It’s not all that difficult to read what Jamila Woods is thinking or feeling.
To do that, you just have to look to her expressions, which tell a story that has been evolving for some time.
The 25-year-old native Chicagoan has been plying her trade around her hometown for some time now. Having entered the creative world as a poet, she has since made welcome forays into music, teaching and writing. Pulling from a multitude of experiences, Jamila speaks with a sort of frank realness that allows any listener an immediate understanding of her comfortability within her own thoughts and feelings.
That comfortability begins with her soft gaze, furrowed brow and expressive grin. It’s a comfortability that feels increasingly rare in our contemporary public-facing existence. It’s a sort of innate trust in one’s self that can be somewhat intimidating in its nonchalance. It’s a sort of aural power that took me some time in which to really feel my own comfort. It’s not rare to meet someone who tells you they’re an artist, but it is indeed rare to understand that sentiment through action, feeling and thought.
Talking to Jamila, it’s immediately evident through her careful mannerisms that she exists as part of that latter category. The depth of comfort that propelled her to the forefront of the music scene locally is the end result of a long journey that has been experienced through a series of creative spaces in the public domain.
Today we live in a time that is both more open and closed than the world we grew up knowing. While information and ideas are available quite literally at the touch of a finger, the importance of feelings outside of the positive are somehow not valid or allowed. In her own art Jamila is able to effectively permeate this 21st century malevolence with a sort of effortless ability that settles into one’s soul comfortably. At a writing workshop at Young Chicago Authors, where Woods works as a teacher, I once heard her explain to a class the kinds of stories she enjoys. “I like really scary stories, or stories that make me feel happier or more sad, any story that can take me out of how I feel in that moment.” As she explained the sentiment to the class and myself, she accentuated each feeling with her expressions, smiling, frowning and contorting her gentle features to effectively communicate without words.
“I had a mentor named Avery R Young who’s now a soul singer too and he was very instrumental in the way I kind of feel as though you have to go back to when you wrote the song and be really emotionally present when you perform, but not to the point that it’s unhealthy,” said Woods as we sat in a glass-lined office at Bucketfeet headquarters last week. “There is also a place where if you really really go back to what you were feeling it may be too much to perform, so staying in that emotional middle ground of being emotionally present but also being in control of what you’re trying to communicate in every way.”
Her teacher’s lessons paid off tenfold, becoming central to the kind of performing artist Woods has grown into. The importance of such a lesson also wasn’t lost on the Brown graduate who returned to her hometown to work in the same youth programs that gave her a head start.
“A lot of people when they start out writing poetry when they’re young, there’s like a poet voice that happens, the kind of thing that’s not natural and I definitely had that,” said Woods. “I just remember my poetry coach Selly, we were in her kitchen and she literally would start and stop until I was broken down into tears and then she was like ‘ok, now you’re speaking like Jamila, that’s Jamila’s voice, don’t ever use any other voice.”
Four years ago, I was just meeting Jamila. A 22-year-old stringer for the Chicago Sun-Times at the time, I was charged with writing a feature on local creatives for Black History Month and Woods’ name was one that came up continually in conversations with different people around the city. Back then, she was fresh back on the scene with several Louder Than A Bomb poetry competition wins under her belt, working as part of the ‘Adventure Soul’ duo M&O alongside longtime friend Owen Hill. It was then that she was just getting into the music fully, having worked from afar with Hill before. She was learning to handle the delicate balance that has been her life ever since, telling me at the time: “I really find that I can’t really do just one thing, I get a lot of energy from that balance of other things, and I think my craft benefits from doing all of it.” It’s been almost three years to the day since that interview; the growth since in each discipline is easily palpable.
“I feel like all of my poems or my music across the board have an emotive quality to them and I feel like often people don’t feel like they can take a moment to feel sad about something or to realize something and that’s one thing that I think is important and through that emotional sphere, through being moved is often when people can shift a thought process,” said Woods.
So far, 2016 has seen Jamila step onto the national scene in a sensically powerful introduction buoyed by a pair of singles that bookended the first couple of weeks of January. “Blk Girl Soldier” arrived on Monday, serving to underline her recent signing to local imprint, Closed Sessions. A powerful manifesto of sorts that puts the strength and plight of being a black woman in America front and center, the song came packaged with a photo of Jamila sporting a proud afro, possessing a sort of innate power that is exemplified through the subtleties of her descriptions of life’s less-savory experiences.
By pure coincidence, that single was quickly followed by “White Privilege II”, the track from Grammy winner Macklemore & Ryan Lewis that served to add context and acknowledge the hot button issue of 2015 in a true and direct way. While the feature did much to push Woods into the mainstream national conversation around race and music, it didn’t come without careful thinking and a remembrance of lessons learned.
“I think it was a statement definitely to have ‘Blk Girl Soldier’ be the first song that I put out, but I also hope that my listeners or audience realize that evolution happened too and there’s a wide emotional spectrum I think I don’t ever want to be afraid of telling anything that I think is important, that was the thinking behind it,” said Woods, her words trailing off before snapping back to focus. “I wrote that song in January of last year and it’s just as relevant. I remember when Sandra Bland happened, there were so many things happening at the time it would have been a great time to hear the song, but the point isn’t necessarily to think about it in that way.”
The story that Jamila is telling is much larger than herself. She spent 2015 continuing to grow as an artist and a person, performing “Blk Girl Soldier” at protests and rallies around her hometown as instances of Police abuse mounted and friends and family alike took to the street. Moves to ink a deal with local imprint Closed Sessions allowed her a sort of creative freedom that was built directly into the deal with a team that she has been around for some time, a sort of solidified independence that CS co-founder Alex Fruchter calls a “handcrafted situation based around her goals which were to gain experience and emerge as a solo artist with the backing of a solid community here at CS that she could take and make her own.” Her creativity continued to grow and incubate her in sessions with The Social Experiment, SaveMoney, and a myriad of talented fellow creatives. That Woods stepped out in a way that was at once powerful and appropriate was no mistake; she’s prepared herself for the positions she will invariably find herself operating in.
When Macklemore tapped Woods to sing the startling hook on “White Privilege II” it was a confluence of experiences, teachings and innate understanding of the world that prepared her to deliver a verse that was not only on point within the context of the single, but was at once able to speak to several worldviews at once. “Hip-hop is not a luxury” is a brief yet poignant line that cuts through the internet chatter about black, white and rap music in a way that bloggers and podcasters are too blustered to realize.
Whereas earlier in her career Jamila was content to play with the intersection of ideas, relationships and feelings, finding creative and endearing work as part of the duo M&O with Owen Hill, her work as of late comes packaged even tighter. The messages feel even more real, as though the artist is finally content with the art, ready to offer it up to a larger clientele that she has faith will find the right points and open themselves to the message she espouses. More than anything, Woods has learned to live her life in a way that is both fulfilling to her and inspiring to others.
The word ‘renaissance’ comes up a lot here in Chicago these days. For a city without a true industry for the arts , a city that often depends on itself for support, a city that often gets overlooked for the coasts, the word renaissance isn’t one that is passed around lightly. It represents a new mode of thinking, a new era of unity in a locale that often doesn’t place a high value on togetherness. Central to that is Jamila Woods. Standing as a steadying figure of sorts in a place wrought with soul-shaking problems she has been able to help those in her community navigate their thoughts and feelings, guiding them to new ideas and helping to grow the consciousness of the scene at large. It hasn’t been from the front, though; Jamila is not the band leader. Instead, it has been from the inside out. On Saturday mornings when most twenty-somethings are dragging themselves out of bed while simultaneously shaking off a hangover, Woods has been hosting a weekly workshop for young writers since she arrived back in Chicago, missing only on special occasions.
One of those special occasions was the recent performance on Saturday Night Live alongside longtime friends Chance The Rapper and The Social Experiment. Singing the hook to “Sunday Candy” the single off the recent SURF release, Woods helped make history as Chance became the first independent act to grace the Late Night stage. She doubled down on that just last week when she graced the stage yet again alongside another independent act to make good. Jamila certainly isn’t done making history, but whether or not that is through music or any of the other art forms she’s created this strong foundation with is yet to be seen.
Whereas many artists in her position talk about what’s next, the last show they played or an exciting session, a conversation with Jamila finds one discussing artistic integrity, the responsibility of espousing a message and being true to one’s self in all disciplines. We might have to wait to see Jamila fully take flight, but one thing that’s for sure is she’s planted the seeds for Chicago to keep winning long after she has.
“My mom always tells me I remind her of my Grandmother, we have like the same birthday and she was a poet too and had in her obituary, the last thing she said when she was sick was “‘if you would send me flowers, help the children instead,’” said Woods, her eyes deep in thought. “I feel like that’s sort of how I feel about my legacy, I would rather be somebody who motivated people to act rather than be lifted up as this great person, and that’s it you know? I’d rather be someone who really allowed someone to think they can do anything they want, just anything that motivates people, that’s what I would want my legacy to be, I hope.”