FEATURE: Spotlight: Jamila Woods






PHOTO CREDIT: Bradley Murray 

Jamila Woods


I understand I have been a bit full-on regarding…

 PHOTO CREDIT: Reviler.org

feminism and gender equality over the past few weeks but, as you can appreciate, this is something that is dear to my heart – and something that I need to get off of chest. I feel like, before long, the industry will wake up when it comes to parity and recognising the great women out there! I shall put aside my arguments for now but, when thinking about the best female talent right now, one is spoiled for choice. I think 2019 is a huge year when it comes to eye-opening artists who are talking about something important. If you are unaware of Jamila Woods then you need to make sure she is part of your life. I must confess that I am relatively new to her music before, as soon as I heard it, I was hit. Her album, LEGACY! LEGACY!, came out earlier this year and blew critics away. In terms of compositions, the sound is a cross between Neo-Soul and R&B I guess. There are other tones in there but one gets a mix of the sensual, physical and spiritual – a potent combination that augments the power and depth of Woods’ words. I love her vocal style but, to me, it is her words and the passion she puts into the songs’ messages that hooks and amazes. Reviews for LEGACY! LEGACY! Were impassioned and, as Pitchfork explained, the songs themselves are fascinating, original and challenging:

On “Basquiat,” Woods explores how the behavior of an artist of color unfairly becomes fodder for public opinion. She draws inspiration not just from her own run-ins with the media, but chiefly from an interviewer who once asked the renowned artist “what makes him angry,” suggesting that the “rage” seen in his work could be summoned upon command: “These teeth are not employed/You can’t police my joy.”


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images/Jamila Woods

The song simmers along on a jazzy hip-hop groove for nearly seven minutes, peppered by a staccato call-and-response (“Are you mad?/Yes I’m mad”). Tellingly, the song never erupts, and when Woods sings “They wanna see me angry,” she’s sighing, not shouting. Her exhaustion is palpable, resigned to wear the mask that “grins and lies,” as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar once said—the mask that she must wear to quell the seething rage she feels when asked, once again, to explain herself.

In his landmark 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth,” W.E.B. DuBois argued that the liberation of all black people would come from cultivating a handful of exceptional blacks through higher education. Over a century later, black artists and activists, poets and politicians continue to thrive across a spectrum of different mediums. Almost every predecessor conjured in and in-between Woods’ lyrics balanced their craft alongside an unending fight for total equality, whether they wanted to or not: “All the women in me are tired” becomes a running motif throughout the album. With LEGACY! LEGACY!, Jamila Woods positions herself to join the battle, bridging the gap, once and for all, between our unresolved past and the promise that awaits us all on the horizon”.

That is just a sample review but, as you can see, Jamila Woods is providing the world with something hugely accomplished and necessary; music that transcends mere beats and hooks and confronts the listeners with real lessons. The album is never preachy but, instead, it is educational, inspiring and incredible immersive.

In regards to Woods herself, she is a twenty-nine-year-old from Chicago who is a graduate of St. Ignatius College Prep and Brown University. She is also the Associate Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors and, through that, she aims to lift the youth voice through arts and education. Through YCA, she helps to organise Louder than a Bomb: the world’s largest youth poetry slam festival. She has this determination to make the world around her a better place and to improve lives; make aware the presence and important of black women and ancestor; the desire to promote self-love and acceptance. One could hear these seeds growing on her debut album, HEAVN. Released in 2016, it gained a lot of love and traction. This review from AllMusic shows that, right at the start of her career, Woods was raising the bar:

On the title song, Woods floats over a rolling groove, quoting the Cure's "Just Like Heaven" and then twisting it a bit, beaming "I don't wanna run away with you/I wanna live our life right here." She later sings "I don't belong here" and "I'm an alien from inner space" in "Way Up," and dreams of leaving this planet in "Stellar," but Woods otherwise isn't one to promote escapism, not when she's sustained by friends, family, and fellow musicians -- including most of the above-mentioned -- who inspired and/or helped create this album.

Some moments regard an intimate relationship and independence, occasionally both at once, like when she affirms "Nobody completes me" in "Holy." A larger portion concerns communal matters like survival, resistance, sisterhood, and how to thrive in conditions designed to perpetuate oppression. The resolutely nurturing and buoyant qualities make it easy to miss out on some of the wisdom and stirring lines such as "Grandma loved granddaddy even after he forgot our names," related over Nico Segal's trumpet and the kaleidoscopic swirl of Stereolab's "The Flower Called Nowhere." Originally a digital-only release from Closed Sessions, HEAVN was expanded and reissued a year later by Jagjaguwar, made available on physical formats with a track list that added six interludes and a thick reprise of "Holy." The interludes, especially the one in which children recite an Assata Shakur quote -- inserted as a brilliant setup for "Blk Grl Soldier" -- are not extraneous”.

 IMAGE CREDIT: @jamilawoods

Right now, there is (rightfully) a lot of talk around Woods and what her music is doing. I think LEGACY! LEGACY! Is the best album of the year so far and, as I explained, manages to put something arresting and important on the page without making the listener feel exhausted or lectured. That might sound wrong but, by that, I mean the music easily sinks into the skin – because of the terrific melt of vocals and sounds – but you will come away with the lyrics ingrained in the mind. If one can feel soothed by the compositions but enlightened by the words, then that seems like a perfect combination. Woods has been busy promoting LEGACY! LEGACY! and, in this interview with The Guardian, Woods talked about her upbringing and the importance of ‘legacy’:

Woods grew up in the quiet Chicago neighbourhood of Beverly Hills, an idyllic enclave in a city wracked with inequality. Her dad, a physician, and her mother, a spiritual healer, instilled in her the idea of working for the community; following private schooling and a degree from Brown University, Woods became associate artistic director of Young Chicago Authors, empowering kids to create their own narratives through hip-hop and poetry. She compares poetry to hip-hop’s tradition of sampling from across black musical history. “There’s a similar respect for lineage – you can say you’ve written a poem ‘after Maya Angelou’,” she says.

Woods describes a mentoring session where she had students draw lineage maps, using the people in their lives who had inspired them to find their own artistic voice. “It’s important for me to shout out those that came before, especially in a time where it’s about being individualistic or the first. That should be seen as a strength, because that’s what legacy is.”

So what is Woods aiming to achieve with her championing of legacy? She wants to break the cycle of silence in families, particularly between grandmothers, mothers and daughters. “When I got to a certain age, conversations with my mom and grandmother changed and there was more honesty. That’s part of breaking the cycle because if I hadn’t have known what they’d experienced with men in their relationships, I wouldn’t be able to recognise that there’s a legacy in those stories. It can’t be an individual decision – there has to be a culture shift and a communal conversation”.

Artists like Jamila Woods are filling gaps that should be occupied by political leaders: talking about what really matters and putting the people first. She has a deep connection to her ancestry but is acutely aware of the future and what will happen if changes are not made. This is not to suggest, for a moment, Woods is a political artist: in fact, her words are delivered in such a manner that she projects that right balance of urgency and delicacy. In many ways, Woods sings sermons; never too forceful but, inside it all, you can hear the passion bubble and fizz.

Woods is busy promoting LEGACY! LEGACY! and there is a lot of demand for her right now. In this interview she gave with London in Stereo very recently, she talked about her music and the intent behind it:

 “Each song on LEGACY! LEGACY! takes its name from pertinent, inspirational artists and activists within black history, including James Baldwin, Eartha Kitt, and Basquiat, to mention a few. With these tracks, Woods offers poetic, meditative testaments to the influence these figures have had on her, whilst weaving her own personal narratives into this. “The tracks are named after people but are very much autobiographical songs,” Woods emphasises. “I’m singing about my own experiences almost like self-portraits, through the lenses of the different people and what I’ve learnt from them.” Woods’ lyrics are poetic works in themselves, crafted with astute linguistic potency and precision. Melded with the glistening, soulful melodies that saunter through the record, this verbal and aural harmony is steeped in vivid, emotive poeticism

While the issues and ideas that Woods explores on this record feel vital and pertinent in the context of the current political climate, she states “I don’t really resonate with the idea that something is important now more than ever. It’s more just like I wanna feel free to follow where my inspirations lead me”.

Wood is performing in the U.S. at the moment but she heads to the U.K. later in the year. Take a look out and make sure, if you can, you go and see Woods live. She is a sensational talent who fuses Soul and Neo-Soul together with these inspiring songs; a voice that gets into the heart and a spirit that cannot help but intoxicate. Woods is definitely capturing a desire and wave right now and, if you get the time, settle down with LEGACY! LEGACY! and experience an artist who is…

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

OUT of this world.