Photos by Zoe Rain and Whitney Middleton, courtesy of Jamila Woods
It’s a quiet Friday morning at the youth education organization Young Chicago Authors. In the front room, a group of 15 to 19-year-olds are gathered in a circle, reading and parsing poetry. They’re part of an intensive performance poetry apprenticeship called Bomb Squad, a roster of young poets who, through YCA, participate in writing workshops, field trips, and seminars with the purpose of producing a portfolio of new work and gaining exposure in becoming professional poets and teaching artists.
As they workshop each other’s words, Jamila Woods, the Associate Artistic Director, sits alongside her kids in the circle—or what Artistic Director Kevin Coval likes to refer to as a “cypher.” When she reads through a student’s poem, her intent is to pinpoint the story the student is trying to tell and guide them to the most authentic way to communicate that story.
“[YCA] provides an alternative space to [Chicago Public Schools] or other oppressive spaces for young people,” Woods tells me later, sitting at a table in YCA’s library. Woods is an increasingly celebrated singer, but she has rooted herself here in the last few years, alongside Coval, helping to build a community. She is a commanding presence onstage and on TV, but in person she’s thoughtful and palpably gentle. She continues, “Teaching is definitely a work of activism in itself.” As we speak, a few of the kids filter in and type furiously on the computers.
If Woods’s name jogs your memory, it’s probably because of her work with another set of YCA alums. In the last couple years, Woods has quietly become a staple in the Chicago music scene, working alongside artists like Chance the Rapper and Saba while slowly piecing together her own 13-song solo debut Heavn. Recently she featured on “Blessings,” from Chance the Rapper’s album Coloring Book, which she performed alongside Chance on Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show. She’s also contributed to Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment’s song “Sunday Candy,” Saba’s “Butter,” and, perhaps most prominently, Macklemore’s “White Privilege II,” where she sings, pointedly, “your silence is a luxury.”
Thanks to her singing talent and a keen political vision, Woods has established herself as one of the most immediate and sought-after new voices in music. Yet there’s also something else that continually stands out, an elation in Woods’s singing. That sense of bliss—regardless of whether she’s singing with a more melancholy edge, like on “Lonely Lonely,” or more freely on “Stellar”—is found throughout Heavn. Jamila Woods is full of joy. Her project is firmly planted in the world of soul and R&B but rife with gospel undertones. Woods grew up going to her grandmother’s church, and it shows in the buoyant background vocals, in the fullness and brightness of Heavn’s production.
“Gospel music is still a huge influence on my writing and the way I want my songs to make a listener feel,” she says. The tone of uplift has taken on additional significance in the week or so leading up to the project’s release, as stories about the deaths of Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Alva Braziel, and others have flooded the media. Although these stories are new, the racial narrative they represent is familiar, and one that Woods finds her own ways to address on Heavn.
“This thing on Twitter happened,” she explains. “I can’t remember, but I think it was around Trayvon Martin’s death. Saba tweeted something like, ‘I don’t want to go to the march, like I can’t, I’m not going to talk about this anymore because it’s like my own personal well-being that I have to think about.’ And Mick Jenkins was saying something like, ‘Well we have to talk about it, like this is something that’s going on, this is our platform. We have to do it.’ I don’t think they were in conversation with each other, but it was like they both were saying opposite things. I think both are important.”
On Heavn, Woods above all honors and celebrates her blackness, using the project to encapsulate ideas of self-care, happiness, and discovery. She speaks strongly for black women in particular, but her aim is to offer some respite for black people across the entire spectrum of conversation, from #SayHerName to #BlackLivesMatter to #BlackGirlMagic. And make no mistake: There is a bounty of #BlackGirlMagic in Heavn.
“I think [joy is] really important too,” she says. “Like telling this truth because there could be just one story, you could just see videos of black people being killed on loop or just the side of oppression or just the erasure of the fact that we experience joy and we have other things to say.”
Though she has always considered herself an activist and organizer, it was with “Blk Girl Soldier,” her first single, that Woods really was able to articulate her feelings about the role of black women within America’s activist movements. One of the lyrics from the song is even based off of a protest chant she learned from Black Youth Project 100, “Rosa was a freedom fighter / And she taught us how to fight.”
“I went to a BYP100 meeting, and I heard them talking about how in the Civil Rights movement, black women were really instrumental in everything that went on but they were like in the offices and not really out on the front lines,” she explains. “So you see like Malcolm, Martin, and like all these men. Black Lives Matter, all of these organizations now are really intentional about putting black women in the forefront, and even like just literally, physically at marches, so that you see them in pictures and just like in the meetings, getting airtime… I was really inspired by the way that black women are very resilient, and that just really inspired me to be able to keep going.”
The song references different things that have been on Woods’s mind, like Saartjie Baartman, the African woman who was discovered by European explorers fascinated with her large bottom and skin color. Baartman was exhibited as part of a freak show in Europe until she died, when she was dissected and parts of her body—specifically her brain and genitals—were placed in jars.
“Why did it take me until I was in college to learn about that?” Woods muses. “I think putting those kinds of things in songs is important because that’s how we learn.”
The same week that Woods debuted the single “Blk Girl Soldier,” Macklemore’s “White Privilege II”—a track that addresses white privilege within the present-day racial and political climate—also came out. Woods had some reservations with the song. She didn’t want to be seen as the token black person, as the black voice that gets tacked on at the end. “I don’t really think about talking to white people about white privilege,” she says. “Like that’s not really what I’ve ever written about before.” She refers to the song as “a work in progress,” pointing to its role above all as a conversation starter: “I think the themes in the song are still very relevant and will be for a long time so it’s a useful tool, and I'm interested in seeing curriculum built around it and other resources like it.”
While those two songs immediately staked out the types of conversations Woods is ready to have with her music, “LSD,” featuring Chance the Rapper, which debuted last week, is the track that probably best sums up her worldview. The title stands for Lake Shore Drive, Chicago’s lakefront highway, and she uses the lake as an extended metaphor for her relationship with the city. She views the beach in Chicago as this free space, one of the few democratic spaces in the city where people—who wouldn’t typically spend time with each other—enjoy Chicago together.
“The water and the lake represent YCA, my students, my family, all the good, the joys I have in the city—and then just the complicated love that I have for the city,” she says. “There’s so many structural issues and so many terrible politicians and so many people who are dying. But that kind of tug of war, I guess, 'LSD' represents that kind of feeling.”
Woods grew up in the southern Chicago neighborhood of Beverly, at West 100th Street and South Western Avenue. Since her neighborhood was predominantly white, she and her three siblings stuck together that much more, singing, writing songs, and choreographing dances together. Woods felt alienated in her neighborhood and in her Jesuit high school, St. Ignatius, which lacked many art programs, and was strictly religious. She sought out an outlet, and auditioned for Gallery 37, a center for youth arts programs, where she cultivated an interest in performance poetry. It was through Gallery 37 that she discovered YCA and Louder Than A Bomb, YCA’s annual youth poetry slam.
She left Chicago for Brown University in 2007, and though she didn’t major in music—instead focusing on theater, and black and African studies—she joined her school’s a cappella group. She returned to Chicago after graduating because of something a visiting artist at Brown had told her.
“I realized I wanted to do art and everyone’s going to New York or Los Angeles, and I [couldn’t] figure out which one’s better for what I wanna do. He asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ And I said, ‘Chicago.’ He said, ‘It seems like Chicago is a good place to grow your wings.’”
Back in Chicago, she started the band Milo & Otis in 2012 with her classmate and friend Owen Hill, and the duo began performing at YCA, where Woods became a teaching artist. She slowly transitioned into her current role, where she’s been for almost three years. In 2015, after the band had released two projects, Hill moved to New York, and Milo & Otis broke up. Woods began working on solo material and scouring YouTube for beats. One of the first beats she came across was by a producer named Jus Cuz. It was the source material for what would become, along with co-production from Saba, “Blk Girl Soldier.” The single’s January release also came with the announcement that she had signed to Chicago indie label Closed Sessions.
In the video for “Blk Girl Soldier,” which came out in early June, Woods first appears in a room that, for her, radiates warmth—the walls bear collages of women like Parks and Assata Shakur—and sentimentality: Woods wears armor made out of hair beads and rollers.
“Having the beads as armor—those are really nostalgic to me, like getting my hair done,” she says. She adds, “I wanted the inside [of the room] to feel like the inside of my mind, filled with comforting things so then when [the room] breaks out, we’re kind of like against this stark white background and trying to maintain our strength, in that kind of struggle.”
At the end, a group of black women appear against a black background, holding images of black women whom they admire. Among other things, it’s a premonition of what’s to come. Heavn opens the floodgates for self-exploration and discovery, for what it means to be black, to be a black woman, to be a poet, to be an educator, and now, to be a solo artist. It’s a journey she’ll be continuing: She already has another EP in the works slated for release later this year. Even with the many accolades she’s already received, there’s more to be done.
“I think a lot of my creating happens in the marinating stages,” she says. The library is quiet again—the printer whirs softly as sheets of paper are printed for a class later that day; at some point, the Bomb Squad kids had retreated to the front room and eventually gone on a field trip with Coval. There’s a song called “Emerald Street” on Heavn that stems from a series of poems about the street where Woods was born. She spent a long time working on them. “I kept trying to write this perfect poem and it never quite like worked out,” she says. The song, though, another view of the same story, “captures what I was trying to get at with the poem.” She continues, with a subtle smile, “Nothing is wasted in that way; it all kind of feeds each other.”
Tara Mahadevan is cruising Lake Shore Drive. Follow her on Twitter.