Carefree Black Music: We Talked to Jamila Woods About Her Uplifting Debut Album

The R&B artist has collaborated with Macklemore and Chance the Rapper. With the release of "Heavn"—her first full-length album that explores blackness, police brutality, and self-love—she is finally in the spotlight on her own.

by Gabby Bess
Jul 11 2016, 3:55pm

Images by Zoe Rain and Whitney Middleton

When her band—a two-person R&B outfit that played around her hometown of Chicago—broke up last year, Jamila Woods wrote an incantation to set her intentions for the next phase of her life.

"I wrote that I will make music that heals people, I will perform in front of millions of people, and I will make music that no one has ever heard before," Woods, who just released her first studio album today, told me over the phone. She laughed as though she were a bit embarrassed to be a woman of such ambition. "I think I accomplished at least the first two."

Indeed, she has since worked with high-profile artists like Macklemore, regardless of his faults, and Chance the Rapper, for whom she sung the irresistible hook on "Sunday Candy"; she also featured on a track for his critically acclaimed album Coloring Book. Though she went uncredited on this work, the collaborations still gained her attention. Perhaps this is because her voice is so distinct—cheerful, yet smooth and soulful, like an anonymous ray of vocal light that beckons you to its source. It would be foolish not to follow it.

Read more: Author Helen Oyeyemi on the Politics—or Not—of Writing Black Female Characters

And with Heavn—the latest manifestation of her spell that firmly fuses hope, resistance, and magic with what it means to be a black woman—she has made good on her promise to do what she can to heal us. After the highly publicized deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two black men who were shot and killed by cops last week, Heavn is a 13-track-long deep breath for those of us who feel sick, sad, angry, and afraid in the wake of ongoing police violence against black people in America.

Woods has called the album, out from indie label Closed Sessions, an "exploration of blackness." It is frequently smile-inducing—with references that feel like a secret handshake among black girls (How many different oils we know? she brags playfully on "Bubbles")—but it is also inherently sad. But while it reaches outward, Heavn also touches on things that are personal to Woods, a conversation with her own experience of growing up black.

Though she was always surrounded by her grandmother's church community and caring family members, Woods was raised in a predominantly white pocket of Chicago—Beverly—which she says colored her relationship with her own skin. "There was always this underlying feeling that black wasn't as beautiful. That didn't really come from my family at all. It was always this unspoken thing in predominantly white spaces," she told me. "It wasn't outright bullying, but an accepted idea that these are things that are beautiful, and I was aware that I didn't have those things. It wasn't until I left those spaces that I was able to appreciate my blackness, my hair, and all of the other things like that."

The first track on the album, "Bubbles"—a family affair, produced in part by her sister, Ayanna Woods—is airy like the title suggests, and it deals with this embrace of her blackness. In it Woods celebrates black girls in a happy and almost bratty way, which makes it a pleasure to hear and sing along, equally. At one point, over a refrain of "You can bust my bubble," she sings: "I keep knives in my kitchen / Oh, not the one you're thinking," referring to the tough hair on the nape of her neck—known as "the kitchen"—as a kind of protection. Though the album as a whole is certainly not about hair, the curly, kinky strands pop up again and again; in the music video for "Blk Girl Soldier," the album's first single, Woods wears foam rollers and plastic barrettes, staples of black hair care, like armor.

The song itself is an anthem of defiance in the face of a world that strives to make black women invisible. It's another upbeat song that one can, heartwarmingly, imagine black girls singing along with and feeling good about themselves ("No, no, no, she don't give up"). In the music video, choreographed and set-designed entirely by black women, two young girls from The Happiness Club dance joyfully behind Woods in the background. But its undercurrent is dark; Woods sings about how "we go missing by the dozens" and "ain't nobody checkin' for us." While she lists the names of prominent black female activists, she also slides in a reference to Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa who was exhibited as a "freak show" in 19th-century Europe, and the horrible, racist history of treating black women like specimens: "Look at what they did to my sisters / Last century, last week / They put her body in a jar and forgot her / They love how it repeats." Over the phone, Woods explained the song as catharsis: She wrote it when she read the news of the acquittal of an off-duty cop who shot and killed a black woman named Rekia Boyd in Chicago.

Watch: Azealia Banks on Her New Music and Being a Controversial Witch

Not all the songs on the album are political. Some are about love, like "Emerald Street" featuring Chicago rapper Saba, and "LSD" is an ode to her city in which Chance the Rapper returns a guest spot. There are also paeans to self-love, like the excellent closing tracks "Holy" and "Way Up." Still, I think some of Woods's best work engages directly with social issues. "VRY BLK," a track about police killings, has the tone of someone who is rightfully angry, but chooses to smile, and its cadence—of schoolyard rhyme, Miss Mary Mack—contrasts its morbid subject matter. While Woods starts off with tweetable lines like, "Black is like magic / The magic's like a spell / My brother's went to heaven / The police going to—" later, she sings, "If I say that I can't breathe / Will I become a chalkline?"

When I asked Woods, who is also a poet and a teacher with a nonprofit called Young Chicago Authors, if she considered herself an activist, or her art activism, she said she considered it more of a public service. "The art space is a really big space that people get educated through," she said. "I like to use my poems and my songs as an avenue to talk about things that aren't getting talked about in schools or in the media. I'm not setting out to make political art. But if everyone in my community is hurting by a decision the mayor has just made, or mourning the loss of someone that the police just killed, then of course that's what my writing is going to be about. That's where the hurt is, and that's where the healing needs to be."

You can stream the full album here.