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Jamila Woods
Jamila WoodsPhotography Bradley Murray

Jamila Woods is securing her legacy

The Chicago soul singer, poet, activist, and teacher discusses her Zora Neale Hurston-inspired new single and the upcoming album LEGACY! LEGACY!

While she was visiting a friend for dinner last year, Jamila Woods found herself entranced by a collage hanging on a wall. The artwork was created by Woods’ friend and mentor, Krista Franklin, and showed the word ‘legacy’ twice, screen-printed in large lettering. The words were taken from a poem by Margaret Burroughs. “I just knew those words were the name of my next album,” Woods says. “Honouring all the people who came before, and asking the question: What will your legacy be?”

Black history is full of upheaval, pain, and suffering, but also artists and activists leaving a legacy of strength, resolve, and joy. In the two years that have passed since Woods’ debut album, HEAVN, the Chicago-based soul singer, poet, activist, and teacher kept her mind churning, tapped into the roots of black artistic expression. The result is a self-assured, meditative set of songs, appropriately titled LEGACY! LEGACY! The record sees her again working with featured guests like Saba, and Nico Segal, as well as new collaborators in Nitty Scott, theMIND, and violinist/vocalist Jasminfire. Each track on the album bears the name of an inspirational artistic figure: “BASQUIAT” for visual artist Jean-Michel, “MILES” for trumpeter Davis, and so forth.

“ZORA”, the album’s lead single, is indebted to African American author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. The accompanying video, filmed in the Johnson Publishing Archives at Chicago’s Stony Island Arts Bank, surrounds Woods and her band in the monumental archive of African American written word, hardcover spines in a radiant array of colours. “When you walk into the unknown all by yourself and alone / What will your legacy be?” Burroughs’ poem asks. On “ZORA”, and the rest of the album surrounding it, Woods strides into the unknown, confident and curious, hoping to find an answer.

There are so many impressive ideas and themes on LEGACY! LEGACY!, issues like trauma, memory, and strength. How did you approach tackling these particular songs?

Jamila Woods: It’s useful for me to have some kind of structure or limitation. When I was first writing, I realised HEAVN used a lot of samples. With this album, I had to think about how I could sample things in a way that’s innovative in terms of lyric writing – citing interviews with some of these people, or referencing essays or poems, as opposed to making allusions in my singing. I didn’t want to write about people who inspire me, but have them in the room with me. That definitely gave the writing more strength, and a reference to memory. It empowered me. There’s a lot of, “I’m a badass because I come from this lineage!” in these songs. I’m giving myself permission to speak more personally about personal issues in a stronger way than I previously could have.

Did the subject matter dictate the melodic direction?

Jamila Woods: (Chicago producer) Slot-A had been working on instrumentals, and when I heard them, they just put me in the space of particular people and ideas. Once I realised what I was doing (with this album), I would come in and say, “I want to do this song about Octavia Butler that sounds kind of spacey.” Sometimes what he came in with made me think of what I wanted to say. We were always intentional about the sound space we were creating.

On “ZORA”, you sound deeply confident as a vocalist, heroic and spirited in the hook: “You will never know everything everything / I will never know everything everything.”

Jamila Woods: Yes! I was thinking about one of my favourite pieces by Zora Neale Hurston, “How it Feels to be Colored Me”. I’ve written poems about it too, a poem about my neighbourhood and navigating my blackness. Having grown up in a primarily white neighbourhood, often at schools I was the only black person in the class.

You also sing “My weaponry is my energy,” a little remedy for when you feel misunderstood or judged at first glance. Did you specifically feel essentialised, or put in a box sometimes?

Jamila Woods: You get told what your identity means, what it means to be black. I learned that as something I was questioning: “Oh, am I black enough?” My blackness is so different than how I see it represented back to me. Zora doesn’t really concern herself with what other people might think about her. She says, “I do not weep at the world, I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” That was so empowering, and I was channeling that energy in the song. I’m pushing my voice to do more things on this album, compared to HEAVN and my music before that. I realised I shouldn’t be comparing my voice to other people, but rather trying to focus on what it can do.

In the “ZORA” video, you’re performing the song surrounded by artefacts from the historic black-owned publishing company. How does it relate to the song?

Jamila Woods: Books are so important in my process. With Zora being a novelist and writer, I wanted someplace that would reference that. It’s not just a library, these are historical artefacts that are being preserved. Zora was also an anthropologist and would go to black communities in the South and study them. It felt very appropriate to shoot it in a place trying to preserve this aspect of black culture.

It was partially inspired by me just loving my band, obviously. We have been touring for a while, and I’ve just always noted how the live versions of other songs had this energy that’s definitely not captured fully on the album. So I thought it would be really cool to let people into what this is going to sound like live while giving them the song at the same time.

“My blackness is so different than how I see it represented back to me” – Jamila Woods

There’s a moment when the bright spotlight overwhelms the viewer, and you look at the camera and sing, “Fill my enemies with white light.” How important was it to show defiance and strength?

Jamila Woods: It was really important for me. We were trying all these different outfits, and I was like, “I want to wear these pants!” Everyone was wearing these military boots and futuristic clothing. I wanted to have this energy, to be wearing something that would allow me to feel like I’m in control of my body and space and how I’m performing. Across a lot of the songs on the album, I feel powerful and confident when I sing them.

I’m in my late 20s, approaching 30, and I have always heard older women in my family say, “No more bullshit.” I’m just trying to notice the ways that that’s hard for me, be gentle with myself, and affirm myself. Through my art I can make myself feel powerful and confident.

Is there an element of “ZORA” that you’re most proud of?

Jamila Woods: I feel proud of the song’s ability to communicate the complexity of my experience. There’s so much of the language in that song, like “collard greens and silver spoon”, that makes me feel how I felt when I would write a poem when I was 16. Just like, “Oh this is so me!” But I also feel proud of the growth and improvements since then, and how collaborative the process was. Slot-A and I worked really well together throughout the whole process. I’m proud that the production was something I was also active in.

Collaborating is always an organic process to me, focused on a sense of curiosity, wanting to know what they would have to say about a certain topic. With theMIND, I knew that he was really into Afrofuturism, so I knew I would love to work with him on the “SUN RA” song. When I first listened to Nitty Scott’s music, I saw she was singing about things I reference on “Blk Girl Soldier”, and I saw her on Instagram at the Women’s March. I wanted to know what she would have to say about “SONIA”. Picking who to work with felt like thinking about who I would want in this conversation with me.

In “SONIA”, you have lines about your ancestor being a slave, and Nitty Scott about her abuela. It’s about defiance of status and identity. You acknowledge complicated histories and complex interpersonal relationships in the song.

Jamila Woods: That was inspired by Sonia Sanchez. She has a poem in the voice of a black enslaved woman that she improvised with a jazz band. It basically says it was bad, the title of her documentary being BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez. Bad things have happened, trauma happens, but we can try to work through it, get over it – and that’s very real. It’s important to have the opportunity to say, “This shit was terrible. That happened to me.” And I can say that, and it doesn’t prevent me from healing.

What do you think Chicago needs right now?

Jamila Woods: No person is unique enough to be the only person who feels a certain way. There’s always going to be some kind of chaos. Thinking about my ancestors and the artists and thinkers who are older than me, it’s not like this situation is new. It’s so humbling to remember my ancestors have also put out big fires – and had to live through big fires. That thought was very comforting to me and very empowering. I hope that my album is a way of inviting people to have that same reminder.

Jamila Woods’ new album LEGACY! LEGACY! is out May 10