Grappling With Perfection And Legacy With Jamila Woods

We Talk To The Chicago Singer About Her Stunning Sophomore Album

On May 9th 2019 » By Michael Penn II

Jamila Header

On the opportunity of legacy: a marvelous prospect for any living being. It’s all we know, all we’ve inherited, and one of the only things — if we’re lucky — we leave in this world. Alas, this chance may go unmistakably frail in Black hands across space and time; not the potential to be, but the potential of this world ceasing our being before we are ready. The stakes come with the price of the ticket. Just as I’ve sampled one of many infamous James Baldwin quotes, the prolific Chicago artist Jamila Woods, 29, is rather obsessed with sampling as well. Her work — as a musician, poet, scholar, teacher, activist — builds, bends, even breaks the words our world stands upon. She aims toward freedom, rooted in family, naming all the people and ideas that built her.

Woods’ forthcoming album, LEGACY! LEGACY!, will arrive on rather divine timing: a soaring light, piercing through the modern obsession with legacy itself. The cost to maintain our heroes rises as the rent does. Our physical and digital selves are threatened with erasure in real time. Whole lives rendered throwaways. But this album isn’t built from worship, and Woods doesn’t falter under the weight of that darkness. Her new work is grand, daring, her most demanding self. As she blazes the trail toward a refined sense of self, she channels the legacies of Black folks who lit the trail aflame for her to continue. Whether her voice, her writing, or the sonics themselves, Woods works diligently to bring justice to these folks; thorough, but never consumed.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

VMP: So, just to start it off, I was wondering: What was the process like for you for finalizing the list of folks to pay tribute to? Because there’s so many people that can influence work and influence growth and influence a person… to whittle it down to 12 or 13 songs is like, well, how do you pick?

Jamila Woods: It was very much an organic process. I had a longer list initially; [I could make] an ever-evolving list of people who have influenced me, but I didn’t want to force it. If the actual song wasn’t coming together in time for the album to be done, then I was just focusing my energy on songs where I felt like the connection was coming more clear.

In many ways, LEGACY! LEGACY! distills a very Black Art tradition of paying dues and respect to people that came before us; invoking their names and invoking their works. And in the same way you come from the poetry community, and make music, you literally sample folks’ words and build from them — you remix them — so how did you incorporate that in your songwriting in a way that maintained the integrity of who you’re talking about, while ensuring that your personal narrative cut through?

Yeah, I was thinking a lot about the idea of sampling and how I often love to use sampling as a part of my writing process. Before I even knew I was making an album, I was just trying to write more songs that were using a more innovative approach to sampling, at least in terms of the music industry. Like, sampling more like a poet, but as a singer, and not so much sampling beats because I don’t have the budget for all that. But I was just noticing how I can [sample] in a way that’s more sustainable: watching a lot of interviews, sampling quotes, sampling poems, even just writing inspired by the way someone’s energy seems, embodying their persona.

So that was the impetus for the first song: “GIOVANNI” is like a cover of Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Ego Tripping.” And then, from there, just figuring out different ways to approach writing a song titled after a person. I came across this book that my mom had just dropped off at my house; I remember looking at it when I was a kid. It’s a book of Black photography called Songs of My People: African Americans: A Self-Portrait, and I really liked the idea of portraiture of different people also being a self-portrait of myself. So, thinking of the songs as self-portraits, but through the lenses of these different people who have been inspirational to me.

“There’s that essay that Nate Marshall wrote where he’s like, ‘I don’t know an album where a rapper hasn’t contemplated his own death on the record.’ And it’s almost like a flip to that, where it’s not so much thinking of, ‘When am I gonna die?’ in a fearful way, but more so like, ‘What do I want to make while I’m here that will still be here when I’m gone?’”

Jamila Woods

So, take me a bit into the research process for that. Because I know it must have been strenuous; just the way that we over-consume information in general, and that we’re already influenced by so much. So, to really narrow it down and focus your energies on each person, what was the research like?

I wouldn’t say it was strenuous at all. I think research is always one of the most fun things to me. I consider part of my writing process is often just ingesting or marinating in a lot of information: going to museums, or reading, or watching documentaries. It’s a really fun process for me, and it was really cool to be doing a lot of it with Slot-A, who’s the main producer on the album. When there was a person that we were starting from scratch on — like Sun Ra or Octavia Butler — we would spend the day looking through stuff they’d written and watching videos to think about how that was gonna influence the way the track sounded. That’s also part of what kept it organic: in all of this stuff I’m reading, what am I drawn to? What am I relating to my own experience? Then, [that became] the prompt.

Slot-A, he produced all [of the album] except for two. Peter Cottontale produced one and oddCouple, who did a lot of HEAVN, produced one.

“I feel like in that time of just growth, a lot of my older women friends tell me, ‘Once you get to 30, you just give no fucks. Like, you just give way less fucks, and it just continues on,’ (laughs). And so, I feel like I’m approaching that.”

Jamila Woods

The sonic identity in this album is really clear and strong. You’re pivoting across so many different vibes by trying to capture so many people’s essence, so how did y’all work together to make sure the sonic identity remained consistent with what you’ve done before, and remained consistent while trying to be broad in all that it tackled?

I didn’t really think about maintaining consistency with what I’ve done before. I even remember when I was making HEAVN, I was like, “I feel like the sounds of these instrumentals are kind of all over the place,” and I was like, “Oh, is this gonna be, like, a cohesive album?” And it turned out, through listening to it and seeing how people reacted, my voice and my writing were the elements of cohesion. I take that with me into future writing: I don’t need to worry so much about making everything fit together. Similar to, like, if I was making a manuscript, it’s gonna be telling a story through my writing and through the sound of my voice.

But I do think that having Slot-A on most of the songs, and just being really intentional when I was working with oddCouple and Peter — playing them what I had already and being, like, “This is what I’m doing now” — they were really intentional about the sound, too. So, the project does have more of a sonic cohesion in the music than HEAVN does; even though there’s different vibes, there’s consistency even though there are different varieties.

And that cohesion trickles down to the visual aesthetics, too. “GIOVANNI” is like a mini-doc of women that you appreciate: You’re at your grandmother’s house, and then it intercuts with you — like, the ’70s, ’80s vibe — you’re sitting on a grease bottle, it’s super raw. And then, “EARTHA” is black-and-white, and you’re goin’ straight 1930s, 1940s throwback and it’s you and your friends being stylish and elegant in an old-time sort of way. So, you even maneuver through different times, and different periods of Black life in particular, while maintaining consistency as well. How did you make sure that translated visually?

As an album, I want the songs to stand alone. I mean, most of us now, we’re looking at the title of the song when we’re listening to it, as opposed to when we just used to put on the album or CD and not know what it was called necessarily when we’re hearing it for the first time. But I want people to hear the songs and just appreciate them for being songs, but then there’s an added layer to listeners being able to do that same research process if they don’t know what something is — if they don’t know a name or a reference — which I think is really cool. With the videos, it’s about making it explicit, bringing out the essence of the person that inspired the song.

With “GIOVANNI,” it was a lot of exaggeration, because a Nikki Giovanni poem is full of hyperbole and exaggeration and saying all these really fantastical, amazing things about herself as a woman. To me, that was like, “What can I exaggerate?” You know, those big pick combs, or the bottle of Ego Sheen. Having these moments of larger-than-life imagery, Black imagery, that represent Black womanhood and having Black women who were important to me be put on a pedestal in that way. The “ZORA” video, [we did it] it in a library that archived Black art, when [Zora Neale Hurston] was a person who studied Black culture and archived Black language.

And then with “EARTHA,” obviously, the homage to Catwoman and her quote from that documentary about love and compromise, and having it be really about, like, you know, don’t need a man, don’t need to compromise for a dumb-ass Batman! (laughs) But finding your friendship that’s gonna be more valuable. So, yeah, each video is trying to approach bringing out more of what the inspiration was for the song itself.

You said that you pushed your vocals to new places and new heights in your range, and it really shows! So, how did you get comfortable with that and find new spaces in your capacity to push yourself where you haven’t been before in your vocal performance?

I think part of it was getting to be more involved in the process when the beats were being made. With HEAVN, I was just being sent beats or finding them on the internet, and I wasn’t thinking about, “What keys does my voice sound good in?” or “What is my range?” And for this one, I was just like, “Oh, I have like a whole lower register that I haven’t sung in that much,” so, just trying to be more intentional about singing there. Also, non-verbal vocalizing has always been really fascinating to me, so moments on “ZORA” or “MUDDY,” where it’s just more like yelling or a kind of non-word sound, [I was] trying to do more of that because I think those can be really emotional moments in songs. Coming from gospel music to emo music, all those influences to me, just trying to expand that more with that I can do with my voice.

Now, thematically speaking, you sound tired on this. You sound like, tired, but refreshed, too, like, purposeful in the sense where it’s very, like, “My lines are drawn, my boundaries are drawn, you’re either fuckin’ with it or you’re not.”

Yeah. (laughs)

It’s like, you’re tired of the world shit, you’re tired of people shit, etc., etc. So, in the time between HEAVN and the LEGACY! record, what moments and stages of your growth led to you channeling these energies into something that’s powerful?

I think a lot of it was just growing older. HEAVN came out in 2016 for the first time, but I was kinda writing it from the end of 2014, some of it, so like 24-26, and so now, it’s like, I’m 29. I feel like in that time of just growth, a lot of my older women friends tell me, “Once you get to 30, you just give no fucks. Like, you just give way less fucks, and it just continues on,” (laughs). And so, I feel like I’m approaching that. I can’t say I’ve achieved that — I still give a lot of fucks — but a lot of the songs are aspirational, thinking about what I’m envisioning for myself, and what I want to manifest for myself. Like, what type of energy, what type of confidence.

Having these people: Eartha, Sonia, Giovanni — in a different way, the more masculine energy of Miles Davis and Muddy Waters — having that to channel gave me the confidence to say what I want and say what I expect more plainly, more intensely than I have previously.

To that point, it’s like you’re dialoguing with versions of your past self as well as people who have come and left your life, or even people who have come and stayed. It’s another new layer of the vulnerability, where it’s like you’re cutting right to the bone of it, whatever you’re trying to get at. So, to the concept of giving no fucks, you’ve even said “I ran out of fucks to give, fear ain’t no way to live,” so I just wanted to ask: What does surrendering fear look like? What has it looked like in your process, and in your personal life?

There’s like a very internal level of it, cuz I know a lot of times it’s like, “Oh, you shouldn’t care what other people think,” and I think that’s very true. But for me, realizing — regardless of if there’s another person around — so many times I’ve internalized this [censor] voice in my own head that’s come from a lot of places. Especially thinking about “ZORA,” a lot of growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood or going to predominantly white schools, it’s like, I was always trying to fit into something. In my head, I would be like, “Oh, you gotta find your thing, sound like this, don’t laugh too loud,” all these little rules that maybe sometimes came from what other people would say or do, but often would just be in my own head.

For me, releasing the fear is acknowledging that voice in my head isn’t the only voice there, and kind of allowing it to chatter away — meditation teaches this — is just, like, “Yeah, OK, that’s going on, but that’s not actually me.” And so, letting myself actually get to know myself and not only be policing myself or trying to make myself fit into something, some idea of what I should be.

So it’s like, you’re addressing it head on, but it’s also like removing the fear from yourself, as if, this is something that’s happening, not something that is me, or will forever be me.

Yeah, and just recognizing that I didn’t come into this world afraid, you know. Fears are learned, just like anything else, and so they can be unlearned.

Mmm, that’s a concept right there. That is a concept.

(laughs)

So, the concept of legacy that you’re exploring, it drew up, for me, the idea that for so many Black folks — when the world wants to erase us, silence us, literally end our lines — it feels like even having a legacy to make with our lives, it feels like a privilege sometimes, and it shouldn’t be. And I feel like you definitely had a weight, and that potential, it bears on all of us, and it bears on this work. Could you speak to how you made sure this album came to bear that weight, knowing that a legacy is unbelievably important, and controlling that is important, but we often don’t get the opportunity to do it the way we like?

I think part of thinking about where the title comes from — it’s a Margaret Burroughs poem called “What Will Your Legacy Be?” — but there’s a whole long list of people that she names, Black artists and people and thinkers who’ve come before, and she’s like, “What will your legacy be?” and I think that is a very weighted question. So it feels like the poem is geared toward young people, or at least that’s how I read it. And for me to be kind of thinking about that question as I was making this album feels like… on the one hand, the way that a lot of Black artists are constantly contemplating death. Or, like, there’s that essay that Nate Marshall wrote where he’s like, “I don’t know an album where a rapper hasn’t contemplated his own death on the record.” And it’s almost like a flip to that, where it’s not so much thinking of, “When am I gonna die?” in a fearful way, but more so like, “What do I want to make while I’m here that will still be here when I’m gone?”

I think I hadn’t really thought about it in that way, but I think that can be an empowering thing even as it’s a big question. This is like the pre-step to me delving into what my legacy can be. It’s almost like that Sankofa idea: I have to do this project and immerse myself in all of the work and the thinking of these people in order for me to more fully know what am I doing that’s from them, and what I’m gonna add to that, what I’m doing that’s from me.

Yeah, definitely. To Nate’s point, to your point, especially in the context that I’ve heard this album, and really had the time to sit with it, we’re right past Nipsey Hussle being murdered, things like that. It’s like a divine sort of timing to [this album’s release,] too, because we’re in the space where everyone is so obsessed with legacy, whether it’s trying to build it, or erase and start over, or tear it down, or folks that were beloved that did fucked up shit and now we can’t grapple with it as much.

And it even made me think: for you to have Miles Davis on the tracklist and he’s been accused of abuse, too, it’s like, well… he’s still unbelievably impactful, but he did this fucked up shit, too. People are so obsessed with justice that doesn’t necessarily work with folks, or trying to throw people away, or cancellation, or etc. Where do you stand in the mess of all this?

To talk about Miles real quick: I definitely asked myself [about] that, and I was just thinking like… I wouldn’t say this is an album about my heroes. I’m really particular to say, “These are people who have influenced me,” and to not put them on pedestals. But at the same time, the thing about Miles that impacted me was learning about how he played with power as a Black man: coming into business meetings with white men and whispering so they would have to lean in to hear him, or turning his back to the audience, refusing to kind of shuck and jive for people. That type of energy, his masculine power which he sometimes wielded in fucked-up ways, what does it mean for a Black woman to embody that?

I think of Patricia Smith’s poem “Skinhead,” and the way that through writing and persona you gain a sort of empathy, but it’s also a poem about yourself; it’s also autobiographical, because you’re latching onto that point of connection between you and that person. I’ve been thinking consciously in my life, I need more balance between the feminine and the masculine. Like, I want more assertiveness, I want to be able to speak up for what I want and claim power more. That’s what the song “MILES” was about, or why it’s meaningful to me. Also, I couldn’t not have Betty Davis on there, too, because she’s the person who I think helped him evolve a lot and it’s indicative of what a lot of women do for the men in their lives, I think.

But to go back to your larger question, thinking about justice: I work at YCA and we’re definitely, just on a community level, always coming up with these issues, especially, like, young people harming each other. This question of canceling is easy to do on the Internet, but it’s a lot harder to cancel a flesh-and-bone human being who was in the room last week, and just because they are not in the room this week, doesn’t mean they’re disappeared, you know? So, the ideas of restorative justice and those types of practices are very useful if they’re done correctly, in a survivor-centered way.

There’s also a lot of prison abolition organizing that I’ve been learning more about; to me, when you send people to prison, that’s essentially like canceling. You think you can delete them from society, but that doesn’t work in terms of prison, so I don’t feel like it should work in terms of our internet culture. It’s almost like it prevents a deeper conversation from happening, sometimes. And I think accountability has to be more complex than just canceling. But I know, obviously, survivors are entitled to be at the center of that process.

And I also think LEGACY! grapples with that weight as well. Something that always intrigues me about art, especially art about self — and even you a few times on this album, like, the way that you use the word “perfect,” and how perfection from your lens, it rings differently than other ones — where it’s like, when I see perfection, I don’t see just a perfect person. I see a person that’s engulfed in all of the things: all of the capacity to do right and wrong, all of the mistakes and all of the triumphs, too. That is a perfection to me, when I hear you say it.

Since you won’t be remembered as perfect — since no one will be — and since you’re just now taking this pre-step to having these conversations with yourself about legacy… if you could control them right now, who would Jamila be remembered as to the world?

I’m still creating it, but I love artists who evolved, and I definitely want to be remembered as an artist who was dynamic and not static: who responded to the times that I’m living in and the community that I’m a part of. And who, you know, was emboldened and made stronger through my lineage and making my influences visible [while] adding something new to the conversation.

I’ll end on this. From “ZORA”: “You will never know everything / I will never know everything / and you don’t know me, couldn’t possibly.” Knowing that you’ll never know everything, how do you maintain the curiosity to continue pushing through the world, and trying to write down what you see?

Yeah, that was one of the most calming things to sing to myself or say to myself, that line, because I think I have — maybe a lot of people have — a fear of being wrong or saying and doing the wrong thing. I think it’s like a way of saying to myself, “It’s OK to make mistakes and be wrong sometimes, that’s how you’ll learn, that’s how you’ll grow.” I always have my curiosity, and that’s another thing about it: is not being curious so you can find all the answers, but just enjoying the journey of searching for answers. And having an expansive idea, because there’s not gonna be one answer. Going back to talking about issues of community harm and restorative justice, there’s not a cookie-cutter way to approach these issues; it’s gonna be different every time, and it’s gonna be messy. I think that’s kind of an important lesson in life also, but I’m trying to learn that right now, kind of be more conscious of that.

Michael Penn II

Michael Penn II

Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a Vinyl Me, Please staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.

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