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Jamila Woods And The Poetry Of Black Love

The singer and songwriter has been thinking a lot — about Harriet Tubman’s hair, her grandmother’s handwriting and how to craft love songs with revolutionary potential.

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A small, framed, black-and-white photograph sits on the windowsill in Jamila Woods’ basement apartment in Chicago. In it, a black woman and black man are walking barefoot, away from the viewer, down a dirt road. Her hair is wrapped and she balances a straw basket on her head, while he uses a stick to sling a briefcase over his shoulder. Woods encountered the photo on the cover of bell hooks’ 2001 treatise, Salvation: Black People And Love. She told me it’s a text that helped inspire her debut solo album, Heavn, which came out in 2016 and was re-released jointly by Jagjaguwar and Closed Sessions earlier this year. The influence of hooks is particularly felt on the title track, which is about the survival of black love:

Nothing old, nothing new Nothing borrowed, nothing blue They’re dancing in the deepest ocean See? Not even death could stop them

“Afrofuturism’s not just about imagining people in the future but also reimagining black history,” Woods told me over the phone a few weeks before I met her in Chicago. “I remember reading a story about enslaved black people who jumped off of the boats in the Middle Passage, but they didn’t die. They created these underwater civilizations in the ocean.”

In Salvation, hooks writes about the failure of the black liberation struggle to fully incorporate what she refers to as a love ethic. She says Martin Luther King Jr. (particularly before his later, more openly anti-capitalist work) talked a bit too much about loving our enemies and not enough about loving ourselves and each other. So she requested “a body of literature, both sociological and psychological work, addressing the issue of love among black people, its relevance to political struggles, its meaning in our private lives.”

Heavn is Woods’ answer to this call, an album which proves that a song about learning to own your emotions (“Lonely”) is ultimately doing the same work as a song about continuing the legacy of black freedom fighters like Audre Lorde, Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker and Assata Shakur (“Blk Grl Soldier”). Addressing internal strife, insecurity and loneliness goes hand in hand with documenting the past, present and future of black resistance. And when you believe self-love is in fact instrumental to the larger political struggle, giving these two goals equal priority makes perfect sense.

Heavn may be influenced by black feminist scholarship and Afrofuturism, but it doesn’t feel dense or academic in the slightest. Her voice is smooth, and it’s laid over the kind of hip-hop beats that adapt well to live instrumentation. What stands out most is the quality of the songwriting. What Woods understands is that theory — at least the good kind — is actually about our lives and emotions. After all, plenty of Heavn is simply about love: falling in and out of it, trying to maintain it, trying not to lose track of oneself in it. Woods wrote an album that never lost track of her own multitudes.

Jamila Woods grew up in Beverly, a neighborhood on Chicago’s far South Side. She says it’s more diverse now, but when her family moved there, they were the first black family on their block. “My siblings and I were our own kind of enclave, or our own kind of friend group, because there were other kids on the block but it just didn’t really feel like we were actually a part of that group,” she says. Woods is the oldest of four; she has two younger sisters and a younger brother.

She went to many different schools growing up — her parents literally called her the guinea pig of the family — but she got her start at New Concept Development Center, an Afrocentric preschool created by Haki Madhubuti, a Black Arts Movement poet and student of Gwendolyn Brooks. “There’s really cute pictures of me and all these black kids in our full kente outfits, and I did African dance for gym class,” she says.

But she came to poetry much later, through a program called Gallery 37 in the summer before her senior year of high school. The youth poetry scene became a respite from the whiteness of the private school she attended during her high school years — the competitive St. Ignatius College Prep — and a new source of community.

“When I performed my first poem, I felt like I found a language,” she says. “Gwendolyn Brooks said, ‘I’m a writer, perhaps because I’m not a talker.’ And I feel that way a lot. When I was doing my poem, it felt like I was communicating something that was received by people, and it felt like it was very eloquent and very, just thoroughly what I wanted to say was said. And I don’t really feel that way talking ... my most pure and efficient form of communication and expression is just music and poetry.” The poem was about how her best friend at the time wasn’t giving her enough space.

“It was always, ‘Yes, I’m learning to love this new thing that I found, but there’s also all of these really cool, weird, outcast-y, awesome people who are doing it with me,’” she says. “And it’s something bigger than ourselves, even as it’s so, so important to our personal development.”

After she graduated in 2007, she went on to Brown, where she majored in Africana studies and theater. She told me about a course she took based on Anna Deveare Smith’s one-woman show Fires In The Mirror, a collection of monologues taken from interviews conducted in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. Woods’ professor assigned the class to characters who were in some way opposite of their identities and told them to “look at the words and try to be true to the text and how it’s written on the page, because that’s what Anna Deveare Smith was all about – finding the access to people through their language, not what stereotype you have in your mind.”

At Brown, she also joined an a cappella group. “If you think of Pitch Perfect, that’s kind of the vibe of the other groups,” she says. “We would just be like eating takeout, singing by teaching each other through ear.” That environment, Woods says, helped her realize she had a talent for arranging. “I remember this one time when I was just playing them the arrangement I made on GarageBand, and one of the guys was like, ‘Whoa, solo that real quick — that tone is just beautiful,’” she says. Until that moment, Woods says, she hadn’t conceived of her voice as much more than a tool for writing and arranging music.

That continued to change when she and bandmate Owen Hill formed the self-described “adventure soul” group M&O. “I was definitely confident in my writing, but I think it was through that process of writing the album where I realized if I was just focused on having my voice as the only instrument, then I’m writing songs for my voice and that lets my voice shine,” she says. Woods graduated, moved back home and started working as a teaching artist with Young Chicago Authors, an arts nonprofit whose open mics she started attending between high school and college.

The band eventually broke up — and so did Woods and Hill. It was time for Woods to start writing music on her own, for herself. It worked out that in 2015, she won the Poetry Foundation’s prestigious Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, which came with $25,000. “It enabled me to invest more in my music, because it was a really nice cushion,” she says.

Now, after the re-release of her solo album Heavn, Woods is signed with Jagjaguwar, the label Bon Iver made famous, for two more records. (“They’re cool with weirdness – I like that,” she says.) And for those records, she hopes to be even more involved in the production and rely less on outside composers for her beats. She’s working on getting better at piano and guitar. The goal, she says, is “to start with what I want to say and then build the music around that.”

Our weekend in Chicago provided ample evidence that her mind works with a kind of hip-hop sensibility. She is extemporaneously sampling all the time: Taking another song, or an anecdote from history, or something she remembers from somewhere, and looping it, remixing it to unravel new significance.

The line “Show me, show me, show me” at the beginning of her song “Heavn” is a reference to The Cure song “Just Like Heaven.” The beginning of “Lonely” recalls the Feist song “Lonely Lonely.” She says the songs she’s writing now are all inspired by different people — one, for example, is about poet Sonia Sanchez, and it’s based on the feeling evoked by her quotation: “I shall become a collector of me. And put meat on my soul.”

Unprovoked, at an art gallery on a Saturday night, she tells me she’s been thinking a lot about how black people learned to read. She was recently on a writers’ retreat when she started watching people reading slave narratives on YouTube — some of the writers talked about stealing Webster’s Blue Back Speller from the master’s house, so she’s been meaning to pick up a copy. She adds that she thinks her grandmother’s handwriting is so beautiful: “It’s more than just her signature — that’s the power to free someone.”

The next day, she takes me to the DuSable Museum of African American History in Hyde Park and we get to talking about Harriet Tubman’s hair. When Tubman was in her early teens, she blocked a doorway to protect an enslaved person who was running from an angry overseer. The overseer picked up an iron weight and threw it at the person behind Tubman, but it struck Tubman instead. For the rest of her life, she’d suffer from blackouts and seizures. Woods tells me it’s said that Tubman thought her thick hair helped to protect her from the blow — and that without it, things could have been worse. For her next poetry book, Woods is thinking she’ll use hair as an entry point.

Woods also collects strategies. On the bus, she tells me about a memory jogged by reading Frida Kahlo’s diary. She read that Kahlo would simply write down words that she liked, and it reminded her of the best poetry workshop she ever did in high school. Her mentor avery r. young had his class at Gallery 37 feel unidentified objects in a bag and describe them — the point was to build personal word banks, stores of sensory language one could call upon in times of literary need.

One gets the sense that for Woods, technical strategies are not just useful for aesthetic reasons: Finding the right word, or the right form for a poem or song, can enable a small but significant personal transformation.

We’re at a Saturday poetry workshop at Young Chicago Authors at Wicker Park, the nonprofit where Woods now serves as Associate Artistic Director. A student comes up to her to say he was especially struck by a poem she wrote from the perspective of a pigeon. When I ask Woods about it later, she says she wrote it while she was in college. “There were so many pigeons I would hang out with at the bus stop, and their mating ritual ... is like, the man pigeons just chase the women and it looks really terrible,” she says. “I was watching that and then this white homeless man catcalled me really disgustingly, but then I was just thinking, this is his home basically, and everyone’s kind of ignoring him, and I feel conflicted.”

“I used to be really obsessed with persona poems,” she adds. “That was a really cool way to think about empathy.”

In her review of Heavn, the critic Doreen St. Felix wrote: “It makes you wish all singers were poets. Poetry used to be responsible for revolutions.” When I ask Woods why she does what she does, her answer is about private revolutions. “It’s what makes me feel like a person,” she says. “Every time in the past few months, when I’ve had the time to sit and make something, even if it’s just something really small, I feel like I’m connected to myself again.”

Woods tells me Josephine Lee, who directed the Chicago Children’s Choir Woods sang in as a high schooler, is one of the most brilliant people she knows, and remains a mentor of hers. “When we were singing a song, especially if we were f****** it up, she would take a moment to be like, ‘This is why we’re singing this song. This is the weight that you’re holding in your mouths,’” she says. She remembers one day they were singing Thomas Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and Lee reminded the ensemble that it wasn’t a song that was sung during marches. It was the song Dr. King asked for when he was feeling tired.

“I was creating a lot of the songs on Heavn from that place of needing to tell myself something, needing to remind myself something,” she says. And she wasn’t necessarily thinking about Thomas Dorsey or Dr. King when she was writing, but she says when she finished the album, that youth choir lesson helped convince her that what was personally healing to her was also important enough to share.

On Sunday afternoon, Woods and I stop by the shop of a local Chicago designer, Joe Freshgoods; she needs to find some shirts for her band because they’re set to go on European tour in a few days. Then we head to a rehearsal in Logan Square. She and her sister Ayanna had been arranging the work of Gwendolyn Brooks as part of the project No Blue Memories, a theater adaptation of the Chicago poet’s life.

I had known from listening to her records that Woods’ voice sounds exceedingly smooth. But it’s so arresting in person, in this large, stark rehearsal space. She is alternating between speaking and singing, her wrist relaxed as it holds the mic and lets it twirl slightly. The song they’re practicing is an adaptation of “Beverly Hills, Chicago,” a poem about driving through a fancy neighborhood with pretty houses. It’s about Beverly, the neighborhood where Jamila Woods grew up. Like so much of Woods’ work, the performance is an investigation of place and lineage.

The last item on the agenda, Woods announces, is to play around with “Lift Every Voice and Sing” over trap beats. And so, rather fittingly, the last I see of Woods in Chicago is a scene of her directing the band in a new-school rendition of the Black National Anthem. It has me bopping home, simultaneously nourished by the sounds of the drum machine and the reminder to march on, till victory is won.

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