Perhaps it was the fluctuating weather patterns of a cool September morning that caused a scarcity of civilians, but for once, Brooklyn’s quaint DUMBO area was serene. Aside from the very few cars whizzing back and forth, the easily-accessible area beneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass seemed as undisturbed as the East River, which is not too far away from the neighborhood’s famous cobblestone streets. However, just like much of New York City, the alluring unpredictability of DUMBO is enough to make you stay and see what else you can discover while there.
The same can be said for Jamila Woods, whose demeanor is delicate, yet magnetic. A woman whose true magic lies in her poise, the 27-year-old Chicagoan, adorned in an unapologetic “HERO/BLACK” tank, black skinny jeans and black leather shoes with white soles, is quiet at first. Small talk regarding her end-of-day plans seems to warrant mere “mhmm” affirmations, and she often looks down as she responds. In doing so, her funky multi-bun hairstyle ornamented with cowrie shells is prominently displayed.
Once you get past the elevator chatter, her naturally inquisitive mind turns the tables. She is equally as chatty, asking her own life questions as we make our way down Fleet Alley past a brick wall dyed with nearly every color in the spectrum, and into the cozy-yet-busy Dumbo Kitchen for a quick bite.
It’s here that we see that the singer, songwriter and poet’s charming intensity is what really pulls you in. As we defend ourselves from the serious breeze outside, Woods noms on a chicken sandwich that she leaves half-finished and a fruit smoothie, which wasn’t priced with frugal folk in mind. Between each chew, she divulges on some of her experiences with writing, including her favorite piece she’s penned.
“I really liked ‘Blk Girl Art.’ It’s like a manifesto saying why I create, whether it’s poetry or music,” the Pushcart Prize-nominated poet explains. “I don’t create from a place of me making art for art’s sake, but wanting my work to actually do stuff…tangible things.” As you can gather, the strength in Woods’ words,especially when it comes to her passions, are what make her soft voice the loudest in the room.
Woods released her debut album HEAVN in July 2016 via the indie-Chicago label, Closed Sessions. The album, which includes features and production by Chicago brethren Chance The Rapper, Saba, Kweku Collins and Donnie Trumpet, illustrates the importance of black self-love and also serves as an outlet for Woods to voice her grievances about issues pertaining to prejudices against the black community. Those unfamiliar with her newly-lauded tunes, however, have certainly heard her gentle-yet-spirited vocals on other high-profile tracks like Macklemore’s “White Privilege II,” Chance’s “Blessings” and The Social Experiment’s “Sunday Candy.”
Woods grew up the eldest of four in a primarily-white, Irish part of Chicago called Beverly. As she matured, she developed an affinity for Lupe Fiasco and Common, and adversely, Jimmy Eat World and Imogen Heap. A former member of the Chicago Children’s Choir, she began taking her music career seriously during her undergrad days at Brown University, where she performed as one-half of the duo M&O (Milo + Otis) with classmate and friend, Owen Hill. The group released two albums before they decided to go their separate ways; soon after, Jamila decided to try her hand at a solo career.
“I wanted to see what it would sound like if I had more control over more aspects of my music, like producing and knowing how to mix your songs and all that stuff,” she says of moving on. She grew up singing in church and acknowledges she wasn’t given solos, which made the thought of a solo career a bit frightening. However, she was up for the challenge.
“[M&O] was when I started realizing that, oh, I don’t have to hold my voice to the certain standard. I can just use my voice and experiment in different ways that I can use it,” she says. “I could define what I wanted to sound like for myself.”
Her July LP, a SoundCloud exclusive, took around a year and a half to finish, and features samples of well-known tunes like The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” and Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want To Wait.” Since her music is rooted in hip-hop, she implements the use of samples to create a new meaning behind the popular songs.
“I think of music as creating a space,” she explains. “I like to put things in that are comforting to me and are nostalgic. To me, that’s what sampling does in songs; it’s making deeper layers for people who know where it comes from, but also referencing another part of my history and my memory or a memory that I have.”
Much of the album interweaves the nostalgia of growing up black with the idea that there is strength in connection and vigilance. In a spoken word outro for the song, “VRY BLK,” Woods’ friend Micah Hicks discusses playing hand games with other black women she’s never met as non-black onlookers feel out of place, while the outro read by members of Assata’s Daughters for the song “In My Name” echoes the sentiment: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom, it is our duty to win, we must love each other and support each other, we have nothing to lose but our chains.” “Blk Girl Soldier” focuses on riding for other black girls and possessing a perseverant spirit. She mentions women who embody the message throughout the song, such as Rosa Parks, Assata Shakur and Sojourner Truth. The track’s video, released in June, focuses on the power of self-love and community. It’s truly the epitome of Black Girl Magic.
“In some ways, I value specificity,” she says regarding inclusion in her music. “I think that there’s power in, once you know who your fan base is, being able to speak to them. I hope to cultivate a fanbase of black girls and black people and people of color, women of color, queer people, people who are are marginalized in general.” While Woods enjoyed her hometown’s quaint feel, she often felt out of place due to the color of her skin. Feeling outcast encouraged her to begin writing poetry.
“I didn’t really fit into my high school,” she says, looking down to reveal her dewy beige eyeshadow. “It was very preppy and also a very Jesuit Catholic school, and I wasn’t Catholic, so there were so many ways that I didn’t fit. I kind of gravitated towards this after school program that met downtown that was way more diverse, and just had different types of people who weren’t so concerned about, like, ‘Is that a Tiffany’s necklace?’ or ‘Do you have the Lacoste…whatever.’”
Her experiences with marginalization first-hand, coupled with some of the more well-known issues of racism in the United States today, give Woods’ music a subtle whiff of protest and thinly-veiled frustration while still providing listeners with incredible production and soothing vocals.
“I think there’s definitely power in having different approaches to the same issue,” she says of not being silent regarding the issues in the black community. “There’s a culture of ‘you’re not woke enough, you’re not out there.’ Not everyone is built to be that type of protester, but you can access that within yourself. I think it was Audrey Lorde who said something like self-care is an act of protest and revolution, especially for black people, because so many people want to destroy blackness and black people.”
She also hopes to soldier on for causes that don’t directly affect her, which is something that gravitated her towards working with Macklemore on the aforementioned “White Privilege II.” In the early-2016 track, the Seattle-bred MC more or less apologizes for being a successful white man in a primarily black profession. Woods says that the intentionality of the song was powerful and that it was “really smart” of Macklemore to use his platform to raise awareness about appropriation. She recorded the song without regret.
Like many Chi-Town natives, Woods does what she can to give back to her community. She serves as the Associate Artistic Director of the non-profit organization Young Chicago Authors, and is a founding member of the organization’s Teaching Artists Corps, which educates Chicago youth about the city while helping them grow as both artists and people. She implements music in her curriculum to teach writing and poetry, and as an Ivy League graduate and poet whose work has been featured in three anthologies, rest assured, her pupils are in great hands.
“I feel like I get to be really close with them, which is nice,” Woods smiles when speaking about her mostly teenaged students. “They always have great energy and they’re pushing me to think of new ideas and new ways to present the same ideas.” Woods’ students’ instant feedback was also helpful when putting the finishing touches on HEAVN; she would bring in rough versions of the songs on the album for them to listen to in order to hear their thoughts.
Above all, Woods believes she and other artists ride hard for Chicago because of the inner and outer beauty the city possesses. Whether it’s the “magical” waterfront areas like Promontory Point or the generosity and friendliness of its inhabitants, she feels that the art lurking around Chicago is too important not to protect, especially since art is where she feels most comfortable.
“[Art] made me feel a sense of belonging and a sense of community that I didn’t have before because of my neighborhood, not really fitting in with my neighborhood, not really having a school that I was super-excited about,” she explains, the fervor in her voice rising. “So that became something that I thought about when I think about Chicago, it’s the artistic community. If I couldn’t have that, I think I would be a totally different person, and that’s really how I gained a lot of confidence, not even just in performing, but my sense of value of myself I think came through my writing style and the people I met there.”
Never one to keep my all of my interview questions stagnantly professional, I press Woods with a cheeky challenge.
This is a fun one. Since you’re a poet, give me a quick haiku about Chicago that sums up the city. “Oh God,” she places her hand on her cheek, laughing. “This is freestyle! Haiku…5-7-5…” She pauses before counting on her fingers syllabically.
“Mild sauce and no salt
water, Southside pride, because
Beverly still counts.”
A true soldier whose long-standing pride in her people and her home is admirable to say the least, Jamila Woods’ peaceful and sonically pleasing ways of discussing what truly matters is what makes her voice an undeniable force.
2016 Tour Dates
November 4th – Lake Harmony, PA @ Boiler Room Weekender
November 19th – Chicago, IL @ MCA Primetime Ascend
December 8th – Brooklyn, NYC @ Rough Trade
December 13th – Santa Ana, CA @ Constellation Room
December 14th – San Fran, CA @ Rickshaw Stop
December 15th – Loa Angeles, CA @ Voila