Jamila Woods retraces a legacy of progress through sound

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Jamila Woods talks to us about her recent album and curated a playlist for our March theme of “Progress”

By Evan Siegel  Monday 2 March, 2020

The track list for Jamila Woods’ sophomore album reads like a roll call of icons of black history. Zora. Miles. Basquiat. Baldwin. Every song on the aptly titled LEGACY! LEGACY! is named after a major intellectual figure who changed the way we think about art, identity and race. ‘I was really utilising these people as a vehicle to tell parts of my own story that were maybe too difficult, or that I just wasn't able to do in a more straightforward way,’ says Woods.  

Take as an example the song ‘SONIA,’ named after poet Sonia Sanchez, in which Woods confronts toxic relationships with the chorus, ‘it was bad, it was bad.’ The line, Woods explains, is borrowed from one of Sanchez’s poems, and resonates for Woods in its simplicity: ‘Just owning it,’ Woods says, ‘and that not being an act of weakness to dwell on that, but really like an act of strength to name it for what it was.’ 

Even in angling towards progress, it is important to continue to analyse the past: ‘It's so confounding to me that there's this idea that, “ok, we've already talked about this enough,”’ Woods says. Indeed, much of the power behind Woods’ music derives from her ability to fearlessly identify and name things for what they are, be it toxic relationships, misogyny and anger or joy, love and acceptance. The way she does so, however — by embodying voices from the past and bringing them into contemporary rotation — reveals that progress is not a one-way avenue into the future. It is a two-way street that involves properly learning from history. 

This month, in honour of International Women’s Day and our theme of ‘Progress,’ Woods has curated a series of three events at Soho House Chicago and a playlist for House Notes. Read more and find her playlist below and on Spotify.
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One of the events you are doing at Soho House Chicago is a concert and talk with your mentee, United States Youth Poet Laureate Kara Jackson. Can you tell me a bit more about how you met and what the event will be like?
‘I met Kara through Young Chicago Authors (YCA), where I was her teaching artist and mentor. She's also a musician, and released an EP last year, so we're going to do an acoustic concert together. I'm also going to interview her about her process of songwriting and making her EP, Songs for Every Chamber of the Heart. Her lyricism is amazing, and she's an incredible poet too, so I want to talk to her about how those processes intersect. And being a black woman artist, I hear and see her tweeting about the topic of genre, and about how when black artists make music that's outside of traditionally genres that are seen as black – if they make folk music or rock music – it's called R&B anyway. I see her participating in that conversation a lot, so I want to explore that with her.’

Your music is often described as R&B. Would you agree with that description?
‘I think right now I'm at a point where I see genre as a tool when I'm creating. I love listening to certain genres to get a sense of them, so I can use them as forms or tools to make other things. To me, I've gotten to a point where whatever people call it, they're using it as a tool for their purposes, and they're trying to categorise where to put me in iTunes – that's up to them really. I personally know my music consists of inspiration from a lot of different genres: R&B, soul, gospel, emo, alternative rock, hip hop.’

For your album, LEGACY! LEGACY!, how did you decide to take on the perspectives of these legendary figures and name all the songs after them?
‘That came organically, trying to write songs after [my first LP] HEAVN and after touring a lot. I was trying to give myself some prompts, because that tends to get me into a good writing space again. I used strategies I’d learned from teaching poetry to get myself to write, and one of those was doing a "cover." So I did a cover of Nikki Giovanni's poem "Ego Trippin," which became the song "Giovanni."  That process made me think about doing a bunch of songs titled after people who inspire me, without approaching them all as a cover. Maybe sometimes I'd try to embody their voice, and say what I want to say through their voice, or maybe sometimes I'd be inspired by some aspect of how they lived. So that was kind of how it started; it just kept growing bigger and bigger and then I realised it should be an album because it was becoming a fully fleshed-out thing.’.

You’ve mentioned that "Sonia" is a very personal song. Can you talk a bit more about that?
‘Sonia Sanchez did this poem that was an improvisation with a jazz band. If you hear her recite it, the main refrain is, "It was bad," and it feels like you're watching someone embody a spirit when she performs it. It's in the voice of an enslaved black woman, and she's telling the story of the Middle Passage. It really inspired me as a visceral, honest telling of this story, because I think there’s a sort of collective exhaustion with talking about slavery. But then every time I really take the time to look into American slavery, there's always something new to be learned, and some new angle to be talked about. It's so confounding to me, that there's this idea that, "ok, we've already talked about this enough." I like the poem because it sounds like, "no, this was bad. This happened. This was what it felt like. This was what it was." Just owning it, and that not being an act of weakness to dwell on that, but really like an act of strength to name it what it was. 

I kind of translated that to the experience of being in a toxic relationship or unhealthy relationships, and being mistreated. I think a similar exhaustion exists in society when women and black women try to talk about issues of feminism or black feminism, womanism. So, just that power, again, of just being able to name: no, this happened, and it was bad, and just kind of thinking about relationships that I've had that have been like that. That's an example of a song where I feel like I couldn't just sit down and try to write that song, but having that framework, of Sonia and what she did, really helped me to do that.’ 

Little Simz - ‘Boss’
Tierra Whack - ‘Clones’
Sevdaliza - ‘Oh My God’
Sudan Archives - ‘Did You Know’
NNAMDÏ - ‘Flowers To My Demons’
Moses Sumney - ‘jill/jack’
Leikeli47 - ‘Money’
Mykki Blanco, Princess Nokia - ‘Wish You Would’
Doja Cat - ‘Streets’
Kari Faux - ‘MEDICATED’

Images courtesy of Bradley Murray