Jamila Woods on Messages From “Heavn” & The Creative Spirit of Chicago’s Artists

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Some of the greatest artists in modern music started with careful build-ups. From Nas to Kendrick Lamar, these artists were tapped to play feature roles on others’ songs. In time, they broke through with art that showed their individual gifts, visionary qualities, and ability to balance them at a full-length level.

This week, Jamila Woods released Heavn. The Chicago, Illinois singer, poet, writer, and directing-educator of Young Chicago Authors approaches her full-length solo debut after appearing on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “White Privilege II,” Chance The Rapper’s “Blessings,” and an assortment of DIY releases across the Windy City. Cultivated from “a culture of listening,” Woods’ music (whether alone or with her band, M&O) is careful, wise, and incredibly soulful. A young leader, this multi-talent lives outside the music industry pressures. Her Closed Sessions release is free, much like her spirit and creative form.

Speaking with Ambrosia For Heads, Jamila Woods details her incredible 2016. She explains the inspiration behind Heavn, and what makes the Chi City such a melting pot of individuality.

Ambrosia For Heads: Starting with “White Privilege II” around the start of the year, 2016 has been a long time coming for your work and your art. With appearances, recognition, and approaching this album, how has this year been for you?

Jamila Woods: Yeah, it’s been a really exciting year. I feel like I’ve been learning a lot and still learning a lot, moving into being a solo artist. Even the term “solo artist” sounds like you’re on your own. But it actually has required me to be more active in reaching out to people, as far as collaborating with people and [maintaining] the whole team that’s necessary to get the album made, videos done, and things like that. It’s been really cool connecting with the label, Closed Sessions. I’ve been meeting a lot of people. [I still have] a lot left to learn. I think after [Heavn], I’m learning that I want to know more about the production side of things. I’ve dabbled in playing instruments before, but now I think it’s more important that I get more disciplined on that, so I can shape every element of the sound. I’m really happy with how [Heavn] is turning out though.

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Ambrosia For Heads: You mention something important when you say “sound.” I really admire your patience, because I think so often an artist always—especially nowadays—feels a little bit submissive to the cycle of, “I have this feature or collaboration that’s doing well, I’ve got to rush, rush, rush to get this product out there.” Starting with “White Privilege II” earlier this year, I know you’ve done the opposite. The things that you’ve been a part of have been left to enjoy and digest. Tell me about your decision to buck the trend and make art on your terms.

Jamila Woods: That’s a good question. I think, for me, it’s important to be present in whatever it is I’m working on. When the “White Privilege II” song was being made, that was a lot of investment—not only in writing to the song, but also in having the conversations around the song. It’s better not to split my focus too much; I already do a lot of things. I still work a full-time job and have a lot of things going on where I am. So when it comes to a musical project, I [do not want to] split focus. It’s important to not think about [distractions]. Timing is important, but you should never feel like you’re running out of time, or having to put something out just because people are saying you should. I was listening to that Guru song with Erykah Badu [“Plenty,” with the lyrics:] “And every day is her day, and every year is her year.” So that’s kind of a mantra that I think about sometimes. There’s different ways that I express myself through my art. Sometimes it’s in collaboration. Sometimes it’s my own project. Sometimes it’s songs. Sometimes it’s poems. All of those things can have their own moment and I don’t have to rush or shape my schedule around anyone but myself.

Ambrosia For Heads: With “White Privilege II,” you mentioned a lot going into the writing. A lot also went into what I’ll call “the unpacking” afterwards. When you were approached for the record, were you aware that you would be part of those discussions following the initial impact?

Jamila Woods: Yeah. The whole intention behind the collaboration of that song was to make the collaborators very visible. That was a very intentional thing on the part of [Macklemore] and Ryan [Lewis] and the whole team. [They were] passing the mic [to Hollis and me], and making sure it was not just a spotlight on Macklemore for writing the song, but a spotlight on the team—specifically the women of color who were really instrumental in bringing the project to where it got to be. So that was me and Hollis, but also the women in Black Lives Matter, who were really closely working with him throughout the process. That was pretty cool; I liked how intentional that was.

Ambrosia For Heads: It’s interesting…in the feature role, so many of your recent songs and appearances, sonically, fit together. How deliberate is that, and how much of it lends itself to the shape and sound of your album?

Jamila Woods: That’s cool. So you’re thinking of “Sunday Candy,” “Blessings,” and the Macklemore song?

Ambrosia For Heads: Yes, but also Kweku Collins’ “Ego Killed Romance.”

Jamila Woods: Oh, yeah, yeah. Kweku [Collins’] song too. Yeah, I think…what kind of ties things together, or what I like to bring to a record is a sense of almost celebration sometimes. At least with the Macklemore song, that was very intentional. I wanted my moment after this huge, dense, heavy, political song to also have the elements of [joy]. Much of early Hip-Hop was about that celebration of a radical nature, like Black joy in creating this artform that is so powerful. [It is] the same with “Sunday Candy.” When I heard that beat—it was just an instrumental beat. Peter [CottonTale] often has a very Soul-Gospel feeling to a lot of the stuff. It’s very nostalgic when I hear a lot of Peter’s work. It took me to a place of thinking about a love song, or Gospel music. Definitely with the “Blessings” song too; that came out because of how it is to work with Peter. I also like layering my voice a lot of times. I like creating a choral effect, even if it’s just me on a song. I think there’s a lot that comes from growing up, singing in a lot of choirs and a cappella groups and stuff like that. My first songs that I ever made before I was in a band—because I didn’t know a lot about playing instruments—I would just sing the parts of the instruments and make my own songs of just a cappella vocals on Garage Band. I think that’s still an element of my work that remains consistent. Also, with Kweku’s song, he had already written it and was asking me if I could add to it. I really love really listening to the lyrics that someone else has and trying to continue the story, almost like a play. I also did some play-writing, and it’s fitting yourself into the world that someone is already making, as opposed to singing something that sounds nice.

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Ambrosia For Heads: Right now, Chicago has such a cool community of people who work together, support each other, and work together in fantastic ways that I believe is so often understated. How does it feel, with your peers, to change the face of popular music?

Jamila Woods: It’s been really exciting. Coming up in the poetry community…Spaces of poetry often become these hubs for up-and-coming rappers or singers to get their first performance experience or first concert experience. I think it’s because we really have a culture of listening in a lot of those spaces–like the open-mic medium. That’s where Chance [The Rapper] and NoName [Gypsy] came up, or Word Play, where a lot of [my peers] came from. Donnie [Trumpet] and Mick Jenkins used to come through there—it’s where I work now. It kind of is a really cool, positive, and really receptive audience. It doesn’t really exist many places. Even at actual music shows, people are talking. It’s a unique opportunity that fosters collaboration [discussions]. It’s how I met [my peers].

Now so many people have risen—all [with] individual styles. Vic [Mensa] is different than Chance, who sounds different from Mick, who sounds different from NoName. Seeing young people having the confidence to do something odd or weird or that they just own as their unique sound is really inspiring, to see how that legacy is continuing.

Ambrosia For Heads: Tell me about the meaning and theme to Heavn

Jamila Woods: The main theme is definitely love, and thinking about the way that specifically for Black people, love is not a given. There’s actually so many historical ways that we’ve been taught “your skin is ugly, your hair is ugly.” So what does that make you think about the Black girl sitting next to you? There’s barriers against loving ourselves, loving each other, and the way that we exist in our communities. There’s a lack of resources. Our schools are getting closed here, so what does that tell you about how the government or the city thinks about you? There’s a lack of love. So I was thinking about the idea of transcendence and how every time in every funeral I’ve been to the pastor…in the Black Church, there’s always this idea of God preparing a place for us. So “Heavn”—with that different spelling—is my attempt at the idea of, what if we didn’t have to wait for it? Like, what if it didn’t have to be this far away place—if we could manifest more of it in this present moment. So the songs are kind of different explorations of how I would do that for myself or do that for my community.