Jamila Woods on Poetry, Black Girl Magic, and her New Album
"I think I associate making something, nurturing something, growing things with the feminine. That's what I really observed in my grandma and my mom. And especially black femininity, making something out of nothing -- when I hear Black Girl Magic, that's what I think of: the idea that you're just going to make it work regardless of what materials you're given or who's believing in you or supporting you."
Chicago native singer-songwriter Jamila Woods is rewriting history. Each track of her second studio album, Legacy! Legacy!, released in May, is dedicated to a muse of black history, like Betty Davis, Zora Neale Hurston, Miles Davis, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, building on each’s legacy to inspire a new generation, as well as seamlessly blending the collective with the individual. The album is a powerful testament to how history lives in the present moment, and the need for marginalized histories to be amplified.
Woods’ songwriting has a rare combination of nuanced introspection, poetic wordplay (she has also taught poetry with the Young Chicago Authors), and cultural discourse — and she’s just as thoughtful in conversation. PERFECT NUMBER talked with Woods about the album, her literary inspirations, and her Chicago roots.
PERFECT NUMBER: We’d love to begin by talking about your most recent album, which has tributes to Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston and this whole confrontation of revisionist history and whitewashing black achievement. How did you decide on keeping these stories as the focus of the album?
JAMILA WOODS: That’s a good question. After I wrote my first album, I was kind of in a period where I didn’t know what I was going to do. I teach poetry a lot, so it’s helpful for me to give myself prompts — I just gave myself the prompt of covering this poem by Nikki Giovanni, “Ego Tripping,” to make a song version of the poem. Then it kind of just became this game I was playing with myself, to see how many thinkers or artists who inspire me I could figure out how to write music inspired by them that’s not a biography or even a persona song.
I also wanted to see how I could represent myself through this framework, to take what I’ve learned from these people and apply it to my own life. So, they’re kind of like self-portraits. Even though they’re named after these people, it’s like seeing myself through the lenses of their work — their words that have inspired me, or imagining if they were giving me advice about something. Like, what would that sound like as a song?
PN: How did you decide who to include?
JW: I had a huge, long list of people who I wanted to include, and narrowed it down to 20, but there are 12 on the album. For a few, I was trying, but didn’t want to force it; I had to tell myself it was okay not to fit every single inspiration into this project. I did think about gender balance a lot — I was thinking about feminine and masculine energy within myself. For example, “Miles” [about Miles Davis] was a song I thought about a lot because I love his work. I’m really inspired by the way he operated, and just in terms of how he carried himself, and the power games he would play as a black man navigating the white industry. But then also he’s a really problematic: kind of a misogynistic, violent person in relationship with women. So it’s definitely not like I’m putting these people on pedestals and saying they’re perfect, but more so there was something about his energy that I wanted to manifest in myself, especially as a black woman navigating this industry.
PN: So combining these dialogues with these different people becomes a way to craft your own narrative?
JW: Totally. I’ve always been kind of an introverted person, kind of a quiet, observational person. And I’ve been noticing ways that I need to be more assertive and be more aggressive. So, part of who I was choosing too was part of making my own narrative, asking what energies I wanted to manifest that I could find in them. I do a lot of astrology stuff, or talking to my therapist. And I’m a Libra, so I’m very conflict-averse. And so different situations just have called for me to have some of that being assertive and powerful in these situations to advocate for myself. For a lot of different reasons, people on the album attracted me to them because I wanted to harness something that I perceived them as having. And that’s also really important because I don’t know any of these people personally. I don’t know them as full people. It’s only these songs are a reflection of how I see them and how a lot of people see them.
PN: That divide between qualities that are perceived to be feminine and masculine is something we’re really interested in a brand.
JW: Yeah, I can see that.
PN: What do those feminine and masculine qualities you mentioned mean to you? Is it a gender thing, or more of an energy or expression?
JW: Feminine and masculine energies definitely exist in people regardless of gender! For me, I’ve been focusing more on masculine energy because it’s what I feel I lack a lot of the time. But I also think of the women in my family who I’ve learned from through osmosis and observation. It’s a lot about creativity. I think I associate making something, nurturing something, growing things with the feminine. That’s what I really observed in my grandma and my mom. And especially black femininity, making something out of nothing — when I hear Black Girl Magic, that’s what I think of: the idea that you’re just going to make it work regardless of what materials you’re given or who’s believing in you or supporting you.
PN: What does that nurturing look like in the context of making an album?
JW: The times in my life when I’ve been creatively stunted, they’ve been when I’m not moving, not dancing. My mom, especially after breakups, always says “Well, you have to make sure you’re taking care of your body as a sensual being.” Audre Lorde was one of the ones I wanted to include in the album but couldn’t get in.
PN: Her idea of self-care, to help activists avoid burnout, has become so diluted and misused.
JW: Yeah, totally. I’m reading adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism right now, and have been thinking that the idea of yourself as a sensual being has so much higher stakes than just having sex or getting pleasure just for the sake of pleasure — it’s also linked to that creative energy, that creative force. So, I’ve tried to be mindful, because the stakes are high for that.
PN: We want to talk a bit more about the books that you reference in your album because reading seems to play such an important role in your process. I love that you included the bibliography in the album notes. Yeah, I’m curious. Has that always been part of your process, to go from reading to writing songs?
JW: Yeah, it’s always been part of my process to just have a lot of material. Sometimes I’ll just pull books off my poetry bookshelf, and just be getting words. Or I’ll scroll through a Twitter feed or a text message chain that I have with someone. I like to have a lot of material to work with. Part of how I approach songwriting and poetry sometimes is as collage making. Whether or not it actually becomes apparent in the end product, I’m always having something to jump off of.
PN: That attention to lyrics allows for a lot of transmission of meaning.
JW: Zora Neale Hurston’s essay, “How It Feels To Be Colored Me” is always on my mind. Ever since I read it, I was like, “This is my whole life.” Just reading how she felt learning her blackness in relation to her environment… “I feel most colored when I’m thrown against a sharp, white background” is the often quoted part. And then she also has another line where she’s like, “I also feel most colored when I’m surrounded by other black people, the way we laugh together,” kind of like this other, more joyous way of knowing your identity, too.
PN: It’s everything.
JW: Yeah. It’s everything. That gave me permission to think of my blackness as an evolving thing I’m still learning and discovering. I grew up in Chicago, in a predominantly white area that was on the south side, which is predominantly black. And so I was always code-switching. My church, where I grew up singing in choir, was all black. At my school, it was diverse, but I’d be the only black kid in honors classes. It was this constant negotiation of, “How am I presenting? Am I being black enough in this moment? But not too black because that’s not cool here.” So, just that understanding of it being a finite thing that I was trying to achieve versus something that I possess that is still growing and can’t be nailed down.
PN: Hurston’s so good at capturing exactly that. I’m curious, given all this referential material, what audience you had in mind for the album? Do you write with an imaginary listener in mind?
JW: When I’m writing songs, I usually think about myself first, or just exciting myself, or comforting myself, myself as my primary audience. But I’m also thinking of my students, as young people of color. They just have such sophisticated taste, and I feel like people don’t speak about young people like that. That’s my testing ground. If it can resonate with my students, then I know that it’s going to resonate with other people, just because I think they have the best taste.
PN: You’ve taught with Young Chicago Authors; do you also do music mentorship?
JW: Yes, at Young Chicago Authors I was more regularly interacting with young people and teaching poetry. And also some of them are musicians, so kind of informally mentoring them. Some artists in Chicago, I’ve tried to intentionally be like, “Will you open for me on tour,” and not just have them kind of follow me in a car or something, but be like, “Come on. Be in the bus with us. Ask me questions,” kind of informally mentor them. I want to do something that’s more structured just because I feel like I have the tools to do that, having worked in a nonprofit for so long.
Then I’ve done a series of dinners for women of color in music, which is more intended to build community because I feel like there aren’t a lot of spaces where it’s not a session or something. I wanted to do something more informal, to eat and hang out with each other and not be pitted against each other. Now that I’m not working as much, I can focus more on that kind of thing in 2020.
PN: What about other established artists? Any you would love to love your music?
JW: Betty Davis. I also love Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean. I love their writing.
PN: Once again your focus on strong lyrics is evident — Kendrick Lamar is a poet.
JW: Yeah, I come from being a poet. I’m obsessed with words. My last album is very dense, but I also want to be versatile in my writing and know how to make it more economical. Like Lucille Clifton, her poetry is so brief, but it says so much. I’ve been really studying that and trying to understand different approaches because it’s almost like thinking of different forms of poetry. You could write a haiku one day. You could write a sonnet another day…
PN: Do you feel like that poetic approach is opposed to a lot of the modern state of music? Like with hip-hop, which has a history of being politically and socially charged, but a lot of it now is like lifestyle music.
JW: I feel like I just gravitate towards the type of hip hop that- still has it! I listen to a lot of people who are from Chicago, and I feel like it’s just a little different. Saba is one of my favorites.
PN: Do you think you’ll always stay in Chicago?
JW: Yeah, I love the energy of people there. Even the seasons, with such a long winter, it’s like having a long incubation to hunker down and work. Seasonal depression is very real, but it’s almost like once you make it through, you feel like you blossom and become a new version of yourself. And my family’s there. I love the music that’s being made there. I’m trying to split more time and be in LA more because I definitely see how it’s necessary to have varying different opportunities. But I think I can achieve that while still making sure I spent time in Chicago because it’s good for my mental state and good for my creativity. It’s inspiring for me.
PN: What did you listen to growing up?
JW: I listened to a lot of my parents’ music growing up. A lot of Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, musical theater soundtracks. Alanis Morissette. My dad really loves female vocalists. He loves Ani DiFranco, Celine Dion.
PN: What’s up next for you?
JW: I’m about to go on tour in Europe. And then I have a show with Red Bull in Chicago. That’s going to be an acoustic performance of the album, kind of MTV Unplugged-inspired where it’s explaining the concepts behind it, telling the story. Then in January and February, I’m going to open for Raphael Saadiq for his US tour.
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