Look within the recent bumper crop of remarkable young Chicagoans of color changing the music industry and speaking truth to power and you’ll see Jamila Woods among them. The 26-year-old singer, songwriter and published poet—best known for lending her mezzo-soprano to songs such as Chance the Rapper’s “Blessings” and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “White Privilege II”—came up in the same fertile ground that nourished Chance, Vic Mensa, Mick Jenkins and others who are bucking music industry dictates about what’s hot by staying independent and tackling issues like police brutality, structural racism and artistic freedom.
On “Blk Girl Soldier,” the second single from her highly anticipated debut album “Heavn”, Woods laments society’s violence against Black women while invoking the power of activists including Ella Baker and Assata Shakur. “They want us in the kitchen, kill our sons with lynchings/We get loud about it, Oh now we’re the bitches?” Woods croons over the song’s propulsive beats.
She explores these themes throughout “Heavn,” which features contributions from Chicago artists such as oddCouple and members of Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, the Chance-led outfit that enlisted her for the hip-hop gospel song “Sunday Candy.”
Outside of her music and literature, Woods is the associate artistic director for Young Chicago Authors (YCA). The organization produces the long-running “Wordplay” open mic night, which counts Chance and Woods among its distinguished alumni.
We spoke with Woods while she was putting the final touches on “Heavn,” which will drop on July 11 via Closed Sessions, about her artistic and social justice origins, self-care and Chicago’s youth arts groundswell. Here’s our chat, edited and condensed for length and clarity.
You started making music in the duo M&O. What prompted you to create a solo album?
When my bandmate, Owen Hill, moved back to New York, I realized all the things I hadn’t cultivated as an artist. I needed to come out of my shell and start to figure out words for the music I wanted to make—things I didn’t have to think about before, with Owen producing everything. It felt like a journey to get to that point.
When did you start creating music and poetry?
I’ve been singing since I was really young, but I started writing poems more intentionally [before writing music]. That was in high school, when I got into this afterschool program, Young Chicago Authors. That influenced where I wanted to go to college—I went to Brown. I started dabbling in music when I discovered GarageBand. It wasn’t until I went to college and met Owen that I thought about writing lyrics and songs in my own voice. The confidence I got from performing poetry was a big part of me being able to eventually sing as a solo artist.
Have you always incorporated a social-justice perspective in your work?
I didn’t set out to intentionally write social-justice songs, but when you live in a city and see unjust race structures and a government mistreating Black and young people, it’s natural to want to respond to that. Music and poetry are the best tools that I have to do that, because that’s how I grew up. I learned through poetry spaces about people like Jon Burge, the Chicago police officer who tortured Black Panthers for confessions, and other things that were never addressed in school. The artistic communities spread that knowledge. Poems and music have to exist for the people who’re trying to make the world a better place to keep going.
Do you see your art as a form of self care?
I do. Writing was always a cathartic release. Even now, listening to my own album helps me. Talking about self-love and self-care is really important because it’s not something I was taught. As young people think a lot more about what’s right and wrong, their actions have to go hand-in-hand with taking care of themselves. You can’t fight the power every day without building yourself back up.
With all the energy that you invested in your music right now, do you have plans to publish any poetry soon?]
Yeah. I have a lot of poems that need to be put out, and I’m interested in blurring the line between poetry and music—how songs can exist as poems. I’m also part of a poetry collective called The Dark Noise Collective, which helped me workshop the album.
You appeared in Colorlines’ interview about “White Privilege II” alongside Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. They talked about writing music on racial justice for a White audience. Do you think about the audience for your work, especially since songs like “Blk Girl Solider” very clearly speak to Black girls?
It is important. I tell my students that when you create a body of work, you should always think about an audience even if it’s an annoying or difficult thing to think about. One of the most challenging parts of working on “White Privilege II” was knowing that I was writing to a White audience. That was a really good exercise for me, to know that I usually think about Black people when I write anything. That doesn’t mean that White or other non-Black people can’t enjoy or get something from what I do, but it’s written for Black people. That specificity allows people to grow and learn from something so much more intensely. Having that awareness of audience is really important for an artist.
How did you first get involved with Young Chicago Authors?
I was a member of Young Chicago Authors in high school. They took us on a field trip to WordPlay, the weekly Tuesday open mic that YCA runs. It’s the longest-running youth open mic night in the city. It was more poetry-rooted when I started, but it’s multi-genre now. Producers come to try and meet rappers, poets are there. It’s a really cool space.
I started working at YCA after college. I started substitute-teaching at one of YCA’s free Saturday writing classes. They had the idea for a program that would employ alumni and train them to be teaching artists so that youth could learn from someone who’s not that much older and maybe from their communities. I was a teaching artist for a few years, and then became associate artistic director about two-and-a-half years ago.
WordPlay, as you said, grew into a place for music producers, rappers and poets to link up and showcase their work. Artists like Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa all performed there. Do you get the sense that youth are driving major changes in Chicago’s artist spaces?
Youth are definitely driving major changes in the city’s art and hip-hop culture more broadly. Chicago influenced music before this point, but having a bunch of different examples of what it means to create and be from here really affirms young people’s faith in their own voice. We have Chief Keef, Mick Jenkins, Vic Mensa, Chance the Rapper, Noname—so many ways that rappers and artists are expressing themselves and setting up what they’re about. Past that, I also see the idea that it’s not just about you, but your collective. The music industry sets things up in a very individualistic way, but what [Vic Mensa’s] Savemoney collective and other groups show is that circles rise together. I’m happy to be a part of communities and collectives to counter a potentially toxic narrative when you’re out there trying to promote yourself as an artist. It’s refreshing to be excited about people in your circle.
Have contemporary racial-justice activism and protests—especially the ones surrounding the Laquan McDonald case in Chicago—changed the urgency of what you do as an artist or as someone working with youth of color?
In some ways. After the Trayvon Martin verdict and ever since then, whenever there’s a traumatic event, we open up a sort of town-hall space for people to talk about how they feel or release shit that we carry when we have to ingest this violent news all the time. Students saying, “Okay, now we’re going out to march” after a program is common. That politicization of young people is something that was not as explicit when I was first in that space. One of my friends and mentees, rapper Bella Bahhs, calls herself a “raptivist” with complete seriousness—her writing and activism is linked. People need those models, and it gives kids more permission to make what song needs to be made.
Chicago has a reputation as a city in crisis, plagued by gang violence. Do you see that way?
The way that people say that a lot interests me. People say, “Chicago’s so violent,” but people are usually focusing their lenses on the victims of the larger systemic violence going on here. I was just talking with people about how Chicago Public Schools might not have enough money to open next year—which is crazy to me because our mayor closed down 50 schools a couple of years ago to supposedly save money. That is a crisis, if kids don’t have anywhere to go to school in September. I think people in the government just want schools to be charter schools, and that is very scary. That’s the kind of fear and violence that people should be talking about, but instead they’re talking about the violence between people that is a symptom. I want to see the conversations shift to those larger issues.
“Heavn” drops July 11 via Chicago-based independent label Closed Sessions.