At the start of our conversation I ask Jamila Woods what it feels like to be her, right now. She’s quiet for a moment before answering, in her broad Chicago accent, “It feels good, normal. I don’t know how it feels to be other people, it’s all I have.”
Jamila’s essence is to articulate simple truths. Her latest album Legacy! Legacy!, which was released earlier this month, braids together her predecessors in one body of work. She names the artists, poets, and musicians who have made her who she is. She sings as them, for them, and to them. Jean Michel Basquiat, Frida Kahlo, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, among others, take centre stage in the album and Jamila’s own life.
There’s a brevity to how Jamila’s speaks, echoing her time spent as a slam poet in college. In Thirst Behaviour, a poem she wrote in 2015, Jamila opens the performance with a dedication to Drake before following on with his distinctive ‘Worst Behaviour’ flow—“Shit. Motherfuckers never loved us.”
She’s been hailed a protestor, a humanitarian, a visionary. Jamila Woods’s mission may channel into one final fact: she’s just digging for the simple truth.
First off, the obvious statement, you’re touring at the end of the month.
Yes! I’m leaving next week actually.
Wow, I did not realise how quickly this month is going by. How do you prepare for tour?
Well, this time it’s a little different because the album is still fresh. So we’re really still learning the music now. We just learned another couple songs today. I mean, the band is learning the music. So it’s kind of exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time, because everything is so new. But I think that means that the tour is going to be a really nice exploration process for us to figure out how we want everything to sound, and get to experiment with how we want everything to sound. I’ve been preparing the stage set up for a while, just thinking about how I want the physical things in the space to look like.
You talk about a lot of visual artists on the album—a few are some of my favourites—do you like to paint?
That’s interesting! I mean, I like to paint. I don’t spend a lot of time painting. And in college I used to take art classes and I used to like to draw and paint things, but I really have always just loved reading interviews with visual artists. I just love seeing the way they talk about their work. It’s almost like a form of poetry to me. It’s just like, I would be reading about Georgia O’Keeffe or Frida Kahlo’s diary and just seeing how they describe their work has been really inspiring to me in general. I think that’s part of why I had some visual artists on the album.
Jean Michel Basquiat uses a lot of words and language in his art, which I think is really interesting.
There’s something I read about him, how he used to cross out some of the words in his artwork because he wanted people to try to read them and want to know what they said. And so, I was thinking about that in the song. The first time you hear the hook, it’s kind of distorted, I was trying to create that same feeling but with audio.
That’s a really interesting way to approach it! You’re obviously a natural writer, and I know you teach poetry. To you, what’s your favourite and least favourite parts about writing?
I think my favourite part about writing is feeling like I’m creating a new language for myself. So, every time I figure out how to express and like name and give words to a feeling or experience that I’ve had it feels very empowering and freeing. I think what can be challenging about it is really just when I don’t make enough time for myself to write. At least for me, I can’t just switch from doing emails to writing. I have to designate some specific time, and guard that time. I think that’s what can be hard, when I realise that I’m not doing great or that I feel out of whack then that’s usually because I haven’t been guarding that time. It’s almost like a reminder to do that.
Absolutely. Do you keep a journal?
I do! I do morning pages from this book called The Artist’s Way, that says to wake up every morning and write three pages of whatever’s on your mind. Like, meditating on paper. I do that, I want to say I do that every morning, but I don’t. I try.
Can I just say that I loved your slam poem ‘Thirst Behaviour’.
Oh thank you!
Are you still doing slam poetry? Where do you do perform?
I’m not still doing slam poetry. I still write poetry and perform sometimes, but I haven’t slammed since I was in college and since I started teaching. I still write, but not so much into slam. But I do help organise the largest youth slam poetry festival in the world which is Louder Than A Bomb. It just ended a couple months ago in Chicago. It’s always one of my favourite times.
What’s your favourite part about teaching?
I think, really it’s just getting to spend so much time around young people. And to never get stuck in my own perspective, to always just be seeing “What are they listening to?”, “What are they reading?”, “What are they thinking about?”. Kind of always having that fresh perspective. And they’re always really funny. At least the students that I work with, so it’s always just jokes and really fun.
Always the best! When’s your birthday?
It’s October 6th.
And you’re turning 30—how are you feeling about going into your 30s?
I feel excited. It’s been my Saturn Return, it definitely has been everything that they say it is. It’s been very intense. I’m just looking forward to being on the other side of it, but also appreciating it. I think the album has been the sounds of my Saturn Return, in a way. I do love that but I’m also excited for what a new stage of my life will bring me in terms of confidence and feeling more secure in myself.
Do you feel fairly secure in yourself at this moment?
For me, whenever I put myself out into the world you get a little shaken for a minute. So I’m definitely still in that “Ah!” sort of phase of just releasing something. But in general, I think it helps that I’ve learned the sort of practices that I need in order to feel centred in myself. So part of that is the journalling or taking enough time to rest or enough alone, self time. So I know that when I’m able to do those things, or also just thinking about how I can keep doing those different practices when I’m away on tour, so I can stay centred. Part of it is just learning what you need, which takes a while. I’ve learnt some good things so far.
If Legacy! Legacy! was a house, what would it look like? What is the home of this album?
I think it would be like the woman who wrote the poem that inspired the title of the album, her name is Margaret Burroughs, and she wrote a poem titled ‘What Will Your Legacy Be?’ and it’s just talking about all of these amazing historical figures that have come before you and just asking the question “What will you do? What will you add to that?” She lived in a house in Chicago, and the block where she lived has become a museum. I feel like it would look like that house. It’s wooden and it has all this history in it. There’s a bunch of art and this piano that Louis Armstrong used to play. Everything is historical, even if it doesn’t look like that. Like, “Oh! This looks like a window!” but it’s Gwendoline Brooks’s favourite window to look out of while she was writing. And so, I think it would look like that. A cosy, wooden house that’s full of a lot of history.
If your house became a museum, what would you leave out to show your history?
Hopefully, I’ll live longer than this moment so there are more things that I could leave out. But definitely all my hair things throughout the different phases of my hair. I have a lot of head-wraps that I used to wear when my hair was longer, and like afro picks and my brushes that I use now. There would probably be a lot of hair stuff. I just saw the Frida exhibit in Brooklyn, and they had all of her perfume and hair combs and I didn’t realise how amazing it would be to just see all that stuff. Literally just, what kind of lotion did she like? That was really cool. So a lot of shit, probably my coconut oil bottle. I have a lot of books so I want to get better at having a book collection that I’ve really read all the books in it and that there’s no book that’s bad. Every book in my book collection is amazing and worth reading. I have to do more work on that.