#JETSuite: Jamila Woods Performs Black Girl Soldier
There’s power in words and expression. It’s a power that has the ability to reach beyond the ear and find its way to the heart. Comforting, confusing and even rattling at times, words can nestle close to your spirit and further enable understanding of self and your thoughts.
“My art definitely started out as a way for me to process feelings, thoughts and how to express myself,” says spoken word artist and singer Jamila Woods. “ I grew up in a really close knit and creative family, so I always felt open and free there, but when I would go into spaces like my high school (St. Ignacius), which was a culture shock for me, there were so many things that were not me and I went into myself a lot and how I got through that was through poetry.”
You may not be fully familiar with her name nor her face, but her voice has contributed and added depth to songs such as Chance The Rapper’s soulfully warm “Sunday Candy”, from his latest project Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, and most recently, Macklemore’s eyebrow raising single “White Privilege II”.
The latter of which placed Jamila’s artistry on a broader mainstream platform while also making way for an opportunity to address the foundation of hip-hop as a travel way to freedom.
She sings on the socio-political charged track, “Your silence is not a luxury, hip-hop is not a luxury. What I got for me it is for me. What we made, we made to set us free.”
It’s messages, such as the above, and knowledge of self and culture that structured its way into Jamila’s first solo single, “Blk Girl Soldier.” The message pays homage to the strength of women while addressing societal adversities.
In this JET interview, we caught up with Jamila to talk finding her voice in a culture-shocking space, working with youth and her decision to collaborate with Macklemore.
Get a live experience of Jamila performing “Blk Girl Soldier” in this exclusive #JETSuite session!
JET: How did you know what stories you wanted to tell when building your platform and how to use your voice in that avenue?
Jamila: From the beginning when I was in high school, I was taught that you should tell your own story. I think that when you start off writing poetry, you want to create a story that sounds dramatic or sounds like it might get a high score in a poetry slam. So these stories that were kind of fiction may be based on something true but was something that I wasn’t ready to say in first-person. I had strong mentors who encouraged me to use the first-person and use what I actually know as opposed to thinking what I know or experienced isn’t interesting and writing about someone else’s story. And that comes from, I think, living in Chicago, the spaces that I grew up writing poetry in. We always talk about Gwendolyn Brooks and how she was like “write what’s under your nose, write what you know”, and she’s the master of that. It wasn’t always easy, but it helped because sometimes it felt like I didn’t have a choice. My high school and college were predominantly white spaces or spaces where you wouldn’t hear voices like yours if you’re not that voice. So that was also an encouragement to tell my stories.
JET: You work with youth and young poets at Louder Than A Bomb. In what ways do you see the arts inspire them and influence daily choices?
Jamila: The young people we work with, I feel like they use their art as a way to navigate the spaces that they don’t necessarily have a choice to be in. From things they’re subjected to, like the Chicago Public School system, to the stuff that goes on in their neighborhood, they use art as a mechanism to speak a different reality into existence. That’s the way that you can make change happen – you first have to imagine it. I think they also use it to try and understand themselves, like I did, and it impacts the choices young people make. That’s why art programs and letting young people be creative in their daily life is very important. It can impact the path of how people believe in themselves and what they believe they can do.
JET: Your eyes lit up when I mentioned your work with youth! What brings that spark?
Jamila: Young people just tell the truth all the time. I always find it really refreshing. I work in an arts admin position, so I don’t get to teach or be around young people as much as I did when I first started a few years ago working at the organization. But even if I had the longest day and I go and host an open mic, I’m instantly rejuvenated by their energy. It’s contagious! It’s also just when you put energy and time into mentoring someone, it’s like having other younger siblings. They love you back. They put their love and energy back into you. And it also teaches me things.
JET: What charges you to take action beyond your art?
Jamila: For me, art that I make, will never just be art for art’s sake. There’s a utility to it – whether it’s me wanting other Black girls to love their natural hair. There should be something behind a poem or song. I don’t necessarily think that makes it activism or maybe I just shy away from that word because I have friends who are out there protesting and I’m not doing that. I would like to if I had more time. I think it’s important that when you are an activist, teacher or whatever you’re doing, you have to have something that will keep you going and that’s going to affirm what you’re doing. I think art can play a really big role in that sense – being that for the people who are on the front lines. There are also alternative ways. Instead of arguing with someone about why Black Women’s Lives Matter – if you put on a song about it, you might change someone or affect their views.
JET: The song, “White Privilege II”, received mixed reviews. On one hand, there was question of the song’s sincerity, it’s timeliness and tie-in with record sales. Then on the other, is he really concerned and willing to do something about it? If so, what’s next? When receiving the call, what was your initial feeling and what prompted you to say “yes” to the collaboration?
JET: I definitely had an initial “hmmm…” [moment], where it was exactly what you said. I only knew the “Thrift Shop” song, but before that I had listened to earlier songs of his that I liked. I went out to Seattle just to listen to it, and it struck me as something that was important for his audience to hear. It also struck me as something where no one, who had that platform, could affect his audience the way he could. There’s been a lot of very recent #BlackLivesMatter songs that I feel are all over [my social feeds], and people are listening. But then there’s a whole other section where that’s not even on their radar. So, that appealed to me. It was kind of a struggle at first, because there was a call to action at the end and I was really struggling mentally with the idea of writing something to a White audience. I never sit down and think specifically about writing to affect a white audience. Also, it was more collaborative. They wanted to know what I thought. It was a process to finding a point that I could authentically speak to. I didn’t want it to be too sad.
JET: Alright and now we arrive at “Blk Girl Soldier”! Can you share the concept and creation of the song?
Jamila: This song was one of the first songs I wrote a little more than a year ago. It was my first time trying to write as a solo artist. I just heard the beat, and it felt similar to how I write poems. I’ll write one inspired by or after someone else (Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks). So I went to my iTunes and saw Erykah Badu’s “Soldier” and used the first word of her song, which is “see” and went off of that. It was like a prompt that I gave myself. And from there it was cathartic, because there’s always something going on – Boko Haram was happening, Rekia Boyd, protests were happening. I wrote that song and realized that I hadn’t really let myself emotionally process any of the stuff that I had been hearing about, so it was my way of doing that. Since then, I performed that song a lot a capella before it even got finished, because it was always very relevant to the moment. When it came time to put out the first single, it just felt very natural, because I was so comfortable with it at that point. It feels intuitively like the right statement and accurate to where I am.