It’s hard to capture who Jamila Woods is with words. First and foremost, she’s an artist – in every sense of the word. She’s also a teacher, a mentor, a poet, an activist, a singer, a writer and a collagist. Growing up in Chicago, where she still resides, has given her a strong definition of community – whether it’s through her own acclaimed music, her poetry, or her position as artistic director at Young Chicago Authors (YCA). Youth programs have not only directly informed her art, but they’ve nurtured it too – as she helps young people grow, she grows with them.
Speaking to Jamila, it’s clear that the value she places in artistic community is second to none. Those same after-school programs that she now heads up gave her the platform to perform her poetry and sing in public for the first time. “It was through those programs that I gained confidence in my voice and met a lot of my future collaborators,” she tells me. But Jamila’s relationship with her words, in particular, is what has been a driving force in her music and artistic activism. Poetry was a way to express her discomfort; tackle her oppression; and come to terms with her observations. Growing up, she felt awkward and out of place a lot, but through her poems it was like she was speaking her language for the first time.
“One of my favorite poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, said, ‘I am a writer perhaps because I am not a talker.’ I’m an introverted person and as a teenager I often found myself observing and listening more than expressing myself,” she states. As an art form, poetry can sometimes be regarded as elite, something only to be enjoyed by a certain few but Jamila thinks poetry is misunderstood. “I think that a lot of people misunderstand poetry and think it’s this inaccessible form of writing, but through studying the Chicago literary tradition I understand poetry as everyday thoughts and speech distilled into their purest form.”
It’s this concept of free speech that rings loudest throughout her music, though – her brand of soulful R&B is sung with effortless assertion, with lyrics about resilience, love and social justice. Her need to express herself through music was also a way to let her politics manifest in a new way. Her single ‘Blk Girl Soldier’ is an ode to black girl magic; it’s not drenched in metaphor, or cloaked with abstract phrases that are difficult to decode – Woods tells it like it is, with straightforward words about her experience as a black woman in America, and how her community has helped her survive.
Her main goal now, however, is to heal – whether it’s herself or others – through her music. To her, recognition is less important than the tangible effects her music has on the people who listen to it. Writing about self-love and strength doesn’t always come easy, but recognizing that there are lessons along the way is something that she is grateful for. Ultimately, though, she strives to be authentic. As we wrap up our conversation, she makes one thing very clear: “My goal is to create art that is healing and transformative for people who experience it. I aim to create art that allows my communities to feel seen, fully human, and more free.”
Jamila’s HEAVN album gets a new and full release soon via Jagjaguwar/Closed Sessions.