Chicago singer and writer Jamila Woods straddles the worlds of soul and hip hop, poetry and activism, weaving all those threads together on HEAVN, her first album as a solo artist.
Woods, who is also the associate artistic director of Young Chicago Authors, recently appeared on WBEZ’s sister station, Vocalo, and told Reclaimed Soul host Ayana Contreras that she never thought she could pursue singing as a career.
“I came up in my grandma’s church and there were always a lot of voices I would compare myself to and not really think I could measure up, ” she told Reclaimed Soul’s Ayana Contreras recently. “What I learned from being in church and other singing situations is that it’s not as much about that always. It’s just about you having the passion.”
Here are some other highlights from Woods’ interview on Reclaimed Soul.
On her song “Blck Girl Soldier” and reflecting on being a black woman in America
I was giving myself little writing prompts based off of songs that I loved. I took the first word of an Erykah Badu song that I loved, and then it kind of just opened up this portal for me to let out everything that I had been angry about or sad about -- from the Boko Haram situation that happened with all those girls and Rekia Boyd’s murder that happened in Chicago.
It kind of just was a really cathartic thing for me. It felt like a tool in my pocket that I had at very useful moments. I would be at a rally or I would be at an open mic where people would be talking about similar things. The moment of writing it was very useful for me, but also having it [in other situations] reminded me of the power of writing and what it’s meant to do.
On moving to the East Coast for school and returning to Chicago in her writing
There weren’t a lot of Chicago people there and it was a very different culture. It’s good to go outside of where you’re from so you can see it from a different perspective. And also with everything like the Chiraq film or the narratives that have always gone on about Chicago and continue today -- there’s one story being told often, and being from a place you always want to represent the multiplicity of voices and experiences that come from that place.
HEAVNOn themes of otherworldliness on
My granddaddy had dementia and it was a slow process of watching him be with us and slowly, slowly -- I have a poem where I said he’s “half in this world and half out.” I think a lot of those poems are what I went back to to write “Lately” and “Breadcrumbs.” It’s a way of saying I don’t have to wait to still talk to him or create some sense of heaven here. It’s trying to unpack this notion of heaven.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Tune in to Reclaimed Soul Thursday at 8 on Vocalo, 91.1 fm, to hear Ayana and Jamila’s full conversation.