Jamila Woods: Q&A

Jamila Woods (photo by Elizabeth De La Piedra, PR)
by Kara Manning | 02/13/2024 | 1:59pm

Jamila Woods (photo by Elizabeth De La Piedra, PR)

Over the course of three superbly crafted albums, most recently 2023's Water Made Us, Jamila Woods has artfully turned the personal into the profound, skillfully threading the universal impact of Black history into the intimate scope of her songwriting.

From her very first album, 2017's HEAVN, the Chicago musician and poet has expounded on Black identity, feminism, and ancestry (2019's LEGACY! LEGACY!), as well as the vagaries of love and desire, as most explicitly explored on her new release.

Woods effortlessly blurs the artificial boundaries of genres, enabling a greater reach and resonance to her observations, sharply-observed emotional and philosophic tides guided by the pellucid beauty of her voice. She elevates her forebears with reverence, especially the women, teachers, and poets who've cleared bramble-tangled paths for others to follow.

On Water Made Us, the title drawn from a talk that Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison gave at the New York Public Library in 1996, Woods surrounds herself with friends and family, via vocals and samples, including Fatimah Asghar, Indya Moore, Krista Franklin, Jasminfire, Saba, Peter CottonTale, and duendita.

FUV caught up with Woods on the cusp of her February tour (she plays Webster Hall this Sunday, February 18), and asked her about Water Made Us ... and the impact of Black History Month and the poets and professors who altered her life's path:

Your most recent single, "Still," perfectly captures that intersection of relief, sadness, and anger after a relationship fizzles out. It's funny and bittersweet — and I strongly relate to the line about "I'm missing my laugh and my wings." What does this wonderful song mean to you — and what was its provenance?

Thank you so much! For me this song is about the space before you "get over" someone, the period of time when you feel almost haunted by the presence of a past partner. Sometimes even the smallest task of washing dishes or lighting incense can remind you of someone and the memory is frustrating rather than pleasant. I wanted to write about this feeling and my realization that the more you resist the emotions and memories associated with a person, the more they linger. It's about the process of accepting that maybe a part of your past loves will always linger with you, and the sooner you make peace with that, the sooner you can actually move forward.

Your 2023 album, Water Made Us, has 17 songs, all of which address angles of love. As you did on LEGACY! LEGACY!, you focused conceptually on something that fascinated and galvanized you, and then explored it thoroughly. What is most vexing — and rewarding — when writing about love or the lack of it?

I think all three of my albums are about love in some way. It's such a potent and expansive topic, and there are so many different kinds of love — romantic love, platonic love, love of where you come from, love of your culture, familial love, love of your ancestors, spiritual love, etc. My poetry teachers always said romantic love was the hardest topic to write about without being cliché, so I think it makes sense that it took me some time to find a language to write about my experience of romantic love in a way that feels particular and authentic to me. For me this meant also weaving in familial and generational lessons about love, and philosophies about love from my very wise friends. Romantic love never exists in a vacuum. The way we learn love often comes from our families, and the way love is sustained often comes from our communities, friends and chosen families who form the network around the loves we create.

What lyricists and poets are you discovering or revisiting these days, either peers or legends of long ago?

I am revisiting the poetry of June Jordan and Audre Lorde often these days. As well as Nikki Giovanni, since the documentary about her life, "Going to Mars," was just released. I love these poets because they are so unapologetic in their self expression, so politically engaged and razor sharp with their analysis of the world — while always writing from their particular experience.

As a producer, and working with your fellow executive producer Chris McClenney, what did you seek first when building one of your songs?

The album came together kind of like a collage. I had some early drafts of songs I had worked on with other producers, and then there were some songs we started from scratch, and some songs we worked on with a little team of producers.

Is there a particular track on Water Made Us that shape-shifted many times until it came into view for you and Chris?

"Practice" was one song that we knew we wanted to write but kept trying many different versions until we got it right. Conceptually, we knew we wanted track 3 to be about the idea of letting relationships be about practicing love, and we knew we wanted it to sound upbeat and inviting. We tried a couple different production sounds before McClenney landed on the version that made it to the album. From there I worked on the lyrics with help from my friend and fellow musician Jasminfire. And then Saba's verse was the cherry on top; we were so excited when we heard it, it absolutely made the song come together!

Since it's Black History Month, I wonder if that designation or celebration has ever had any meaning for you growing up?

For me every month is Black History Month, I am obsessed with learning about my ancestry and the history of my people. In college I majored in Africana Studies, which they called "the grammar of human life" because if you understand the most oppressed peoples in any land, you will understand the inner workings of that society and the human beings in it.

As a child or teenager, who did you revere or did you have a mentor who changed your life?

I had some amazing professors, including Tricia Rose, Corey Walker, Stephen Cobbs, and Anthony Bogues. Their classes introduced me to some of my favorite Black authors, taught me so much about freedom struggles of Black People in the United States and across the diaspora, and also taught me so much about the history of colonization and how it intersects with the conception of race in our country.

As we enter a rather fraught political year, what has been most on your mind about the state of the country? What gives you hope — or what do you worry about in 2024?

The people of Palestine (Gaza) are constantly on my mind. They deserve freedom and self-determination. I was never googly-eyed about the United States, but seeing my country's participation in the genocide against Palestinian people has brought me to a new level of anger and despair on the state of things. I worry about the lack of critical thinking and critical engagement with news media that is constructed by racist and capitalist interests. I worry about the way we are so desensitized to violence and conditioned to think the suffering of people far away or different from us is none of our concern. I'm thinking about Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer's quote, "nobody's free until everybody's free." The solidarity between Black people and Palestinian people gives me hope. It feels like now is one of those times where there's an opening for more people to understand their inherent collective power to create change, not only in Palestine (Gaza) but in other places globally like Sudan and Congo, as well as in our local communities.

- Jamila Woods
February 2024

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