Jamila Woods Is a Genre-Blurring Multitasker
Woods discusses her upbringing on the South Side and the road that led to an album that encompasses her experiences as an African-American woman and her complicated relationship with her hometown.
Jamila Woods has spent most of her life multitasking, so juggling writing, education, community work and an increasingly high-profile music career doesn’t faze her.
“It’s important to immerse myself in one thing at a time to do it well, but I could never do one thing only,” Woods says. “I will always be a poet and a singer, because I’m interested in bending genres and pushing boundaries of what is considered a poem, what is considered a song. I like bringing my poet brain and sensibility to lyrics I write.”
The poet-teacher-singer released two albums in 2012-14 as part of the pop-R&B duo M&O, and made a deep impression with cameos on hit singles by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (“White Privilege II”) and alongside Chance the Rapper (Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s “Sunday Candy”). Her debut solo album, “HEAVN” (Closed Sessions), was released a few weeks ago to widespread acclaim.
Like many of her generational peers, Woods, 26, came up through the open-mic and poetry scenes. As a teenager, she was a mainstay at the Gallery 37 Center for the Arts and now is a teaching artist at Young Chicago Authors. In an interview, Woods discussed her upbringing on the South Side and the road that led to an album that encompasses her experiences as an African-American woman and her complicated relationship with her hometown. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.
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Q: As a kid growing up, did you view poetry and music as complementary or were they competing for your attention?
A: I always loved singing because I grew up in a very musical family. My mom wasn’t able to do music professionally because her parents wanted her to get a “real job,” but she played guitar. Me and my three younger siblings, we sang together in grandma’s church and I was in the Chicago Children’s Choir in high school, but I didn’t think I had the voice to be a singer professionally. Then I got into Gallery 37 poetry very much by accident — you sign up for a type of art you want to study and I picked “performance poetry.” I fell in love with it. They took us through open mic nights and it was transformative to see young people listening to me. Through that I was able to recognize that my singing voice is valuable and that it doesn’t have to sound a particular kind of way, it didn’t have to sound like people who got all the solos in choir.
Q: Did you want to make a statement with your first album?
A: The question I had going into it was, how could I create in a way that was most authentically me and let go of restrictions? I had done a lot of collaborating and been in a band, but it’s a whole different thing to do my own thing. In my band, we tried to meet in middle, and on someone else’s project, you have to keep in mind their vision. This was my blank slate to fill. I think about the utility of what I create, what will it do for people, and myself. Throughout the project, it was a gut check, a heart check. All the time I would ask myself, Is it still working for me?
Q: Musically, there’s a lot of genre-blurring. Was that your intent, to avoid being categorized?
A: It was. Hip-hop is all about sampling and recontextualizing, making collages, and that is the base for my songs. I draw on soul, hip-hop, gospel, but within that, who I am is shaped by many things — Incubus and Jimmy Eat World are important to me too. All the performance spaces I came up in use hip-hop as a tool, and it’s the way poetry was taught to me. Growing up in church, I picked up on the gospel and soul aesthetic. My grandma would teach me things, but I want to leave room for my whole self. The singer Khalilah said to me she wanted to let people know black girls can be weird. I want to be a conundrum for people to figure out, where to put me?
Q: Do you see yourself as making protest music?
A: There’s always a question, is this political, is this protest music, do you intend that? Sometimes it feels like it’s limiting, the way protesting is portrayed. For me, how I learned about protest music was in Chicago Children’s Choir, singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” a gospel song. My instructor would say, this is a song that Martin Luther King needed. When he was tired or feeling down, he would have his gospel choir sing it for him. It’s not a protest song, but protest music can sound a lot of different ways. I want my music to soothe, heal, refuel people, but also to energize and motivate. A song like “VRY BLK” (which addresses police violence) or “Lonely Lonely,” a personal song on how you feel about yourself — they all could be protest music. It’s broader than the connotation of “protest music” might sound. Why anyone is protesting anything is because some humans are not treated equally by other human beings. We sing protest songs to change those systems of power, but also to affirm our humanity as black people and black women.
Q: You contrast the light, melodic tone of the songs with the heaviness of the lyrics. Was it intentional to have that juxtaposition?
A: “Heavn” was one of the first songs I wrote and I was playing it to some of my poet friends. They were reading lyrics and saying it sounds beautiful, but it’s telling this story of slavery, and black history and black love and how it can be hard. That contrast was intentional. “Very BLK” is based on (the schoolyard rhyme) “Miss Susie” — a lot of handclap games are an excuse as kids to say bad words. It’s fun to say these taboo words, so using that (type of song to talk about current events) was intentional. If you present taboo things in the form of a handclap game, it can give the song another layer of nostalgia or a coded message.
Q: Will you still find time to teach and work in the Chicago arts community?
A: My art making is so tied to community it wouldn’t mean anything without it. So I am always thinking about that, whether working at open mics or starting my own space to help young people with singing. It will change going forward, but there are landmarks — like Louder Than a Bomb, this summer program we do (a Young Chicago Authors poetry festival). As I get more opportunities through music, I will have more resources to leverage toward the community. I did some things with nonprofit poetry and activism organizations with Macklemore after we did the (“White Privilege II”) song. Now it makes sense, putting all these separate things that I do together. I want to do more events like that and synthesize what I do.