There’s a particular serene self-assurance that Jamila Woods exudes, both in her music and when I speak to her. Even amidst a busy US tour, and on the cusp of her second LP LEGACY! LEGACY! being released, the Chicago-based musician, poet, activist and teacher purveys a grounded presence, a quality that is tangible throughout her music.
“My mum, she’s a spiritual healer and a writer and also a doctor. She would always teach me that energy is very connectable,” Woods details. “And she’d be like ‘when you walk into a room imagine white light around yourself, imagine there’s a shield between you and things that might come your way that seem negative and present challenges’. That was what I was thinking of with that line, that being my weaponry,” she expresses of the line on ‘ZORA’ where Woods sings “My energy is my weaponry / I tenderly fill my enemies with white light.” Explaining further the inspiration for this track, Woods articulates, “Zora [Neale-Hurston] has this line in her essay where she said, ‘I do not weep at the world – I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife’. And that line, she’s saying I’d rather be sharpening my tool than being preoccupied on the people who are trying to oppress me. So for me, I was thinking ‘what are my tools’”.
“I’d been thinking a lot about the question of what will I add to that conversation…”
Each song on LEGACY! LEGACY! takes its name from pertinent, inspirational artists and activists within black history, including James Baldwin, Eartha Kitt, and Basquiat, to mention a few. With these tracks, Woods offers poetic, meditative testaments to the influence these figures have had on her, whilst weaving her own personal narratives into this. “The tracks are named after people but are very much autobiographical songs,” Woods emphasises. “I’m singing about my own experiences almost like self-portraits, through the lenses of the different people and what I’ve learnt from them.” Woods’ lyrics are poetic works in themselves, crafted with astute linguistic potency and precision. Melded with the glistening, soulful melodies that saunter through the record, this verbal and aural harmony is steeped in vivid, emotive poeticism. “Each song was different in terms of which came first, the lyrics or the track,” Woods explains. “Slot-A was one of the main producers and oftentimes he just played me a bunch of tracks that he had and then some of those I wrote after hearing the track, like ‘MILES’, ‘MUDDY’, ‘GIOVANNI’, ‘ZORA’, ‘SONIA’. But then there are a few that I had in mind from the title of the song, and then we worked together to kind of build the sounds of the track around the lyrics and around the ideas.”
While the issues and ideas that Woods explores on this record feel vital and pertinent in the context of the current political climate, she states “I don’t really resonate with the idea that something is important now more than ever. It’s more just like I wanna feel free to follow where my inspirations lead me.” There is however a certain relevant urgency conveyed within the title LEGACY! LEGACY! , both in terms of the record and in a wider context. “The title comes from Margaret Burroughs’ poem and I happened to see a print of the title when I was working on the songs. My friend has a print at his house that has the words ‘Legacy Legacy’ and I was just struck by that”. The Burroughs poem in question highlights contributions of luminary African-Americans and in the title asks What Will Your Legacy Be? “I’d been thinking a lot about the question of what will I add to that conversation or what am I adding to that legacy?”
There are two versions of ‘BETTY’ that bookend the record, with the closing one being a house remix, “an important shout out” for Woods tying in with her Chicago roots. On this song she richly intones, “I am not your typical girl, throw away that picture in your head”, and it feels an undeniably apt, poised declaration of an artist firmly laying the foundations of her own legacy, which will certainly only continue to grow.
Photo by Bradley Murray.