How Jamila Woods Turned The Legacies Of Black Icons Into Soulful Hits
The Chicago singer paints a self-portrait through the work of iconic Black creatives.
December 10, 2019 at 10:48 pm
When poet, youth educator and visual artist Jamila Woods steps on stage, it’s a divine encounter. The Chicago songstress and poet radiates angelic energy that creates an intimate and soothing connection between her and the audience. Such was the case during her performance last month at the Red Bull Music Festival in her hometown. Performing her sophomore album LEGACY! LEGACY!, released in the spring, Woods gave the audience an interdisciplinary experience that celebrated the richness of Black culture.
Seamlessly oscillating between dance, poetry, moving imagery, historical clips and live instrumentation, Woods’ performance provided a stripped-down interpretation of her album — one that was Black as hell, which doesn’t come as a surprise considering almost all of the songs from LEGACY! LEGACY! are named after iconic Black artists, from the likes of Sonia Sanchez to Octavia Butler. Woods said the process for creating the conceptually unique album was very organic.
“I was really thinking of it in terms of people who are my influences, like different artists and thinkers living and not living, who have influenced me,” Woods told Blavity. “I didn’t set out to make a project like this. It was kind of like I had writer’s block after my first album, and I started giving myself prompts like cover a Nikki Giovanni poem as a song.”
Consequently, Woods amassed a collection of songs named after people and considered aptly titling the project “Songs About People.” That small project has blossomed into her current album. Woods shared that LEGACY! LEGACY! acts as a series of self-portraits gleaned from the lenses of the various Black icons included in the collection.
YouTube | Jamila Woods
For example, during the show Woods explained how “GIOVANNI” was her personal rendition of Nikki Giovanni’s acclaimed 1968 poem “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why).” Before performing “EARTHA,” Woods played the very famous clip from Eartha Kitt’s 1982 documentary titled All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story in which Kitt hysterically laughed about the idea of compromising any aspect of herself for love. For her performance of “BASQUIAT,” Woods showed a 1985 interview of the famous artist in which he becomes disturbed by an interviewer asking him about his anger. The interviewer’s obsession with seeing Basquiat’s frustration became the inspiration for the single.
Woods said her poetically lyrical interpretation of the works of Black artists embraced throughout the album reflects her practice of often relying on ancestral energy to gauge her own future.
“I definitely draw a lot of strength from Black history and my personal history,” Woods said. “My mom is really into researching our lineage and tracing our family back through slavery and ancestry tests and tracing back to where our roots are and all that’s really inspiring. When I hear stories of individual acts of heroism that my family did, like my grandfather was the first Black dentist in Champaign, Illinois, I feel like every Black person has things like that in their family, and I think that’s really beautiful and inspiring.”
Although Woods said she doesn’t write as much poetry as she used to, LEGACY! LEGACY! is a perfect fusion of poetry and music, which was reflected throughout the performance. Poet Danez Smith performed his poem “Dear White America,” while poems from Krista Franklin, Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni were featured throughout the show as well. A Pushcart Prize-winning poet herself, Woods said her poetry is a theme that guides her music.
“I’ve always loved music,” Woods said. “When I was young, I sang in the church choir, and I was in the Chicago Children’s Choir in high school, but it wasn’t until I got into spoken word poetry in high school that I kind of gained this confidence in myself that I didn’t have before.”
Woods shared that, unlike singing in a choir, writing and performing poetry is empowering because there is no solo or praise issued based on a hierarchy — everyone has their own voice. Although the two arts differ, when writing songs, Woods shared that she uses some of the same strategies she employs for poetry.
YouTube | Jamila Woods
Chicago’s culture is another theme that’s heard throughout the album. The album’s title was inspired by a poem titled “What Will Your Legacy Be?” by the late Chicago artist and poet Dr. Margaret Burroughs. Chicago artists like Saba, theMind and Nico Segal (aka Donnie Trumpet) are also featured on the album. Woods is among the forefront of Chicago’s rich cultural scene that also includes artists like Chance the Rapper, Noname, Pivot Gang and Mick Jenkins.
“I think with a lot of the youth programs like Young Chicago Authors and Gallery 37 specifically in Chicago. There’s a way where the different art forms meld a lot,” Woods said. “I think rappers and singers would come to open mics […], so I’m really grateful for those spaces where it’s just like a nest for collaboration, and I think that’s unique to Chicago.”
In terms of molding her own legacy beyond her hometown, Woods aims to keep providing listeners with various extensions of herself.
“My Blackness is expansive, my femininity is expansive and what I do as an artist is expansive,” Woods said. “What I sound like on one project, it can evolve, and I hope to give myself permission to evolve like that because I don’t even know all the ways that I could sound like yet.”