On being inspired by evolving black youth culture, authenticity and maxing out her phone storage with new ideas
As a vocalist, poet and songwriter, Jamila Woods could easily fit into the “millennial multi-hyphenate” category. However, she’s a world apart from the inexperienced figure (i.e. the dilettante dabbling in podcasts) that such a term might conjure up. Rather, she’s a serious, considered artist who has cultivated her skills through years of creative practice.
Not only are Woods’ talents broad and varied, but she’s generous about sharing them: alongside work as an activist, she’s also involved teaching high schoolers the poetic craft in a role as Associate Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors.
In 2016, the melodic singing and fresh neo-soul showcased on Woods’ solo album, HEAVN, proved irresistible. Now, she’s back with the excellent LEGACY! LEGACY!, a powerful exploration of Black Excellence and identity through songs profiling the legacies of figures such as blues musician Muddy Waters, science fiction writer Octavia Butler and visual artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The week of LEGACY! LEGACY!’s release, Woods spoke with me about community work, legacy and authenticity over a transatlantic phone call.
“It was always natural for me to want to impact a younger generation”
Chicago has a lot of community spaces so I came up in different artistic programmes that I think helped shape me as an artist. I did a lot of poetry in high school and that definitely impacted the way I write music. [My involvement with Young Chicago Authors] just felt very natural because that’s the way that I was taught. When I was in high school I was in a project called Gallery 37 and it was really cool to be in a learning space outside of school. My school environment was very rigid and there were a lot of rules but not a lot of seeing myself reflected in what I was learning. But the poetry programme was taught by young artists of colour and I could see myself in them.
“I’m constantly inspired by black people, especially black youth culture”
Black people are constantly evolving and creating new meaning and new, different words to describe things. It’s very seamless, effortless poetry that’s being created. Especially with me getting to work with young people a lot, it’s really cool to witness that and it’s constantly inspiring to me. Young people are underestimated across the board, across the world, particularly young people of colour, so I really get inspiration from their resilience.
“Poetry gave me more confidence in my voice as a solo singer”
My mom played music growing up and I was in my grandma’s church choir, and then later the Chicago Children’s Choir, so I always loved music and singing. But when I got to poetry in high school it changed my perspective on what I could do as a singer. Before that I was always in choirs and didn’t think I had the voice to be a solo singer. Through poetry I started writing for my voice, and having a message or a story I wanted to tell. The way that I approach songwriting now is definitely influenced by my work as a poet. I teach poetry to high school students and so a lot of times when I’m writing I’ll give myself prompts or apply the things I do with my students to myself in order to prompt me to write. I use a lot of sampling and allusion that happen a lot in poetry, and a lot of the references that I use in my poetry I also use in my songwriting.