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One of my most prominent memories from childhood involves my hair. I remember those warm summer afternoons when my mom would have to drag me to her room to get my hair done. I remember crinkling my nose and squinting my eyes shut from the pain of that baby pink comb pulling through my thick tresses. I remember my mother’s hands so skillfully weaving the strands of my hair together. And when she was finished, she would secure each twist at the nape of my scalp with a hair accessory garnished with a colourful sphere at both ends. She called these accessories “bubbles.”
“Bubbles,” the opening track on Chicago singer Jamila Woods’ debut album HEAVN, sets the tone of the album with the poetic combination of innocence and danger. As careful, soulful vocals flood into our speakers, Woods’ voice instills a lyricism that brings me back to my childhood straightaway. “Black girl be in a bubble, bubble,” she draws out, “Floating quietly out of trouble, trouble…Always ask why you listen before you speak.”
HEAVN continues to reaffirm Chicago’s status as a music leading capital. Woods had the backing of fellow Chicago talents Donnie Trumpet and Chance the Rapper with her features on their respective tracks, “Sunday Candy” and “Blessings.” But in a stunning debut, Jamila Woods and her soulful voice stole Donnie Trumpet and Chance's spotlight. HEAVN tells a story about an enriching city, loved ones who have passed, black girlhood, and self-love. It’s the message about black girlhood and self-love that gets me the most. Identifying as a black female, HEAVN illustrated my childhood experiences in a way that no other album has done before. As a self-made poet, Woods’ lyrics incorporate and empower black culture at every turn and transition. From phrases like “fix your face” to “black girl magic,” HEAVN captured my attention from start to finish.
Growing up in a small town where nobody else looked like me was tough. But, growing up in a society where I rarely saw a representation of myself in popular culture made discovering who I am as a black individual even tougher. All of my Barbies were white, save for Scary Spice whose name alone made me want to be nothing like her. The children’s books, the commercials, the television shows—they all portrayed this one encompassing ideal of beauty that was a polar opposite to me. I was uncomfortable with the pigment of my skin, the texture of my hair, the size of my nose, and everything else that I now know makes me unique. I had been unconsciously trained to despise my differences.
This is why “Blk Girl Soldier,” the seventh song on HEAVN’s track list, speaks to me the way it does. Arguably one of the most honest songs I’ve ever heard, “Blk Girl Soldier” celebrates the resilience of Black women everywhere. As soon as I turned four, my father gave me a speech about the colour of my skin. He stooped down to my level, looked me dead in the eye and said, “Baby, keep your head up, and watch what you do and say. The world is different for you than it is for those other kids.” I didn’t understand what he’d meant right away, but it didn’t take me very long to figure it out.
I got teased at school for my bubbles and twists. While the other girls used to do each other’s hair during recess, I sat on the hill opposite them–a little Black girl soldier observing from afar. Every now and then, someone would come over and offer me to join their French braiding party. I, quiet as ever, declined as politely as a seven-year-old could because I knew that what grew from my head was something that they could never fully understand without having grown it too.
As I continued down the wobbly cycle of adolescence, I was only greeted with more signs of separation. The products for my hair weren’t kept in the beauty aisle, but in a smaller section labeled “ethnic.” I was turned away from hair salons and told I needed “special treatment.” In one of my very first modelling gigs, out of the 12 makeup artists there, only one felt comfortable with painting my face.
It took me 20 years to move away from my insecurities and transition into the state of self-love. I finally convinced myself of the truth–I am beautiful; my skin, my hair, my nose, my thoughts and everything else that my younger self despised. Artists like India Arie and Eryka Badu inspired me to love a culture that already loved me.
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Woods’ “Holy” is a testament to my self-actualization. In the final stanza of the poem “Holy,” Woods sings the words, “My cup is full, what I got is enough,” with strength behind her voice that is powered by a confidence unlike any other. As the second last song on the album, I believe that Woods’ words tie HEAVN together seamlessly.
Though I still have many more stairs to climb, I understand that my life is a gift from God, and that everything He touches is beautifully and wonderfully made. I don’t anything or anyone to complete me, because I am already whole—dark skin, “ethnic” hair and all. Jamila Woods’ HEAVN means more to me than perfected vocal runs and soothing melodies. Her lyrical nuances boldly speak on political and social injustices that explain the story of life from the perspective of a minority like me.
When I listen to HEAVN, I see solidarity and hope. I see a future where the colour “black” is stripped of all negativity and worn on the skin of its hosts with nothing but pride. As a black woman with the sweat of my ancestors yearn for freedom flowing in my blood, it is my duty to fight for equality. It is my duty to love and support my brothers and sisters going through similar struggles. And it is my duty to help break through the invisible chains that we have allowed to entrap us for so long.
Jamila Woods is an artist that brings inspiration to every little black girl in 2016. May they link arms and wear their bubbles like a crown placed upon their heads by God himself.
Brianne James is a writer living in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.