Jamila Woods Wants You to Stop Rewriting Black History
We grabbed lunch with the Chicago singer in the middle of Harlem. Her new album, 'LEGACY! LEGACY!,' underscores why Black lineage needs to be protected.
Photo by: Kevin E. Imongirie
You’ve probably heard the stories about Harlem—we all have. The streets reverberate with the history of Black musicians, writers, and activists whose voices ricocheted across the neighborhood, and then to the furthest corners of the country. Harlem has been home to everyone from James Baldwin to Cam’ron, and still harkens back to its earliest days of energy and cultural renaissance. On foot, you can catch landmarks like The Apollo Theater and Dapper Dan's atelier studio. The intersection of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue is still jam-packed; pedestrians and drivers alike seem impatient, even on an early Wednesday afternoon.
But things also feel a little different. In 2017, a slew of small businesses were knocked down to make room for a 40,000-square-foot Whole Foods. And when I meet Jamila Woods for lunch at Red Rooster, a restaurant known for infusing Southern comfort food with drippings of Ethiopian cuisine, I notice a Starbucks three doors down, hugging the corner where a bodega should be.
Much has been said about the ways gentrification threatens to erase the neighborhood's rich history, but according to the Chicago singer, her next album, LEGACY! LEGACY!, won't let that happen. "There's a way to celebrate Black artists the way Beyoncé is celebrated, and it starts with how that looks in education," she tells me. Woods has become a fixture in the Chicago R&B scene after collaborating with Chance the Rapper on both 2015's Surf, his collaborative experimental album, and his mixtape Coloring Book the following year. Macklemore even tapped the singer for the outro of "White Privilege II" where she closed the song singing: "Your silence is a luxury." By the time she recorded her debut album, HEAVN, Jamila Woods was known for using her words when the world is often speechless.
For a minute, we reflect on Nipsey Hussle (who was gunned down in Los Angeles's Hyde Park neighborhood two weeks prior to our lunch), and why it seems as though, for most, the legacy of Black artists only begins when their lives end. For the past few years, Woods has been wrestling with how to prevent the legacy of individuals like Nipsey from disappearing. To that end, she decided to pay homage to a different Black creator on each of the album's 13 tracks, summoning the energy of poets, musicians, and writers whose fingerprints can be found all over her stirring resistance songs. The track-list reads like a roll call, with names like "ZORA," "EARTHA," and "MILES" marking themselves present. It's an example of the magic that happens when the careers of Black people are given the grace of eternal life.
Woods's work often reads like a manifesto on Black life, and her background in poetry, which she started writing and reading while growing up in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood, is partly to thank for that. "I always wished I knew a second language, and this is it," she tells me. "I found it in poetry."
Though she's been busy readying her upcoming album for release, she still works part-time at Young Chicago Authors, an arts education program that nurtures local talent and counts Noname, Chance the Rapper, and Woods herself as notable alumni. She says LEGACY!'s theme originated out of a writing prompt she assigned to her poetry class: Each student was expected to write their own version of a well-known poem. Then she challenged herself to do the same.
"I wrote a cover of Nikki Giovanni's 'Ego Trippin,'" and then Kevin Coval, who's a poet I work with at YCA, asked me to do a cover of his poem about Muddy Waters," she tells me in between bites of cornbread. "That's how I wrote the Muddy song."
According to Woods, writing songs based on the work of your muses isn’t the difficult part—it's narrowing down the list. Woods had to let go of some of her heroes in order to create the 49-minute album. Literary giants like Toni Morrison and Lucille Clifton are absent, even though Woods attributes the directness of her songwriting to the way those writers use language.
She says the title of the album came to her at a dinner last year, where she encountered a collage inspired by a 2007 poem from Chicago museum co-founder Dr. Maragret Burroughs, and which included the words "LEGACY! LEGACY!"
"This is the prime moment for you to think / And get to work / And identify what you will leave as your legacy / For you to be remembered by."
Woods's first album, HEAVN, was a meditation on her identity amid the chaos of the 2016 presidential election. The national conversation was all about "Make America Great Again," a phrase that felt especially ironic for Black Americans, who would hardly characterize the America of the past as "great." The global reach of the Black Lives Matter movement was undeniable, but one month after HEAVN's release, a clash between white supremacists and progressive counter-protestors ended in one death and 19 injuries. Where could you be safe?
Rather than confront national politics head-on, though, Woods chose to focus on things that were closer to home. "[Trump is] one thing going on in the world when there are so many things—on a micro-level, on a community level, and on a personal level—going on in my house and my neighborhood," she says. "What does blackness mean? What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be in love? All these questions that were happening on HEAVN—I got to have a deeper understanding on what those things mean to me now."
Nestled across that album's 20 tracks are meditations on Black lineage, including callouts to women like Rosa Parks and Ella Baker ("Blk Grl Soldier") and Assata Shakur ("Assata's Daughters"). But where HEAVN found Woods fixated on her place in the world, LEGACY! unravels centuries of revisionist history that white-washed Black achievement. The singer's sophomore album declares that Black history is American history.
Woods doesn’t limit her interpretation of the past to cultural icons. In fact, she spends much of LEGACY! exploring her own family lineage through the lens of her literary and musical heroes' ideas. "My mom is really into genealogy and piecing together our family tree," she says. "She's told us her great-great is a woman named Sarah who was a slave in South Carolina. We also took a DNA test that traced our family back to Cameroon." The harsh reality for most Black Americans is the erasure of their family tree because of the slave trade—or the complicated history the results do provide.
On LEGACY!, the singer references her "great-greats" a handful of times, using their stories as a reminder to stay strong and resilient in the present day. Woods centers her mother and grandmother on "GIOVANNI"'s hook, providing glimpses of the ways the Black women in her world armed her with tools to shield herself. "I’m protected / Joycetta prayed on me / Momma burned sage for me / None of that can take the energy away from me," she sings.
Growing up, Woods says she didn’t always think the reiki techniques her mother taught her were cool. But as she got older, her mom's rituals became a sanctuary when she felt out of place in predominantly white settings. "I talk about it on 'ZORA' too,” Woods says. "My mom would always say, 'Imagine white light around yourself.' It's like a bubble of protection."
Elsewhere, Woods debunks the trope of the "angry Black woman," berated for displaying any emotion besides a smile—while acknowledging that when you're navigating the world as a double minority, the anger you experience can often feel inherited. "It's like you want to be me / You trying to provoke me / This shit hereditary / The pressure rising in me," she sings on "BASQUIAT."
"Anger and stress has literally created high blood pressure in people throughout time," she says. She's talking about the correlation between discrimination and health conditions like diabetes and hypertension in the Black community—a phenomenon public health researcher and professor Arline Geronimus has described as "weathering."
Her rage is most obvious on "BASQUIAT" and "BALDWIN," their spurts of paranoid percussion and the skepticism in her voice marking a stark departure from the dreamy optimism of HEAVN. "BASQUIAT" is a deliberate provocation, with a hook that mimics a 1985 interview with the painter, captured in last year's Basquiat: Rags to Riches documentary. "Are you mad? / Yes I’m mad / What makes you mad? I don’t fucking know," she sings.
"[The interviewer] is like, 'What makes you angry?' and [Basquiat] pauses for a minute and says, 'I don’t remember,' Woods says. "It felt like in that moment, he was denying that annoying white dude's access to his interior emotional space, almost as if he didn’t want to be that vulnerable with him."
Woods's relationship with anger is one she still seems to be working through. "A lot of times people will say, 'Your music is political, but it's not angry'—like that's a compliment. It rubs me the wrong way that not being angry is a compliment to a Black woman. I have an aversion toward anger, but I feel it. I don’t think it looks or sounds the way people expect it to."
Woods said she initially wrote "BALDWIN" for HEAVN, but struggled with delivering the message she was trying to. "The writing on it wasn’t very good, because I was still grappling with being tasked with loving your neighbor, loving white people," she says. "I was struggling with it, and I’m addressing white people directly, in a way that I don’t usually set out to do in my music." Her producer, Slot-A, suggested watching battle rap to finish the song. "In battle rap, it's very important to know whoever you're battling, to the point where you almost love them," she says. "There's a level of intimacy you need to tell them about themselves."
"MUDDY" finds Woods condemning those who tap into Black culture as a matter of convenience, and resisting the notion that imitating Black culture means you're a part of it. "You're reaching for the stars / I'd rather stay muddy," she sings. "They can study my fingers / They can study my pose / They can talk your good ear off / On what they think they know."
To be "muddy," according to Woods, means praising the contributions of people from neighborhoods like Harlem or Chicago, in real time, instead of waiting for a cosign from the mainstream. "I'd rather stay immersed in the community where we're creating the next language everyone is using, or the next song everyone is listening to," she tells me. "I'd rather be on the ground experiencing it, as opposed to being a vulture, waiting above to snatch up the whole thing."
Amid recent headlines about video games lifting dances from hip-hop artists and pop stars imitating the performances of Black musicians, LEGACY!'s goal is to prevent communities from being robbed of their storytellers. To that end, "BALDWIN"'s opening line is both a worthy thesis for the album and a lesson in who is allowed to control the narrative: "You don’t know a thing about our story / Tell it wrong every time."
Ultimately, by harnessing the stories of her predecessors, LEGACY! reinforces the power of Woods being her own storyteller. “I don’t think black people should feel the responsibility to tell all of our collective stories, but in telling our individual story, it also is a collective story,” she says. On that note, she pushes her plate of half-eaten chicken to the side.
LEGACY! LEGACY! is set for release on May 10.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.