Jamila Woods’s Celebration of Selfhood
On her new album, “Legacy! Legacy!,” the singer looks to her predecessors to craft a self-portrait filled with affirmations.
Introduction by Briana Younger
May 10, 2019
Continue with sound?
Photograph by Lawrence Agyei for The New Yorker
Woods, a native of Chicago, is also an educator and a poet, and she fills her tracks with lessons, affirmations, and resolve; they seem to give a blueprint not just for survival but for well-being. Her voice, a soothing haze of neo-soul warmth, covers even the harshest modern realities with a tenacious beauty. Immersing herself in the aesthetic and philosophical positions of her subjects, she asks big questions about how to live with yourself, and within a society that may not wish you well. On the album, she charts a timeline from the slavery era (“OCTAVIA”), when it was illegal for black people to even access written language, to the current period of traffic-stop “lethal fear” (“BALDWIN”) and onto a future (“SUN RA”) outside of this world, where the burdens of this “doomed marble” don’t exist.
Last month, I sat down with Woods to discuss the inspiration behind each track of her new album. Woods’s comments have been condensed and edited for clarity.
She was a style icon, but also very sensual, and expressed her sexuality onstage in a way that made a lot of people uncomfortable. A lot of men closed doors because they weren’t ready for that, and I relate to being a woman in a male-dominated industry and having those expectations. I feel like there’s a sense of a threat when a woman steps out of the mold.
Photograph by Anthony Barboza / Getty
When she wrote “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” and talks about how she learned what it meant to be colored or black, I related to that, growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, usually going to predominantly white schools. I love the tone of her essay because it’s very unbothered. She has a line—“I am not tragically colored”—that shows she’s not letting herself feel victimized. Black is an expansive identity that I’m still discovering, so there’s no way anyone else can pinpoint or say who I am when it’s still in process.
Zora Neale Hurston.
Photograph from Corbis / Getty
This track was initially a cover of her poem “Ego Tripping,” which is basically a braggadocio poem that has a lot of hyperbole. I wanted to think about what are those things for me, and what are the things that I have pride in. That includes the opening lyrics, “You might want to hold my comb,” because my Afro is so amazing—or it was at the time—and because my grandma is amazing, and she made me, and I come from her. It’s that idea of my lineage also being a source of what makes me feel prideful and confident in myself.
Photograph by Ozier Muhammad / Ebony / AP
It was inspired by her poem “Improvisation,” a persona poem in the voice of a black woman who was a slave. How I sing it is kind of inspired by how she performs it, and that idea of naming when something happens, even if it’s on a smaller scale, like gaslighting. Those things add up, and they’re also hurtful. So just being able to name whatever it was that was harmful to you, as opposed to this idea that we should be strong enough as women, or as black women, to not ever call it out. Women of color are often those ears for each other, those first healing listeners.
Photograph by Anthony Barboza / Getty
It’s inspired by a photograph of her house where she lived with her husband. It’s thinking of the idea of two houses connected by a bridge being a metaphor for a balanced relationship, where people’s individual space is respected and not seen as an inconvenience. I was also reading a lot of her diary and seeing how strong her love was for Diego, and I relate to loving so strongly—sometimes to the point of neglecting the time and personal space that I need.
Photograph by Lucienne Bloch / Courtesy Old Stage Studios
There’s this quote that I read where she said, “I used to be afraid of myself,” which is the first lyric. That just struck me because, after seeing this interview, I recognized that it took years and time for her to get to that place. That was inspiring to me, as someone who aspires to be more in that place. The lyric “Hung my smile on a shelf / hid my teeth when I laughed,” that’s very personal to me, and all the insecurities that I think correlate to how I have allowed people to treat me at times. It’s all about self-criticism, as opposed to thinking about what I also deserve and can expect from another person.
Photograph by John Malmin / Los Angeles Times / Getty
I’ve been thinking about balancing feminine and masculine energy and how I want to manifest more masculine assertiveness and all of those things associated with being direct. That’s kind of what I was trying to absorb from Miles, and I do think it’s very powerful when women can embody that. I love that he wasn’t afraid to push himself and evolve musically, but also the way that he dealt with being a black man—the power plays that he would do, like performing with his back to the audience. That energy is what I was trying to take on.
Photograph by Dennis Stock / Magnum
He talks about how you can’t counterfeit the culture. The language and property that black people create becomes the cool. We create most of the things that are cool in our cultural world and don’t often get the credit for it. White audiences take in that cool or the art that we create. Sometimes there’s a dynamic of grabbing, as opposed to being an appreciator. But with Muddy—the lyric “They can’t shake the fire out”—there’s an affirmation that there’s nothing that can really be replicated that’s authentic. What I have, and what’s coming from me, it’s only me that can express that, and I feel like that goes for black people as a culture, as well.
Photograph by Michael Ochs / Getty
It’s about how anger is supposed to look, or is expected to look. There’s definitely a usefulness and a beauty and a power to anger that I think doesn’t get talked about enough—especially with black women. It’s like the stereotype of angry black women causing trouble again and disrupting our comfort. But it can birth movements, and it can be very useful. At the same time, my anger might not look like my sister’s anger, or my friend’s anger, and so just having the ability to have that be recognized.
Photograph by Peter Nicholls / The Times / Redux
What I love about Afrofuturism is calling out the fact that if we’re not seeing ourselves in all these futuristic space movies, that means no one is imagining us making it there. I love that Sun Ra goes a step further, because he’s, like, “No, I’m from space. I’m literally from space.” It’s this idea of owning a homeland and a lineage. The track also references Marcus Garvey and the idea of having a place to escape to when America obviously doesn’t love black people or doesn’t want to make a home for black people here. The hook comes from a line in one of Sun Ra’s poems—“My wings are greater than walls”—which speaks to our imagination. Imagination, really, for me, is the wings that help me reframe whatever wall or whatever structural element of racism is coming at me. I can imagine a way to create a different reality that helps me survive it.
Photograph by Sefton Samuels / Shutterstock
I was very inspired by her notebooks and how she manifested things for herself through her writing—literally, writing it down, but also through being a writer. I’m really fascinated by learning because, even in some movies about slavery, you’d see that reading and writing was illegal. And then thinking of how there’s schools now that have textbooks that are super old. There’s still these ways where language and education is being held back from black people in very intentional ways, and there’s insecurity and this way that black people are made to feel like our language or the way that we wield the English language is inferior, when, really, going back to Miles and Muddy, it’s the cool.
Photograph by Miriam Berkley
I was reflecting on how good he was at talking to white people about race and thinking about what’s the savviest but also most honest way to tell white people about themselves. I love playing with the contrast between how the song sounds and what it’s saying, because I feel like you could listen to it and, if you’re half listening, you’re, like, “Oh, this is great.” The hook is a celebration of blackness. That was the center point of the song to me. In the verses, from my perspective, as a black woman, I can offer up this idea that your fear is actually a weapon. It’s like pulling the wool from some people’s eyes who are unaware but still in the realm of my truth.
Photograph from Bettmann / Getty
“Betty (for Boogie)”
The remix of Betty, after Chicago house. And it’s called “For Boogie” because Boogie McClarin is this amazing house dance teacher in Chicago, and she’s basically the reason that I know anything about Chicago house. If you take a dance class with her, you get an oral-history lesson; she’s always telling stories of the culture of house music and how it really was one of the movements of desegregating a really segregated city.
Photograph by Anthony Barboza / Getty