Jamila Woods

Creating to Create Joy: A Seven Scribes Interview with Jamila Woods

by Eve L. Ewing

Two Chicagoans - one a poet and academic, the other a poet, vocalist, and art administrator - discuss what it means to be an artist, the value of creative control and the necessity of providing joyous spaces for people in this conversation between Eve L. Ewing and Jamila Woods, whose new album, HEAVN, just dropped.

Eve L. Ewing
Eve L. Ewing (Seven Scribes Submissions Editor) is a native Chicagoan, writer and an educator, a researcher and an editor, a bad cartoonist and a good knitter. She loves making and looking at visual art and eating donuts.

To many, Jamila Woods is perhaps best known as the soulful voice that has accompanied Chance the Rapper and The Social Experiment on songs like “Sunday Candy” and “Blessings,” but this week saw the release of the Chicago-born singer’s long-awaited solo album, HEAVN. Woods is multifaceted artist; in addition to being a vocalist, she is an accomplished poet and member of the Dark Noise Collective, which recently released a manifesto on the importance of politically engaged art. She is also an alum and the Associate Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors (YCA), the youth literary arts non-profit that hosts Louder Than A Bomb—the world’s largest poetry festival—and has quietly nurtured some of Chicago’s most well-known talents, including Chance and Vic Mensa. Seven Scribes editor Eve L. Ewing, also a Chicagoan and YCA alum, spoke to Woods before the album’s release about writing, working with Macklemore, and joy.

 

Eve L. Ewing: So what are you excited about right now the most in your life?

Jamila Woods: I’m excited about my project but I’m also… it causes me, I think, a lot of anxiety and stress. I think I would feel different if I was just doing that but because I have a lot of things that I’m kind of juggling.

Have you ever felt before like you burnt out?

Yeah, at different points I think I have felt that way. I had to learn how to say what I really wanted to be doing and what I really could be doing. Not all hours are created equal and so for a while I was still teaching my own residency two days a week, and also doing Louder Than A Bomb organizing [and] also doing a bunch of other programming stuff. So it was just like okay, that’s not actually doable for a person, to do that and still to do art and do other stuff. So yeah, I think I’ve gotten better at knowing what I can do in my time.

Do you feel like the work you do as an arts administrator and the rest of your work are integrated or does it feel separate?

I think this is the first year where I’m really seeing myself more as an organizer. Because when I was working with Macklemore on the song [“White Privilege”] it’s like the whole point, or a lot of the talk, was about not just stopping and saying “Oh we made a song! It’s good for people to talk about these things.” That gets really old and can fall flat. So how do you actually build events and conversations around it? And it felt really easy to be like, “Oh yeah there’s a space here. We can build an event, no problem.” I know how to program events. I know how to design spaces and facilitate conversations, so that felt like it was a really nice fit. And I think that’s cool, to think about how I can do that then with my own work.

Something that’s unique about you is you were in a duo, M&O. A lot of your earliest art was in this pair. But now you have this solo project coming out. You won the Lilly [the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, a prestigious award granted by the Poetry Foundation] which is about your individual work. And then you’re in a collective. And then you’re working with Social Experiment which is a bazillion people. So how do you navigate that? How is it different for you to work by yourself, work in a pair, work with a lot of other people? What are you capable of doing in those different settings?

The thing about working by myself is that it feels way more social, and asks a lot more from me. With me and Owen [Hill, of M&O] he knows how to—like he had a studio, we had our own studio all the time. It felt more insular because he wasn’t from Chicago and it felt very much like between us two. Whereas now it’s like okay, there are a lot of things I can’t do myself. So I have to reach out to other people and build new relationships, which felt really daunting to me as a more introverted person. But I think it’s also empowering because then I have to actually make more decisions. Whereas a lot of times producers just have really strong aesthetics. Especially someone like Owen who’s not just a producer, he’s also a full musician in every sense of the word. So like, he really didn’t like reverb or he didn’t like this type of drum pattern, so [with him] there’s already all these answers already. Versus now, I can and have to make decisions on those things and decide what it is I really want. It’s harder.  

What is it like making art as an introvert? Do you feel like art demands extroversion of people?

I don’t know. I feel definitely in this phase, it’s not like a handicap, but it just feels like… it actually feels like there’s a lot of other introverts. I think a lot of introverts are artists and that’s natural, but I’m often like in the studio like “uhhhhh.” Like, for example I was working with Peter Cottontale [music director for Chance the Rapper, producer, and member of The Social Experiment] recently and… before I even started writing, he put on the beat and I was like, “ooh that would be cool.” I just thought of this melody and then I wrote it down. And then I was like, “ooh I don’t know if he’ll like that. That’s kind of weird. Let me keep writing.” And I was just really nervous to show him what I wrote. And I sat there for almost two hours, or maybe like an hour. And then I sang him everything I wrote and he was like, “I love this.” And it was the very first thing I wrote in the first five minutes. That happens a lot, where it’s just like learning to trust myself. It doesn’t mean I have to be extroverted, but I just to have more trust in myself and be able to just speak up more.

Where do you think that lack of trust comes from?

When I write poems [compared to writing songs] I’m my own judge on, “I think this is good” or “I’m still not happy with this.” Especially more than when I’m working on music and it isn’t my song. Like when it was making something for Chance. That [writing for other people’s projects] usually doesn’t happen in poetry that way. It’s not like, “come write a poem for my mixtape chapbook!”

[laughs] Maybe it should! That could be cool.

That would be really cool. But yeah so in that situation I feel more like, “is this what you’re looking for? Is this what you want on your song?” Versus when I’m making my own music I’m like, “Ooh! I think that’s cool.” But now I think because I’m making a project versus just writing music, just writing music for the sake of writing music, I have a more voice in my head like, “does this sound too much like that other song you just wrote? Do you keep singing about the same thing?” I have a bigger critique thing in my brain which I have to just stifle.

Jamila Woods Sky Background

Image by Zoe Rain & Whitney Middleton

A second ago you talked about using songs as an organizing tool, and that being part of your process with the Macklemore song and then you did “Blk Girl Soldier,” which is a kind of black girl organizer anthem. So how do you, how did you get started with both of those songs and how do you see them living in the world as organizing tools or as artifacts of organizing?

Well, I wrote “Blk Girl Soldier” about a year ago and really it didn’t start out intentionally to be about that content. It was kind of whatever had been percolating in my mind. I had been going to some BYP [Black Youth Project 100] meetings and hearing the way they used chants and music in their practice. And then just reading news stories or listening to a lot of Erykah Badu—just all these things just kind of came out that way—and then I think it was one of the cool times where you write a song, and then before I really finished it, there was almost a year of just singing it in spaces. Singing it at YCA, or singing at rallies, or just singing it. So it got to be a tool that I felt like I was using in spaces, or just using for myself you know. And I like feeling that familiar with a song before putting it out. And then with the Macklemore song it was—

You’ve been asked about that song a lot so if you want to talk about it we can. If you don’t want to we don’t have to.

Oh yeah, I don’t mind. Especially not if it’s you.

[laughs] Okay, good.

It was through do you know Hollis? Hollis Wong-Wear. She’s a poet. She just called me and I knew her through Aaron [Samuels] who’s in my collective. I didn’t really know her, but Aaron loves her so I kind of just was like, “Okay, I’ll definitely hear what you’re saying.” And after she described it to me, Ben—Macklemore—called me on the phone and described it to me. And I’m the type of person where if you’re like “there’s this thing…” and I can’t hear it, I’m definitely gonna want to hear it. I get curious and I can’t just let that go. So I definitely was going to go to Seattle and listen to it. And then when I did, it was like what I described. Like, going to the studio and working with a new artist you’ve never met, especially when it’s someone who’s super popular, that can be a very…. I could’ve been very uncomfortable. I’ve been to studio sessions before where I feel like I shrink a little bit.

But it felt really awesome a lot because of Hollis [also] because I think both Ben and Ryan were just really… I don’t know what the word is. Just kind of just chill. It didn’t make me feel pressure at any point to write something really great. I think they were more like, “What do you think of the song?” And that’s something. I was like, “okay I can give you feedback.” I felt like, being a teaching artist and being a person in workshops a lot, I felt instantly comfortable with that. It was really a process oriented thing, which I appreciated. And it was also pretty cool to see how independent artists operate. I had seen a lot of how Chance and Social Experiment operate, but it was really interesting to see how they operate. They’re like, “Yeah this album was supposed to be done, but the song isn’t done.” You know, how they could kind of take risks and just kind of make their own way.

Because you just signed.

Yes. Yeah. That’s…I don’t like to say signed. I definitely signed something, but I don’t think of myself as “signed” which may be a problem. But I’m really happy with Closed Sessions. I’m going to do two projects with them. And it’s a really nice way to build relationships with producers because there’s oddCouple who works there, and Boathouse. So that’s cool. Because what Macklemore and Chance have is, you know maybe like all the way on this side [working as completely independent artists]. And then I don’t know, Vic Mensa [signed with Roc Nation] like on this side. And so I feel like I’m….

You’re somewhere in between.

Yeah, mhmm.

I don’t think I was a naturally talented singer, but I think there’s a way when someone’s singing and you can tell they love singing. I think I always had that. And the singers that I really love, I think they have that and that’s why I love them. tweet

What have you learned about how independent artists operate that made you want that kind of in-between space?

I think it’s definitely seeing just the artistic freedom that they have. And it’s not like freedom like, you know, gallivanting through a field. There’s a weight that comes with [it]. Because there was even around, you know, Macklemore talking about their album coming out and it’s following up on all this really pop success. And the same with Chance. After you have all of that success, it’s like your freedom becomes this very weighty thing. So it’s definitely not easy, but I just really appreciate that because then it’s like your success or your failure… it can’t really ever be a failure because if you stood behind what you put out and it’s not commercially successful, then maybe that’s a good thing, because the radio is shit. Everything is really crappy. So I like that part about it…. My dream is not only for Chicago to have an industry, but also to have an industry that has women of color as engineers and A&R type people, not just as the artists. Because sometimes that’s why situations can feel a little intimidating. It’s because you walk into a room and you’re the only woman or the only woman of color or black person…. And so I think it’s going to be a good experience for me to be a part of Closed Sessions and just a part of whatever else I can be a part of that’s trying to build that.

That’s a dope idea. So speaking Chicago stuff, how is it for you working in this space?

Yeah I feel really old sometimes [laughs]. No, it feels really good. It feels awesome to be also looking up to people who are younger. There’s Chance who’s in Social Experiment, Nico [Donnie Trumpet] all of them. My sister [Ayanna Woods, also known as Yadda Yadda] is making really beautiful music. I also have students that are amazing.

I think that’s exciting to just look around and have dopeness all around you. It can only just make you more good at what you do…. I think it feels surreal. A lot of things like that feel surreal. Like Mick Jenkins. Like just looking at people from Chicago. It’s also just like wow, being a YCA person feels really surreal in that sense because it feels like—I don’t know. I guess it just feels like really a small world. But it also affirms the space that YCA is, and the way that it allows people to be themselves even if that’s a little weird or odd or outside of what maybe you think a rapper would look like or what a singer would sound like.

Where do you understand talent as coming from? Do you think you were a naturally talented singer or is it something you learned?

I mean, I think, yeah. I mean I have the tapes [laughs]. I don’t think I was a naturally talented singer, but I think there’s a way when someone’s singing and you can tell they love singing. I think I always had that. And the singers that I really love, I think they have that and that’s why I love them.

Jamila Woods Graffiti Wall

Image by Zoe Rain & Whitney Middleton

Who are the singers that you really love?

Erykah Badu. I really love Kimbra and Sia. I always loved Whitney Houston growing up. The Preacher’s Wife is my favorite movie and I wanted to be her in that movie. And I think growing up in church, that’s how the people who I saw singing the solos, the women… it just felt like that was a form of healing, or just a form of [exhales sharply] whew, just like cleansing yourself. You know? So I think maybe first my real first experience with that was probably through poetry, but I think I—

“That” being the cleanse, like feeling cleansed?

Yeah. Mhmm. More publicly. Because I sang in church and that’s like…they love everyone there. It’s very affirming. And I think I found a similar thing like at YCA with WordPlay. And it wasn’t until later that I think that I—because even in church there were the voices that I could tell, I didn’t have that kind of voice. Like the big runs and the powerhouse sort of stuff. So I think I had an insecurity. And then when I was in college I did an a cappella group. It was called Shades of Brown. And our a cappella group was not like the other ones. The other ones [were] very intense and you had to read music to get in. And ours was like, everyone showed up at least half an hour late, eating take out as we’re singing and learning parts. No one read music, or usually no one. But I got really good at arranging there. So I would, by ear, just listen and hear all the parts of the song and make them on GarageBand. I think that’s how later I would just start making my own songs and make all the parts with my voice. And also through [that experience], recognizing that different kinds of voices have value.

Yeah you have a very—I don’t want this to come across as essentializing or like overly precious, but your voice has a quality that is very ethereal. And that I think now since you have been making music it is a lot more common than it used to be. It seems that there’s more space for women to have, and especially black women to have—

Like SZA.

Right, exactly, exactly.

Kind of Santigold sometimes

And…I think there’s something to a quiet strength. I think that’s a phrase that a lot of people that know you would use. You can be a soft-spoken person, but you’re a very strong person and you embody like ulterior ways of being strong. I’m breaking a lot of my own rules because I usually try to really ask questions and not just talk— I think that’s a quality in your personhood and then in also in your performance style.

Yeah I remember my first LTAB, feeling like…Robbie [Q. Telfer, poet and co-creator of The Encyclopedia Show] who was like “you don’t yell, or you’re very quiet, but it’s very powerful and that’s very different. Like how did you become okay—basically why are you like that?” [laughs]

But how do you make space for that? And has it ever been hard to assert that this is also a form of powerful singing or this is also a form of powerful poetry?

What I’ve found, is once I trusted myself to just put that forward… poetry really helped with that. It helped build my confidence a lot in that way. And I think having WordPlay and poetry spaces as first spaces to sing was also affirming, similar to how starting out singing in my grandma’s church was affirming. Because I think people who listen to poetry have a way of listening. They’re really good listeners. So when I would sing, it was like, you know they’re listening to not only my voice, but also what I’m saying. And I think I am confident in my weird writing abilities, and that also helped me be more confident in my voice.

My dream is not only for Chicago to have an industry, but also to have an industry that has women of color as engineers and A&R type people, not just as the artists. tweet

What is your writing process like?

My writing process.

Either for poems or songs, or both.

I feel like a fraud these days when I answer that, because I’m like, uhhhh….

[Laughs] An acceptable answer is “I just write things down.”

I think a lot of it is collecting stuff.  Because I’m very busy and can’t have the writing process of my dreams all the time. But when I was in a really good groove, back when I was writing “Blk Girl Soldier,” earlier in last year I had just done The Artist’s Way and I was feeling very like, “Ooh yeah I’m carving space for myself!” And writing mornings, like this brain dumping every morning, and then making. Usually at night is when I feel like I can get more in a writing zone. So I was doing that really well. But I think now I just make sure I have a notebook with me or at least make a voice memo if something pops into my head. Or a lot of times someone will say something. Like [Chicago Cook County State’s Attorney] Kim Foxx said, she was like, “Some things are worth fighting for. Some things are worth getting your edges snatched for.”

All right Kim!

And I was like okay, I want to remember that.

So why do you say that makes you feel like a fraud? Because it’s not the “I get up at 6 a.m. and I light a candle” process?

No, I don’t think I’m really a ritual— like a person who could do the same thing every day. But I just feel like I haven’t been writing like I want to be writing and I need to actually write more. So I think my process right now is more like writing down stuff, or keeping stuff and hoping it will blossom into something, but then I don’t think I’m actually giving myself the time to look at all that I’ve collected and make something.

And make it happen. This is sort of a tangential question and I also want to ask it in a way that’s not rude. But like do you ever worry… did you ever see [the documentary about backup singers] 30 Feet from Stardom?

Yeah! Twenty feet [laughs].

20 Feet. [laughs] I made it even more feet away, sorry. Do you ever think about—

Doing so many features?

Yeah doing so many features and what that means for you? Because on the other hand… like “Sunday Candy.” People love your part of that song, and I think it also speaks to the quiet strength thing. You come in with this line, “you gotta move it slowly,” and you are also yourself demanding that kind of quietness—

Mmmm. That’s cool.

And it’s very arresting.

Oooh!

Jamila Woods in Wildflowers

Image by Zoe Rain & Whitney Middleton

So even though you’re doing features they’re not like a lot of other people’s features. But still, how do you think about that especially in regards to your own project?

I think if it’s an artist that I like, and that I like working with, I don’t ever—within the time that I have, I don’t mind. I’m not worried about being seen as just a person who does features. Because one of the reasons I really love Sia is because she’s a songwriter and was a songwriter just for so long. And I think, during college maybe, I had a long persona poem obsession in my poetry. And I loved reading this interview Patricia Smith did where she was talking about how she starts off her persona poems with a question and tries to answer that question through writing the poem. And so I like to think of… like when I got the beat from Nico, it was just called “Sunday Candy.” And I was like, if that’s my question or my prompt, what is “Sunday Candy” trying to say on this beat? And so that’s really fun for me. And I think if it ever stops being fun then maybe I wouldn’t want to do features, but I don’t really see that happening because it also feels like exercise, like keeping me sharp. And I think writing “Sunday Candy” taught me a lot about what a good hook is and so I think that’s something that’s useful for me too.

So, a lot of your big work is associated with joy. Do you feel like a joyous person?

I think I have an impetus when I’m creating to create joy, or create a mood or a space for people to allow themselves to feel joy, or like a sense of release or a sense of peace with themselves, peace with who they are, self-acceptance and self-love. But I don’t think, I don’t think I am—I would like to think of myself as more of a joyous person, but I think of myself moreso as an anxious person. I take in stress…. If I’ve gone through the week and there’s all these little things that kind of got at me by the end of the week, I can feel those things and so I think music is my way to release that. Or when I was walking here, I was listening to some of the songs [on HEAVN]. I’m like, “ooh, is this a good song?” And I think of a song that just came out. Is it as good as that? But then I had a kind of stressful hour and I was just walking here just listening to the songs and like, okay it’s working. Like, I feel better, so it’s fine. Even if it’s not the perfect song, it had that for me. So hopefully it has that for other people.

Speaking of anxiety… you are very loved by a community that is very insular and so when you accomplish something everybody is really excited and proud of you. Does that feel good? Does that feel stressful? When you’re on TV are you like, “everybody who loves me is watching”?

I definitely feel it and it definitely feels amazing. That’s the best feeling, when it also seems like it creates a possibility… it creates a possibility for me to dream for myself when I see other people…. And I think that’s the most important feedback to me more so than, “Oh they didn’t write about me in that article the way I wanted them to phrase it.” I can get over that, it’s not that important. But if on the other side my students were like, “whoa, what made you do that? Why did you sing that?” That would be very important to me. I would want to understand that critique and learn from that as opposed to more industry-based feedback.

I think that’s really empowering, because I think when you know who your audience is and it’s someone that you can actually picture, it’s a much calmer way of living. Did you think about that when Macklemore called you and did that influence how you thought about proceeding with that collaboration?

Yeah that was actually the first thing. Because over the summer we talked about Macklemore a lot because there was one—

“We” like the kids at YCA?

Yeah, our twelve [teenage] artistic apprentices. One boy really loved Macklemore and everyone else was always like, “Why?! Why?” They would get in these big arguments. And so when I first found out I asked one of the other students, “What would you think if Macklemore wrote a song about white privilege? What would you think? And like cultural appropriation?” I just said it, and he was like [shocked] “What?! Well…” I saw him go through the whole process. Like “What the fuck?” And then he was like, “Well… I guess his people would listen to it.” Like he literally went through all the points that we had been talking about [in working on the song]…. He went through all of it and I was like, okay that’s similar to how I’m feeling, so that’s good. You know, it was good to check in.

Is there something he or other people would’ve said to make you not do it? Or a feeling that would’ve made you not do it?

I don’t think—I mean people could still at this point still hate the song, but I think because I got the feeling that Macklemore was coming from a good place I felt okay with it after that…. Even though it’s hard. Like, I didn’t go on Twitter like right away. But even when I did I was like, oh this is pretty cool. Black people are writing awesome articles. [laughs]

About the Authors:
Published by Eve L. Ewing
Eve L. Ewing (Seven Scribes Submissions Editor) is a native Chicagoan, writer and an educator, a researcher and an editor, a bad cartoonist and a good knitter. She loves making and looking at visual art and eating donuts. View all posts by Eve L. Ewing

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