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Jamila Woods – “ZORA” (Singles Going Steady)

A nod to the fiercely independent Zora Neale Hurston, Jamila Woods' "Zora" revels in defying "molds" and occupying a lane of your own.

Elisabeth Woronzoff: On the first single from her forthcoming album Legacy! Legacy!, Jamila Woods celebrates Zora Neal Hurston. “Zora” places Woods in Hurston’s perspective to reawaken the novelist’s spirit as a reminder that “None of us are free / but some of us are brave.” Woods uses the single’s lyrics to clapback to Hurston’s detractors. After the release of the iconic Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston faced castigation from other writers who problematized her writing style and characters. Richard Wright was especially vocal and in 1937 accused Hurston of “exploit[ing] that phase of Negro life which is “quaint”, the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the “superior race”. Woods gives Hurston the imagined platform to respond to Wright and the other critics who failed to see her power: “Your words don’t leave scars / Trust me I’ve heard them all / I may be small, I may speak soft / But you can see the change in the water.” Likewise, the video is shot in a library with the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves evoking Hurston’s literary eminence. [9/10]

Chris Ingalls: Chicago’s Jamila Woods takes an eclectic approach to soul music here, with a single that seems to reach far and wide. There’s an old-school vibe with rich harmonies, analog touches, and a relaxing tempo, but it’s paired up with contemporary beats in a way that doesn’t seem forced. This is the kind of song that will attract soul fans of all stripes as it checks all the right boxes but doesn’t spread itself too thin. [8/10]

John Garratt: Strikes one is that the first 25 seconds try too hard to sound “epic”. Strike two is that it’s shot in a library. The third strike can be a variety of things; the way she kind-of sings her kind-of lyrics, the power chords in the chorus, the chorus itself, the blinding light bulbs — it’s all wasted potential. [5/10]

Mick Jacobs: A nod to the independent Zora Neale Hurston, “Zora” revels in defying “molds” and occupying a lane of your own. As an indie artist who also happens to be a black woman, Woods knows the industry she works in holds its own preconceptions of her and her art. “Little boxes you can’t stick unto me,” she boasts, finding strength in qualities people often overlook. A person may be “tender” and “soft” and still hold their own in a fight. [7/10]

Mike Schiller: “ZORA” is…well, it’s a lot. It begins unassuming enough, with a subdued vocal from Woods and a slick jazz backdrop. From there, however, “ZORA” goes in enough directions for three or four songs, and somehow they’re all packed into this one. It starts like a lovely little mid-tempo jazz/R&B torch song, but by the time it blossoms to its full potential, there are overdriven electric guitars, big chunky organs, and a beat that drives forward with a purpose, rather than lingering over each hit of the snare. Assuming the title is a nod to Zora Neale Hurston, “ZORA” is a fitting tribute. It is brave and driven in a way few songs could ever hope to be, and it bodes well for Woods’ upcoming album. [9/10]

John Bergstrom: “ZORA” has a nice, soulful vibe. Unfortunately, it also has a treacly jazz-fusion vibe. For the love of the Rippingtons, that intro! I wish it stuck with the chill, sultry vibe it has for the first verse or so. After that, it’s kind of a mess. The library is very cool, as is the red and black keyboard. [5/10]

Mark Reynolds: If you’re going to title a song in honor of Zora Neale Hurston, you’d better bring it, and hard. After all, that’s how she lived: the writer, storyteller, and anthropologist best known for <em>Their Eyes Were Watching God</em> didn’t do anything halfway throughout her remarkable life. I’m not sure that Jamila Woods’ new single “ZORA” meets that level.

Woods and her band strike a post-neo-soul tone that doesn’t seem irreverent and bluesy enough to channel what Hurston was really about. Granted, it’s hard to do a song that doesn’t give two effs about a beloved figure who didn’t give two effs while she was here. But while Woods hints at it in the chorus – “You will never know everything, everything” – much of Hurston’s work was indeed trying to know everything, or as much as she could about her native black rural Florida. She gathered their stories, and those stories informed both her fiction and non-fiction writing. Woods, by comparison, seems to be too luxuriant in her embrace of her black heritage, without appreciating the knottiness and funk embedded within that heritage. This song is way too pretty and self-congratulatory to honor a figure as flamboyant and complicated as Hurston properly. I’ll reserve further judgment for when the album drops this spring, and hope she digs deeper in the remaining songs.

But what I really want to tell you about is all those books in the video’s background. Once upon a time, they were the library of Johnson Publishing Company, the Chicago-based firm that gave the world <em>Ebony</em> and <em>Jet</em> magazines. They run the gamut of black letters: fiction, poetry, history, biography, sociology, and more. Some of the books John H. Johnson, who founded those magazines and the resultant media empire, acquired on his own, others were sent by publicists hoping for a kind review in one of his magazines. The library stood as a primary point of research for writers working on articles for Johnson’s mags. At some point after Johnson’s death in 2005, Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates acquired the library en masse, and in 2015 installed it in the Stony Island Arts Bank, a former bank building in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood he transformed into a community space for art and culture.

The library is not a complete and exclusive repository of all that has been written about black people (truth be told, you can find a lot of the books online and in a public library near you), but it is a damned fine place to start. As you can see, it is visually impressive. And as someone who helped prepare the library for transfer from its temporary home to the Arts Bank, I can attest to its richness and depth. Which makes it all the more puzzling to me why, in a video of a song dedicated to a black writer, we never see the writer’s face, or Woods interacting with one of her books, or hear her specifically quoting her words. Perhaps that would have been too obvious, but considering that Hurston was buried in a grave that went unmarked for more than a decade, I’m fairly sure she would appreciate yet another generation tangibly acknowledging that she did indeed exist.

On the one hand, if the Carters can rent out the Louvre to shoot the video for “APESHIT”, then there is nothing at all wrong with a Chicago artist shooting a video in a cultural space built by another Chicago artist, containing part of the life’s work of a Chicago entrepreneur. Yet the question endures: why make a video of a song ALLEGEDLY IN TRIBUTE TO A WRITER IN A FRICKING LIBRARY AND NOT SHOW ONE SINGLE IMAGE OF THE WRITER OR HER WORK? In other words: Jamila, is this song actually about Zora or you? [5/10]

Rod Waterman: Wherein, during a game of musical CLUE, Jamila Woods commits righteous murder, in the library, with a massive guitar, a small choir, a wickedly batshit keyboard player, and a rocksteady drummer (this attempt at a joke will make at least a modicum of sense if you watch the video accompanying the song). This ain’t no Colonel Mustard joint. It’s an ALL CAPS song from an ALL CAPS album, LEGACY! LEGACY! (forthcoming on 10 May from Jagjaguwar), where influences and references abound. The result is a teeming and exhilarating intertextuality, taking in Zora Neale Hurston, black feminism (lyrics that specifically reference the 1982 classic of black women’s studies, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave by Akasha Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith) and even a riff on the old Malvina Reynolds song, “Little Boxes”, made famous by Pete Seeger, in the lyric, “Little boxes on the hillside / Little boxes you can stick unto me”, enveloped as it is in turn by a “case of chocolate on the moon, collard greens, and silver spoon”.

The four minutes and four seconds of this song contain multitudes, including all the rock and all the soul, while at the same time having the grace and humility to acknowledge that we “will never know everything”. The music sounds playful (however relentlessly tight it may be), but the lyrics tell us that Woods is most definitely not playing and it is indeed, as she says, disconcerting how she discombobs our mode. If we’re looking for comparisons, and that’s often a rather unhealthy pursuit, we might say that this feels like an invigorating fusion of Rufus and Chaka Khan and Erykah Badu, but that part doesn’t matter – this phenomenon really goes all out. [9/10]

Steve Horowitz: “Fear ain’t no way to live’, Jamila Woods sings with a free-spirit vibe and the confidence of one who understands the importance of exploring and experimenting. The jazz rhythms and transformative melodies suggest the depth of spiritual changes Woods evokes. We may never know her, as she says, but the song allows us to journey with her. [7/10]

Jordan Blum: Obviously, this one is shot well; it’s quite cinematic, with fluid camera movements and a classy color scheme. I like the music too. It’s kind of soul/jazz/rock, and it reminds me of the Roots and Little Tybee. It keeps a consistent foundation while adding new elements every so often. It’s familiar but surprising, and the allusion to Malvina Reynolds’ “Litle Boxes” is clever and subtle, too. [8/10]