans step foot outside the crib, we become de facto spokespeople for the city. It's wild, really, the way it goes down. It's not a job we necessarily aspire to or even apply for. It just happens, mostly without our consent. Once outsiders catch wind of where we're from, the question inevitably arises:

Why is there so much violence in Chicago?

Because we're Black and from Chicago, obviously we must have seen a murder up close, or at least heard a shoot-out around the way. And this question almost always rears its presumptuous head whenever a national publication interviews a Black artist coming out of Chicago.

Singer, poet, and teaching artist Jamila Woods did a stint as city spokesperson during the press run for her 2016 debut, Heavn. She's an activist herself, and mentoring is her method of choice. At Young Chicago Authors, a youth literary nonprofit where she serves as associate artistic director, she helps developing minds tap into their poetic selves and use their voices for change.

The album itself is also a form of protest, though: on the Heavn track "Vry Blk," for instance, Woods uses a lullaby-like melody to sing out against police brutality. Woods stitched Black Lives Matter activism into the seams of Heavn, and in doing so became the latest artist pressed by journalists for answers to Chicago's violence problem.

"I've talked to other musician friends about that too. Like, I used to come to interviews, like—" Woods pauses and breathes heavily, dramatizing her apprehension. She felt the weight of having to speak not only for herself and her music, but also for the whole city of Chicago, for Black women, for all Black people.

"It wasn't even necessarily that journalists were so terrible," she explains. "I would have this anxiety. Like, I have to get it right. I have to properly represent myself." Hanging over everything, she says, was fear that she would be misrepresented or misunderstood.

That experience changed Woods in ways that shaped her new second album, Legacy! Legacy!, which drops May 10 via Bloomington label Jagjaguwar. It helps that she's almost 30—she has fewer fucks to give—but she also spent months soul-­searching with her ancestors, a group of Black and brown creative trailblazers who'd shaken up the world with their artful acts of resistance.

Poet and activist Nikki Giovanni lit the fuse: while Woods was teaching Giovanni's 1973 poem "Ego Tripping" to her YCA students, she was inspired by its braggadocious homage to Black women. Then YCA artistic director Kevin Coval asked Woods to write a "cover" of his poem about Chicago blues legend Muddy Waters, and she saw light in his guitar work—an electricity so raw and mighty that white bands as big as the Rolling Stones tried to bottle it for the masses. Woods also remembered that she'd been experimenting for a while with a song called "Baldwin," inspired by writer James Baldwin.

With those three cuts—"Giovanni," "Muddy," and "Baldwin"—Woods realized she had the makings of a new album, one that would track her journey of self-­reflection and self-discovery. She seeks enlightenment throughout the 13 songs on Legacy! Legacy! On "Eartha," she learns from an old interview with Eartha Kitt, who's asked whether she'd compromise her wants and needs if a man came into her life. "Compromise?" she replies. "For what?" On "Basquiat," Woods responds to the power she sees in visual artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and his smirking refusal to shuck and jive in an interview of his own—he won't play into the racially loaded preconceptions of a journalist who asks what makes him angry.

So today, when Woods faces journalists—and the inevitable questions about Chicago violence—she no longer feels her old anxiety. Not only has she taken strength from the elders, but she's also developed answers that allow her to resist and reshape the dangerous narrative those questions carry.

"Yes. There's so much violence in Chicago. The mayor closed 50 schools. That was super violent," Woods says. "All of these structural violences is what I think about when I think of violence in Chicago."

Legacy! Legacy! demonstrates Woods's connections to some of the Black and brown artists whose legacies have helped guide her, and it points the way toward the legacy she herself will leave behind. I asked her to comment on what each track means to her.


Legacy! Legacy! private listening party
Hosted by the Reader. Jamila Woods will be interviewed by Tiffany Walden before the album plays. Enter to win tickets at chicagoreader.com/jamila. Thu 5/9, 7 PM, location shared with ticket holders, free, 18+

Jamila Woods, Nitty Scott
Sun 5/26, 8 PM, Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, $26-$41, 17+


“Betty”

Produced by Chicago's Oddcouple, the first track on Legacy! Legacy! is inspired by erotic funk pioneer Betty Davis, who was married to trumpeter Miles Davis for about a year in 1968 and '69. (Woods honors Miles on a different song.) Davis's second studio album, 1974's They Say I'm Different, pushed back against the narrow societal boundaries used to define and contain womanhood. She embraced her sexuality in her dress and lyrics: "I'm gonna move it slow like a mule / I'm gonna love him funky free and foolish."

Woods stays in her comfort zone here, rather than experimenting with funk or soul. Her light, sweet vocals contrast sharply with Davis's raw, earthy singing, but Woods's lyrics do share Davis's feminist attitude.

"I've always had this obsession with women artists who were in relationships with men artists who are more prominent than them," says Woods. "It's also this idea of the way she presented herself. No one was dressing like that. She was producing a lot of her own music, writing songs for other people. She was just very innovative and different for the time, and I like the way she owned that difference and didn't try to fit in. So many men closed doors in her face, including Miles Davis at times. They became a barrier, instead of letting another representation of a woman come to the forefront."

“Zora”

Writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston didn't get her due. She wrote brilliant novels, most notably 1937's Their Eyes Were Watching God, but because her work used African-American dialect, other Black writers (famously Richard Wright) criticized it for perpetuating stereotypes of Black people as uneducated and inferior. Hurston saw beauty in our dialect, and a way to resist assimilation and conformity.

"Zora" feels like Hurston's writing: the drums demand your attention, while the piano creates a quiet, burning desire for freedom. Woods breathes Hurston's energy into the lyrics: "None of us are free, but some of us are brave / I dare you to shrink my wave, I'm on a new plane."

Woods was particularly inspired by a piece Hurston published in 1928. "With Zora, it was really thinking about her essay, 'How It Feels to Be Colored Me,'" she says. "She writes this essay about literally how she learned her Blackness and how it felt to be in all-white spaces versus all-Black spaces. She said, 'I feel most colored when I'm thrown up against a sharp white background.' And I really related to that growing up in Beverly, and often going to schools where I was the only Black person in my class. That taught me an idea of what Blackness was, based off of white people reflecting what they thought Blackness should be. And then going into Black spaces, like church, and feeling like I wasn't fully what people expected of me."

“Giovanni”

The first single released from Legacy! Legacy!, "Giovanni" oozes with the rhythm of the poet's iconic 1973 piece, "Ego Tripping." Let's be real: Black excellence has largely been left out of the white history taught in schools. The whole time, though, Blackness—particularly the Black woman, who births all Blackness—is the reason for the marvels of this world. Giovanni tells it like it is: "I designed a pyramid so tough that a star / That only glows every one hundred years falls / Into the center giving divine perfect light / I am bad."

Whew, chile! Black women are bad. Woods extended the poem's praise in the video for "Giovanni," paying homage to the Black women in her own life.

"I just love her work in general," Woods says. "That 'Ego Tripping' poem, it's the perfect way to write such a braggadocious-style poem. I was trying to think of what are all the hyperboles that I can say to write this poem celebrating myself and then my grandma. The women that I come from are such a point of pride. I think the video speaks to that."

“Sonia”

Improvisation is an art form. Not everyone can move their tongue at the speed of a creative mind at play. Poet Sonia Sanchez can—and it's a privilege to see her do it.

Woods got a chance to watch Sanchez perform live. On Sanchez's Middle Passage poem "Improvisation," first published in 1995, she takes on the voice of an enslaved Black woman: "It was the raping that was bad. It was the silence, th-the noise, th-the silence, th-the noise." It made Woods reflect on intersectionality and the lived experiences and traumas of Black women.

Woods takes the phrase "it was bad" as a refrain in "Sonia." Afro-Latina rapper Nitty Scott guests on the track, deepening it with a second perspective—she comes in spitting about emptying her soul while pouring her all into a man. But the energy of Sanchez's vivid "Improvisation" dominates the song.

"She embodies the spirit of that woman. It's amazing," Woods says. "The way people often talk about slavery—there's kind of this exhaustion around talking about it. That made me think of other traumas that Black women experience, from gaslighting in a relationship to sexual abuse. Having the power to say 'this happened and it was bad' is such a freeing experience."

Jamila Woods in the Dr. Margaret Burroughs Gallery, named after the SSCAC cofounder who also helped open the DuSable Museum of African American History in 1961. The gallery currently hosts the group exhibit “Flowers in the Garden: A Tribute to the Struggles and Triumphs of the Black Woman.” - LAWRENCE AGYEI
  • Lawrence Agyei
  • Jamila Woods in the Dr. Margaret Burroughs Gallery, named after the SSCAC cofounder who also helped open the DuSable Museum of African American History in 1961. The gallery currently hosts the group exhibit “Flowers in the Garden: A Tribute to the Struggles and Triumphs of the Black Woman.”

“Frida”

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo imprinted the souls of her ancestors on her canvases. Her thought-provoking, sometimes surreal paintings, which marry postcolonial political rigor to a naive folk-art style, critique oppressions that operate along lines of gender, class, and race. The inspiration for this up-­tempo track, though, was Kahlo's relationship with her husband, painter and muralist Diego Riviera—Woods sings about "doing it like Frida" with a significant other.

"I love Frida Kahlo, and I've loved reading her diary and looking at her work. I think reading about her love for Diego has always been just very fascinating, because she's so in love with him. It's such a powerful, all-­encompassing love," Woods says. "I relate to that in how I love people. Like, I love very deeply and hard, and even if the relationship isn't great, it's this laser focus. He was cheating on her and doing all sorts of shit, so it's not, like, idealizing their relationship, but more so that house as a symbol of how balance or respect for each individual's personal space could look. That seems ideal to me. As an introvert, I'm learning that I just need that."

“Eartha”

If you live on Twitter, you've seen the viral Eartha Kitt video—the one where she's schooling a male journalist on how loving her really works. But if you've experienced Kitt playing Catwoman or singing "Santa Baby," then you already knew about her fiery fierceness and immaculate confidence.

On the song "Eartha," though, Woods doesn't try to imitate the legend directly, not even by giving us the signature Eartha Kitt purr—instead she taps Kitt's swagger to power the track, produced by frequent Chance the Rapper collaborator Peter Cottontale. But Woods's best friend, poet and screenwriter Fatimah Asghar, is a big comic book fan, and when she directed the video (produced by VAM Studio), she couldn't pass up the opportunity to turn Woods into Catwoman.

"'Eartha' is inspired by that viral video," Woods says, "where she's talking about compromise, love, and relationships. It's very much me just trying to apply that to my own life. Writing myself a mantra to encourage myself to take that belief. It's hard. You're taught that what you're supposed to do in a relationship is compromise. I loved seeing how empowered she seemed in that video, but then me also recognizing where I'm at, or where I have been. I used to be afraid of myself, holding my smile on a shelf. Literally, I used to laugh with my hand over my mouth because I didn't like my gap in my teeth. So it's me going from linking insecurities and how that makes you feel like you have to compromise, to having more self-­acceptance and pride."

“Miles”

In the world of jazz, Miles Davis is the originator of cool. You can hear the cool in this track, produced (like most of Legacy! Legacy!) by Chicago-­based Slot-A. The groundbreaking trumpeter wasn't about pandering to white audiences, and Woods embodies this in song: "I'm bad like my mother, so don't dis­respect / There'll never be another, I'm better than your best."

"This is thinking about the cool-jazz Miles—the Miles that performed with his back to the audience. Just thinking about power," Woods explains. "Turning his back to the audience because he's just, like, 'I'm a fucking musician. I'm going to direct my band and play my instrument. I'm not going to shuck and jive for you white people,' basically. We create the things that are cool. We create the things that everybody wants to take part in and appropriate. Black culture is constantly appropriated, but there's no counterfeiting the original source."

“Muddy”

No one played the blues like Muddy Waters. And no one played a more important role in transforming it from the raw, mostly acoustic Delta style to the modern, electric Chicago style. His influence was vast, and everyone wanted a piece of his sound: Bo Diddley jacked the signature riff of Waters's 1954 cut "Hoochie Coochie Man" for 1955's "I'm a Man," and uncountable artists have borrowed from him since—among them Elvis, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones.

"Muddy" isn't a blues track by any means, but it crackles with the power of Waters's guitar and attitude: "They can study my fingers / They can mirror my pose."

"It came from doing a cover project from Kevin Coval's book, A People's History of Chicago," Woods says. "But it was more so thinking of this interview with him. The interviewer was asking, like, oh, the Rolling Stones, they covered his songs too. He was like, 'White people really like your music. These white teenagers, they're trying to play the blues like you.' And he's like, 'Like me? You must be kidding.' Black people, we created these sounds, and they can't replicate that. They can attempt, but they can't replace that."

Jamila Woods at the piano in the Burroughs Gallery of the South Side Community Art Center. Nat King Cole often played this instrument, and Gwendolyn Brooks liked to write poetry at it. - LAWRENCE AGYEI
  • Lawrence Agyei
  • Jamila Woods at the piano in the Burroughs Gallery of the South Side Community Art Center. Nat King Cole often played this instrument, and Gwendolyn Brooks liked to write poetry at it.

“Basquiat”

This ethereal track suggests the otherworldly aura maintained by visual artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Influenced by graffiti and hip-hop, he inspired a generation with the social commentary in every stroke of his brush.

For "Basquiat," Woods studied an old video interview where a journalist asked Basquiat what makes him angry. He seemed to consider the question for a long time in silence, then smirked and quietly replied, "I don't remember." At the time, the world expected Black rage to be loud—a way Basquiat didn't often express himself.

Woods likewise doesn't present as the stereotypical "angry Black woman." But that doesn't mean she isn't angry about the injustices and inequalities around her. She added Pivot Gang rapper Saba to "Basquiat" because he also seems gentle on the outside but makes emotionally powerful music packed with outrage and anguish.

Woods sees Basquiat's evasion as a moment of resistance. "Not giving access to this random white dude to his interior space—I just related to that in terms of the way that Black anger or non-anger is interpreted," she says. "This dichotomy of angry Black women as bad—calm and quiet Black women are good. It seems like Basquiat was perceived as this kind of quiet, strange artist. It's like this fascination of, oh, could you ever be angry? It's kind of like this exotification of Black rage."

She remembers that during the press cycle for Heavn she was complimented—almost congratulated—because her album didn't sound angry. "It just started to rub me in a weird way. But then, just wanting to own that protest can sound different ways," she says. "Emotion doesn't have to just sound one way. Emotion can be very beautiful. Black women's anger has been the birth of so many movements. I'm sure Emmett Till's mom was angry in addition to sad, which led to her opening the casket. So anger can also be beautiful."

“Sun Ra”

On Legacy! Legacy! "Sun Ra" is the deep cut. Woods comes out swinging: "I'm a fable, you and me," she sings. "My twist-outs shitting on gravity." She pulls ancestral energy from experimental jazz keyboardist and cosmic poet Sun Ra, who spent a formative period in Chicago between 1945 and '61. His wisdom was light-years ahead of its time, and his ability to live out a future of his own design survives today in artists such as Woods, singer Solange Knowles, and producer Thundercat.

"It's on that same Afrofuturism tip, but drawing inspiration from Sun Ra's certainty of his lineage," Woods says of her song. "He's like, 'I'm from space.' I've always felt this lack of a homeland or lack of knowing where my people are from. I found Sun Ra's answer to that very beautiful. 'My wings are greater than walls.' It's a line from a Sun Ra poem, and that makes me think of Black imagination and the power to create your own narrative for yourself."

“Octavia”

Octavia E. Butler kicked ass in the white-male-dominated world of science fiction. Her writing helped popularize Afrofuturism, a socially conscious aesthetic and philosophy that addresses the African diaspora through the lens of speculative fiction or fantasy—since its first flowering in the 1950s, it's grown to include the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther and even several works by Chicago storyteller Eve Ewing.

One of Butler's most popular books, 1979's Kindred, bends time—its protagonist skips back and forth between Los Angeles in the 1970s and a Maryland slave plantation in the 1810s. Producer Slot-A uses synthesizer to make "Octavia" feel like a time warp, and Woods's gentle vocals are a perfect fit for the song's mystical vibe.

Woods sees Butler as an example of Black excellence thriving on its own terms. "She had these notebooks where she wrote down everything she wanted to happen, and then basically manifested it for herself," she says. "I had read her book Kindred. Being a person who works with young people a lot, and seeing a lot of Black young people who are brilliant poets, artists, and rappers, there's still this idea that you're not smart unless you can pass this test or unless you go to college. Meanwhile everybody's on fleek, using Black language to be cool. You're not being rewarded for inventing a whole new term for talking about your eyebrows. The idea that we don't have the right kind of language or intelligence is false."

Jamila Woods at the SSCAC exhibit “Flowers in the Garden.” The photo at upper left is a 2019 print titled Worldly Roxi by Chicago-based multimedia artist, educator, gallery owner, documentary filmmaker, and musician Tony Smith. - LAWRENCE AGYEI
  • Lawrence Agyei
  • Jamila Woods at the SSCAC exhibit “Flowers in the Garden.” The photo at upper left is a 2019 print titled Worldly Roxi by Chicago-based multimedia artist, educator, gallery owner, documentary filmmaker, and musician Tony Smith.

“Baldwin”

There's so much to say about literary genius James Baldwin. His impact reaches far beyond his writings, his televised debates, his critiques of the racist shitshow plaguing the Black world around him. He understood the temperature and frustration of 1960s and '70s Black America. He knew the ways white privilege and bias suffocated the country's Black ghettos.

Woods begins "Baldwin" with a declaration to white America, the gatekeepers whose own success depends in part on the erasure and manipulation of Black history: "You don't know a thing about our story, tell it wrong all the time." Thanks to the addition of trumpet by Nico Segal, the track feels triumphant, like Woods crossing a metaphorical finish line. That's intentional, considering that she had trouble finding the right way to complete the song.

"'Baldwin' is inspired by his letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time," Woods says. "I wrote this song a long time ago for Heavn, and I struggled with it. There was this point in the essay where he says, 'We have to love these innocent white people. They think we're inferior but we have to accept them with love.' And I was like, 'Mmm really? That's a lot.' I realized that it's kind of directed towards white people, in talking to white people about their whiteness and how their privilege and perception of Black people can be a form of violence when they're blind to their own racism. Slot-A helped me with that song. He's like, 'OK. We gotta watch some battle rap, because in battle rap, you really have to love your opponent. You have to know them so well that you almost love them in order to successfully battle them.'"

“Betty (for Boogie)”

The last song on Legacy! Legacy!, "Betty (for Boogie)," seems like a bonus track because "Baldwin" feels so much like its finale. Woods honors the roots of Chicago house music, specifically teaching artist and choreographer Boogie McClarin.

"The remix for Boogie is a shout-out to Boogie McClarin," she says. "She's a Chicago house dance instructor, but she's really how I learned about Chicago house music. I wanted to shout her out for what she does for the culture."


Woods discovered new parts of herself, personally and musically, while studying the lives and work of these Black and brown artists. Though Legacy! Legacy! doesn't begin to cover all the muses in her life, it provides a glimpse inside her creative mind—and inside the minds of those on whose shoulders she stands.

"I love seeing what inspires people to make things," Woods explains. "I think that's what I've always loved about watching interviews of artists in general, especially visual artists—just knowing that you can own your lineage and celebrate it and it doesn't make you less of an original artist."  v

Jamila Woods upstairs at the SSCAC - LAWRENCE AGYEI
  • Lawrence Agyei
  • Jamila Woods upstairs at the SSCAC

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