Jamila Woods’s Neo-Soul Captures the Power of Black Pride

Jamila Woods’s Neo-Soul Captures the Power of Black Pride

Jamila Woods’s Neo-Soul Captures the Power of Black Pride

The Chicago singer and poet’s new album, Legacy! Legacy!offers a path to self-empowerment through the history of African-American culture and creativity. 


Close to midway through poet and singer-songwriter Jamila Woods’s new album, Legacy! Legacy!, comes a crunchy rock song named for a fellow Chicagoan of note, the blues legend Muddy Waters. On “Muddy,” over dragging, distorted electric-guitar riffs emulating the grittiness of Waters’s signature slide-guitar sound, Woods reminisces on his ability to cause a ruckus and spawn imitators. In that evocation, she offers an antidote to the threat of black alienation. “They say now / More than ever / I think they forget / What our history is / What we do / What we made,” she sings, her voice layered to form a chorus. On a track with so much delicious fury, it’s a line that points out the other side of out-and-loud black pride. As its title proclaims, Legacy! Legacy! is a celebration of African-American culture and creative lineage: Evoking her muses, Woods offers a path to self-empowerment through a collage of modern iconoclasts and their enduring influence.

On this sophomore release, she puts herself in conversation with a community of her predecessors (12 songs are named for black cultural icons, and one is named for Mexican painter Frida Kahlo)—a natural reflex in her artistic practice. Born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, Woods paid tribute to her girlhood in the city on her 2016 debut album, Heavn, which established her as an artist to watch with a decidedly political aim: Its songs revel in pro-black, pro-Chicago pride. Drawing on soul, jazz, and pop and incorporating elements of nursery rhyme, the album painted a nostalgic portrait of the city’s varied music scenes and histories. That aim was helped along by collaborations with fellow hometown vanguards Noname, Chance the Rapper, Saba, and trumpeter and producer Nico Segal. In her day job, the 28-year-old Woods serves as the associate artistic director of the literary nonprofit Chicago Young Authors, where she mentors young writers. That instinct to teach, to inspire extends easily into her musical works.

Her 2016 breakout solo single, “Blk Girl Soldier,” is an anthem to the history of black women’s beauty and resilience in the face of marginalization. On it she shouts out black forebears—activists Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Sojourner Truth, and Assata Shakur—by first name, planting a seed of curiosity in the minds of those for whom “Angela” and “Assata” may be strangers.

Legacy! Legacy! presents a maturation of that artistic vision with a spiritual self-assuredness rooted in abundant heritage. Throughout, Woods conjures the presence of these figures through each track’s shifts in mood and style, united by her vibrant, woodwind-like voice. At times, as she shifts in and out of singing from the perspective of these figures, it can be hard to discern where the artist stops and her imaginings of these legends begin. But weaved within them are moments exploring unknowing, anger, and joy that each icon’s legacy affirms.

On “Eartha,” Woods invokes actress and singer Eartha Kitt’s fierce confidence in the face of pressure to compromise her ideals. Best known for her role as Catwoman on the 1960s TV show Batman and for her hit Christmas song “Santa Baby,” Kitt was also a civil-rights activist whose criticism of the Vietnam War inspired a government-led effort to blacklist her in Hollywood. In recent years, her reputation as a feminist firebrand has become a reference point for a new generation of admirers, thanks to a viral video of Kitt laughing at the thought of compromising her life for any man. With a throbbing breakbeat punctuated by a stilted keyboard-chord progression, Woods sings, as if possessed by Kitt’s spirit, about gaining confidence in her needs and desires. In the outro, over a backing chorus of her own layered voice, Woods wonders, “Who gonna share my love for me with me?” A few songs later on the album, on “Sun Ra,” she uses sparse beats, modulated guitar chords, and echoing vocals to channel the experimental jazz composer’s Afrofuturist style. Using his art as a jumping-off point, she sings about a fantasy of hopeful escape for blackness from a doomed and unappreciating life on earth.

Legacy! Legacy! is replete with lines about love, both for others and the self. But any fight against marginalization isn’t complete without some anger. Calling to mind the specters of the angry-black-man and angry-black-women stereotypes, Woods embraces rage as a valid and usable emotion. On songs like “Basquiat,” named for painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, and “Miles,” named for jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis, she leans into a harder rock and hip-hop sound to evoke their inspirations’ legendary volatility. It’s the qualities that made them enfants terribles, she suggests, that also led them to have major impacts on American music and art. “I gave you the cool…. You can’t fake the cool,” she sings breathily on the background of “Miles,” referring to American pop culture’s reliance on the edginess and innovation of black artists.

Combining cultural pride with an examination of black womanhood, Woods demonstrates the activist adage that the personal is always political. Her work is explicitly protest music, appealing to its pedagogical power by dropping names and quotes like breadcrumbs that could help listeners on their path to a political education. Woods’s songs—named for icons such as Zora Neale Hurston, Nikki Giovanni, and James Baldwin—uplift a specific popular canon, even as other influential thinkers still await their due recognition. And yet the concept of Legacy! Legacy! is a testament to its own necessity. We should all be so familiar with these figures as to know them by just one of their names. And yet Americans today of any race or ethnicity can still go from kindergarten to graduate school without reading any works by Hurston, Giovanni, or Baldwin.

Still, Black Studies Schoolhouse Rock! this is not. The label “protest music” often suggests rhetorical utility is prioritized over all else. But this isn’t the case on Legacy! Legacy!, among which Woods’s most satisfying achievements are the new ways in which she melds disparate influences and pushes her vocal-layering techniques to build her dynamic neo-soul sound. The songs rise and build to forceful crescendos of layered instrument and voice, giving each the power of a hero’s anthem without continually falling back on repeated song structures. The almost seven-minute “Basquiat,” for one, which features Chicago rapper and producer Saba, cycles through charging jazz movements before switching into a hypnotic R&B outro.

And while there is nothing elementary about this album or Woods’s work, Legacy! Legacy! appeals to a desire many black Americans may share: that they could have learned about heroes and icons of black American history back when they were younger. She has spoken about feeling alienated while growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood. Her artistic work and her community work are focused on undoing that experience for other black kids. “Why did it take me until I was in college to learn about that?” she told Noisey in 2016, referring to Saartjie Baartman, an African woman who in the early 1800s became famous in Europe, where she was exhibited as a freak. “I think putting those kinds of things in songs is important because that’s how we learn.” With Legacy! Legacy!, Woods has created an artifact to spark the curiosity of the next generation of black artists. It serves as more than just canon or curriculum; it puts Woods, the artists, and the listener shoulder to shoulder in the same room.

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