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Jamila Woods on her music, life, poetry and motivations

Jamila Woods talks her debut album, 'Heavn,' and more

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Photo: Courtesy of Jamila Woods

Poet and vocalist Jamila Woods was raised in Chicago, IL and graduated from Brown University, where she earned a BA in Africana Studies and Theatre & Performance Studies. Influenced by Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks, much of her writing explores blackness, womanhood and the city of Chicago. Jamila's music focuses primarily on soul/hip-hop centered sounds. Her musical lineage includes Erykah Badu, Imogen Heap, Kirk Franklin and Kendrick Lamar. Raised in her church choir, Jamila’s musical aesthetic involves choral layering in addition to the hip-hop tradition of sampling and allusions. 

Read our interview with Jamila below to learn more about her and her work. 

Blavity: Tell us more about your upbringing, what in your life brought you to music? 

Jamila Woods: My mom is really musical. She started playing guitar when she was 13, and she would always play songs for us and teach us songs. My siblings and I would write our own songs, and we loved Disney songs. There was always a space for music in my house growing up. My sister and I grew up in my grandma’s church choir, which was one of the first experiences I had singing in front of people. I think pretty much every space I sang in as a young person was a very affirming space. In church when kids are singing, it doesn’t matter what notes they’re hitting, it’s just the fact that you’re a cute kid singing your song. It was a very affirming place to start. After that when I was in high school I got into the Chicago Children’s Choir, which is a more professional choir. That’s where I got a lot of music theory knowledge and more experience singing. 


B: Right now it feels like Chicago is going through a musical renaissance. Between you, Chance, Noname, Mick Jenkins and so many others. Do Chicagoans also feel like there is a renaissance happening, and how has the city influenced your work? 

JW: I think there’s a lot of really amazing youth arts organizations in Chicago. I think growing up in a city that had spaces where people — high schoolers from different neighborhoods who wouldn’t have met each other otherwise — just had space to come and share their work prevents people from being stuck in one style. It encouraged people to be weird and embrace their originality and their uniqueness. Because you can’t just come into an open mic in Chicago and try to be something you’re not. It’s a supportive space, but it pushes you to want to grow. Not to impress anyone but to make your own statements. Because in the spaces I came up in, like Young Chicago Authors, these spaces really encourage authenticity and that’s something that really contributes to what’s happening now. Because the people that you named, we don’t all sound alike, we don’t all come from the same part of the city, but we all share having those experiences in those organizations, which I think just speaks to the power of the culture of Chicago and the people doing that work here, now. 

B: So Heavn is your solo debut album. Tell us about the title, what does heaven mean to you? Can the afterlife be experienced here and now?

JW: The title track was the inspiration for the album. With the title track, I was thinking about ways that black love exists. Both throughout history and what I observe in my family and in my community. Thinking about that kind of love and the ways there are literal, structural elements that are at work to impede people of color, poor people, from being able to have love. Within their families, relationship love or self-love. In college, I read a whole book about black people and love by bell hooks, and also just studying slavery and seeing those effects of splitting up families and making black people believe that we’re less that human. We are still living with those effects. So thinking like in Chicago, when there are issues of segregation, different neighborhoods having different resources, police violence, and people trying to close public schools down, the question of how to manifest the idea of heaven in a very real and physical way in the city was something that was really fascinating to me. 

In church where I grew up and in just any funeral I would attend, heaven is always this thing that you have to wait for. You have to hope to attain it later or it's a pacifying thing. But "can we actually have a better a place now?" was the question I began with with that song. I then just kept exploring that idea that heaven can be here in Chicago or wherever people are, and also all of the different kinds of love that people can possess. I think there could and should be more representations of love beyond the types that are in movies or that we see most often. And all of the intricacies, once you start to name those things, like the love I have for my grandaddy or the love I have for my neighborhood or whatever it is, that is just empowering to know that us as people, that we possess that capacity for love in all of those different ways. 

B: You don’t shy away from political references in your work, especially in the song "Blk Girl Soldier." When did your racial and political consciousness begin to develop, were there particular moments or people who influenced you? 

JW: One of the things that was really impactful was my family celebrating Kwanza since I was really young. We would sit around and have these discussions about current events, within our community, or even within our family, and it kind of just made my family space and made my mind critical. I always felt that sense of examining things and not just taking things at face value but interrogating and questioning things that I saw. So I think that was definitely very influential. But at the same time, there were certain events more recently, such as the Trayvon Martin murder and the aftermath of that. I had just started working at Young Chicago Authors and we organized a town hall because the verdict had just come out and the students that we work with needed some place to go and some place to talk about what had happened. We weren’t really prepared, but we did that. Ever since that moment, it became more visceral and more physical. The age that I was at that time and the position that I was in, not just caring about myself but having these young people I was responsible for, I think kind of really was a turning point for me. 

B: You’re also a poet, tell us more about how poetry influences your work. 

JW: I came to poetry in high school kind of by accident. I was signing up for an after-school program and I had to rank what genres of art I wanted to work in and I got placed in the poetry program and fell in love with it. I had always dreamed of being a singer and didn’t have the confidence. I didn’t think my voice was the solo singer type of voice, and poetry and the mentors I had gave me the confidence to trust in my voice as it was. These programs really emphasized authenticity, so I think in that very literal way, poetry gave me the confidence in my voice that I needed in order to even be where I am now. Also I was just thinking earlier today how excited I am to tour, and I am excited for when I’m done touring to go back to poetry writing workshops, because that’s a big part of my songwriting process is writing poetry. I think that even in Heavn, there are pieces of poems that made their way into the album or sparked an idea for a song. I like that my songwriting process is really interdisciplinary, and I’ll never be able to do just done or the other. 

B: When I first heard “Lonely Lonely” and “Holy,” I just sobbed. I think in many ways the entire album feels like a love letter to black girls, and I just wanted to know if that was the intent. Do you write with the audience in mind? 

JW: I definitely do and with this project in particular, I definitely was thinking about black women and girls and my sisters — I have two younger sisters. And also thinking of a younger version of myself. I think also in anything I create, the more specific you can get, it’s not at all exclusionary, it increases the capacity for other people to have empathy for the experience for what it means to be a black girl, or whatever it is that I’m writing about. I really appreciate and love especially to know that the music connects with black girls and black women. And also to know that it connects to people beyond that. I’m always thinking about this quote Toni Morrison said where she talks about how she writes the books she wishes she had to read, and I think that’s part of what I’m trying to do. In multiple ways, both in reflecting myself and also pushing beyond what I even knew of myself, beyond what I could imagine or see at that time. 

B: The role of the artist, especially post-election, is really important because of the ways artists can move and shape generations. Do you feel like there is a type of activism tied to your artistry? 

JW: I think the way that I approach art making, I feel like it’s all connected for me. Maybe it’s because of the communities I came up in, and also maybe it’s just living in Chicago. Everyone is always having to hustle, everyone is always busy. You can’t even barely compartmentalize things. I can hardly compartmentalize from my job at YCA to my music, to my own writing. In a similar way, making community, like having a workshop or having a town call discussion about police violence, that feels like art to me. That’s a creative act, the act of making a space for people to come together and talk and share is just as creative to me as writing a poem or making a song, making myself a really nice dinner or making myself a really beautiful relaxing self-care night. That’s how my creativity operates, in a lot of different spheres. I do think that my inspiration comes from people and the place I come from and tangible things I experience. Just making something that sounds beautiful and soothing has actual value to it, so it’s more like just creating always from a place of utility and wanting there to a be an effect that comes from what I create. 

B: What advice do you have for creatives who are hesitant about sharing their work or hesitant about being vulnerable and dedicated to their work?

JW: Coming from someone who has been told that they are shy and quiet, throughout high school I was always labeled as the quiet one, and today one of my friends said she’s introverted, and people say that means you get you get your energy from being alone, but she also mentioned that she gets energy from being around people she feels comfortable with. Since I’ve learned that, I think that’s a really powerful tool, especially for creative people. You can start with the smallest circle and there’s so much value in that. Even if you just have one friend or one person that you push yourself to share with, then you can fully widen that and make that something that is very valuable to all of you. 


Jamila Woods is currently on tour in California

December 13th: Santa Ana, CA

December 14th: San Francisco, CA

December 15th: Los Angeles, CA



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Blavity Staff Writer