With 'HEAVN,' Jamila Woods Writes A Love Letter To Her City

Sep 30, 2017
Originally published on December 15, 2017 4:31 pm

Jamila Woods stays pretty busy. The Chicago singer, songwriter and poet released her debut album, HEAVN, last summer. And when she wasn't recording, she could be found working with young artists in her community as the Associate Artistic Director at the arts nonprofit Young Chicago Authors and as an organizer of an annual youth poetry festival called Louder than a Bomb. "My community doesn't feel like an extra piece of what I do — it feels very integral to my creative process," Woods says. "They're my first audience for my work and the audience that I care most about."

It makes sense, then, that HEAVN is about Woods' personal experience, but also about her city. "To me, HEAVN was about expanding the notion of love to include self-love and love of the city where I come from, which is often talked down upon in media," she says.

Woods, who came of age in the Chicago arts and poetry scene, left to study theater and Africana Studies at Brown University. As she prepared to graduate, she thought being an artist meant she needed to go to New York or Los Angeles, so she sought advice from a mentor. "They asked me where I was from, and I just talked about ... the artistic community that I had come from," she says, "and the mentor was just like, 'Obviously, I think you should go back to Chicago. It just seems like you have such a community there and it's a place where you can grow your wings.'"

So she decided to go home. Woods says that, while working on HEAVN, she thought about the idea of "staying as an act of resistance." On the album's title track, she sings, "I don't wanna run away with you / I want to live our lives right here," a lyric she says is about both her own choices and the choices of her ancestors.

"It's kind of a twofold thing," she says, "thinking about staying in Chicago, a city where a lot of people would say, 'Oh, that's not really a city you can be successful in, or build a life in, or sustain love in,' but also thinking about my ancestors, and how they took their lives into their own hands."

Woods writes songs that honor the past and present of black resistance, but she wouldn't describe herself as an activist. "I feel like that might be unfair to people who actually spend a majority of their time putting their physical bodies in harm's way in order to make direct action — which is what I think an activist is," she says. Instead, she considers herself an organizer, someone who creates space for marginalized voices to speak and be heard.

She interprets the phrase "protest music" broadly. It "doesn't just have to encompass those things that force you to go out and take action," she says. "[It] can also encompass things that allow you to sit with yourself ... and feel valid in your emotions."

The song "Blk Girl Soldier," a rallying cry for black women and girls, feels like it's doing that work. "Traumatic things ... happen to black people, but then you still have to go to work the next day, or you still have to wake up and teach a class, or go take care of your family, or whatever it is you have to do," Woods says. "I had just been bottling up all my feelings about these things ... so I remember this song being a way for me to cry about a lot of those things and just feel them and sit with them."

"My mission as an artist is always to create art that's useful," Woods says. "I want my music to feel like it has a tangible effect on people, like it allows them to check in with themselves, feel affirmed, feel able to continue into their day or into their path with renewed energy and a renewed sense of self, because ... that's what I hope to manifest in myself."

HEAVN is out now digitally, and comes out on CD and LP on Oct. 6. Hear more from Woods — and more from her album — at the audio link.

Producer Suraya Mohamed and web intern Katie Anastas contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Here's a musician who stays pretty busy.

JAMILA WOODS: My name is Jamila Woods. And I'm a singer, songwriter and poet and educator from Chicago.

SIMON: She's one of three artists selected for Slingshot, the new emerging artist project by public radio stations and NPR Music. An exceptional artist for sure, Jamila Woods is also a community organizer. She works with young artists in Chicago. And her debut album, "HEAVN," reflects that. It's about her personal experience, but it's also a delicate love letter to her hometown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVN")

WOODS: (Singing) Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick, the one that makes you love someone. The world wants us so numb and alone.

To me, "HEAVN" was about expanding the notion of love to include self-love and love of the city where I come from, which is often talked down upon in media. And I wanted to kind of create a space where love could be possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVN")

WOODS: (Singing) My great, great, great, great, great, great grandma...

Because I was thinking about my ancestors. And from the time of slavery there have been these barriers put up against black people being able to love themselves or love each other. And I was kind of connecting that to how I feel sometimes now living in Chicago, where there's so much violence being enacted on my community by the government or, you know, just the climate that we live in. And how can love be made possible in that environment?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVN")

WOODS: (Singing) I don't want to run away...

The line, I don't want to run away with you...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVN")

WOODS: (Singing) I want to live our life...

...I just want to live our lives right here. I'm thinking about staying as an act of resistance or choosing to stay in Chicago, a city where a lot of people would say, oh, that's not really a city you can be successful in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVN")

WOODS: (Singing) Da, da, da, da, da...

I went to school on the East Coast. And I studied theater and black studies. I didn't study music. But I remember I got a really good piece of advice. I was asking one of the mentors, like, should I go to New York or LA? Like, I'm an artist. That's where everyone's going. And they asked me where I was from. And I just talked about Chicago and young Chicago authors and the artistic community that I'd come from. And the mentor was just like, obviously, I think you should go back to Chicago. It just seems like you have such a community there. And it's a place where you can grow your wings. I remember that always stuck with me because I didn't necessarily appreciate or see how unique and rare the community here that I had. I didn't see it for what it was until I kind of went away and came back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LSD")

WOODS: (Singing) My city like my skin. It's so pretty. If you don't like it, just leave it alone.

My ars poetica or my mission as an artist, I think, is always to create art that is useful, that is, you know, very utilitarian. So I want my music - this album - to feel like it has a tangible effect on people, like it allows them to check in with themselves, feel affirmed feel able to continue into their day or into their path with renewed energy and a renewed sense of self because that's what - through this writing. That's what I hope to manifest in myself.

SIMON: Jamila Woods talking about her new album, "HEAVN," She's one of the new Slingshot artists, emerging talent handpicked by public radio music stations. And you can see videos from her new album on our website, npr.org/slingshot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LSD")

WOODS: (Singing) The water's going to save me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.