In a quiet corner booth, poet, teacher and musician Jamila Woods carefully taps on her phone and scrolls through a Google doc. It’s not the sort of behaviour you'd normally clock in this east London bar, usually heaving with people splashing pint spillover onto the wood floors – but then again, it’s barely 11AM on a Friday in March and they’re not serving yet. We’re around the corner from the UK office of Jamila’s indie record label Jagjaguwar, huddled close while bar staff in the background prep for the day ahead. Jamila's looking for a list she’s drawn up, of some of the main references you hear in her nurturing and ambitious second album, LEGACY! LEGACY!
See, it’s a concept album, with songs named after formative black and brown artists – think writers James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston, blues legend Muddy Waters. But that doesn’t mean the tracks themselves feel like dry history lessons about each of the 13 musicians, authors, visual artists and so on. Instead, Jamila uses the album to slice into the fabric of the black American experience, letting light pour in through each track. “It feels like reflecting on myself is actually what attracted me to write through these particular names," she tells me, her speaking voice gentle and sonorous in a way that makes me silently wish she’d read me bedtime stories every night.
She experienced a doubly long album cycle for her debut HEAVN (technically released first in 2016, then again by Jagjaguwar in 2017), and so "went through such a long time of doing press and talking about it. A lot of the things I was watching were interviews, with people like Eartha Kitt, Muddy Waters, Basquiat. And it’s always like this white guy – I can’t do that 'newsreader' accent – asking the dumbest questions." She laughs. Seeing those moments, "I was very inspired by the way they would respond to those questions, whether by laughing in their face or being like ‘this is my truth over here and you can’t twist it’, without getting shook up."
A lot of those responses centre on knowing yourself, and feeling grounded in your own history. In a way, as noted by Noisey’s Kristin Corry this month, Jamila then uses the album to commemorate some of the textures and feelings of black American history. At moments we discuss Jamila’s upbringing in a largely white neighbourhood, or an album title she ended up scrapping (“For a while, I called the project Songs of My People, after the book of black photography, and everyone was like… eugh"). But ultimately, our chat returns to how the internet both flattens and erases history – how if something isn’t logged on a website, it can feel as though it doesn’t exist. And yet those same webpages can publish total nonsense, making it look legit.
"You see how a different demographic know about Eartha, from a viral clip from a documentary that’s gone so far on Twitter and Instagram,” she says at one point. “So she can feel more visible than Nikki Giovanni or Zora, right?” You may look through the names on the tracklist – “GIOVANNI”, “SONIA”, “EARTHA” – and think, ‘OK but where do I start with their work?’ That’s what Jamila’s Google doc is all about. We asked her to pull together a sort of LEGACY! LEGACY! reading list, offering you starting points to access some of the album’s referenced names. For those of us who didn’t grow up in the US, and even those who did but weren’t offered lessons on some of these thinkers and artists, it feels like a starter pack of sorts. Here it is, in her own words.
"I remember this from the after-school programmes in poetry that I came up in. After college I started working at a non-profit, and this has become one of the poems we teach a lot. We like to draw the bridge between a Nikki Giovanni and Kendrick Lamar’s "i" – showing these two ways of talking about the self, the ego and having a poem that hypes yourself up."
"A lot of her early interviews are so dope. One, her conversation with James Baldwin, just went viral. There’s this other one where she’s interviewing Muhammad Ali, though. She gives a great interview of him, but at the end she reads a section from her book Gemini. And talking about why she does what she does, she says something like "because there are so many people who put a lot of time and energy into me – like my mother, my grandmother – and I believe the world deserves to know their names. So that’s why I write." Even though I didn’t see that when I was writing the song, I did the video with almost that exact idea. I interviewed a lot of women in my life, including my mum and grandma, and so I thought that was a cool synergy."
"A friend gave me the book a few years ago, and I kept reading it in little pieces. It clicked when I re-watched that Muhammad Ali interview the second time… it struck me differently to hear her read it out loud to him."
ZORA NEALE HURSTON
"Do you know about the piece of art Glen Ligon did, inspired by Zora’s piece? I think I first saw that in some art exhibit and it made me look up the essay. I was struck by it, and really related to it. I grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood on the southside of Chicago, which is quite rare – the southside is historically very black. I appreciated her tone in it, its confidence. She writes, "I feel more colored when I’m thrown against a sharp white background," which got me thinking about how "other" I would feel, often as the only black person in my class, or in the only black family on our block. Then when I’d go to an all-black church, I’d still feel different to others. It really related to that sentiment.
BONUS: Their Eyes Were Watching God.
"She wrote this in dialect, which people really didn't like at the time. Back then, the idea was that, as a black person, you wanted to be ‘presentable'. You wanted black people to be published and seen as professional. I like that her way of not really caring how she’s perceived was ultimately freeing. It opened up what it could mean to be black."
"This clip is still sinking in, every time I rewatch it. Again, I really liked that dynamic between her and the interviewer; she drops so many gems. She says something like, 'I fall in love with myself and want someone to share me with me.' I took away 'Who's gonna share my love with me?' as a central question. So for me, I’ll ask: 'Who’s gonna be my person I can cuddle with?' or 'Who’ll make me feel less lonely?' but there needs to be a deeper question that I’m asking. The question like, 'Who’s gonna show me respect?' and, 'Who’s gonna share the love I have for me, and not love me in a way that’s restricting?'"
Book: The Fire Next Time
"I was thinking about the part, in the letter to his nephew, when he says that we have to love white people. And I just like how he talked about love in general. He has this quote: 'Love takes off the masks that we really can’t survive by wearing.' It’s like, ‘I’m going to challenge you, because I love you’ love. The hate will take energy away from us in a way that love wouldn’t.
"So I was grappling with that, and how hard it still is to do, in practice. Whether it’s at my job or just out in the world, I’ve got to be really conscious of how to approach interacting with white people, with love, when our interaction comes through a microaggression or something that feels harmful. I struggled with writing a song that was kind of directed towards white people, so my way into it was to have a conversation. I would actually dedicate my energies towards expressing something that’s beyond… 'fuck y’all'. It’s about loving white people, but still criticising and fighting to dismantle the system of whiteness."
"I’ve been really inspired by her for a long time. When I was writing poetry, fresh out of college, I was fascinated by both Frida and Bette Davis – these women in relationships with very prominent artists. Women whose husbands were originally more famous than them. Thinking, ‘What would that have felt like?’ I had so many questions about that. I remember reading that Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera had two separate houses with a bridge in between, and just thought, ‘That’s so awesome… that’s my ideal.’ Having your own space but still having a partner you can go over to. So really, the song’s inspired by that idea: ‘Yes, I like you, but I don’t want to chase you.’
"I bought this when I was writing my song 'FRIDA'. The way she writes about Diego is so… she loves him with her whole being. And I just… I feel that. Thinking, ‘I wanna be independent, I wanna have my own space,’ while also being bowled over with this person and knowing how not to see that as a weakness."
"The documentary gave me the context of knowing that he was in this very white art world. And people could dismiss him as, ‘Oh… you’re doing graffiti.’ But he was more like, ‘Yeah, but I’m doing my aesthetic, like everyone else.’ In this interview, the journalist asks, 'Are you angry?' and there’s this whole air that Basquiat’s trying to fuck with him. When he's asked, 'What are you angry about?' Basquiat pauses for what feels like two minutes, then goes, 'I don’t remember.' It’s just like daaaaamn… Sometimes I can feel like I have to ingratiate myself to the press, even if they’re asking a microaggressive or annoying question.
"In reviews of HEAVN, people were like: ‘Oh, it’s protest music but it sounds like a playground.' 'It’s protest music but it sounds sweet, and not angry.' Hmm. I feel like anger is a very important emotion – especially for black women, for us to feel like we can be angry without that being a bad thing. I was thinking about that idea of ‘owning’ being angry and not having to say no when someone asks ‘are you mad?’ I love that."