Jamila Woods is a Renaissance woman in the truest sense of the word. A poet, singer, teacher and social activist, she is an unparalleled talent rarely seen in popular culture.
Known for her featured performances on hit singles like Donnie Trumpet’s “Sunday Candy” and Chance the Rapper’s “LSD,” Jamila is now making a name for herself as one of Chicago’s fastest rising stars. Her debut album Heavn has garnered the Brown University graduate the attention of Pitchfork, the Vice and Billboard magazine.
While Jamila’s career begins to hit new heights, she continues to stay dedicated to the city that shaped her, serving as the associate artistic director for Young Chicago Authors, the literary organization behind the annual “Louder Than A Bomb” poetry competition. As one of the Breakbeat Poets, Jamila blends her traditional poetry background with her love of hip-hop culture, which grew from a childhood fascination when she would compare the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks with the descriptive rap lyrics of Nas. Through everything she does, whether it is poetry, music, Jamila instills a message of identity and empowerment to the new generation of writers and artists, and representing Chicago every step of the way.
I spoke with Jamila about working with Young Chicago Authors, bringing Chicago music into the spotlight and finding a connection between poetry and modern music.
Do you think with the growing arts & culture scene and the prolific musicians and poets who call Chicago home are changing the negative perception of the city?
There’s definitely the whole “Chiraq” perception and needing to see Chicago as a sort of villain of cities. It’s definitely important for people who stay to help young people see this city as an option for arts and culture. But it’s also more than just people who stay. Organizations and people who are collectively building communities need to help too. YCA is a really good example. It’s a place where young people can go to create art that isn’t really found in Chicago public schools and highs schools that don’t support the arts. Companies like Closed Sessions and Bucketfeet, who are giving spaces to local artists to create art here is also very important, because a lot of times, people will move to New York or LA—not because they don’t love Chicago, but because there just isn’t as many opportunities here. So, it’s really cool that there are a ton of people making art throughout the city right now and building up this community to support these young local artists.
When you were featured on Macklemore’s song “White Privilege II,” you spoke about not wanting to feel the burden of speaking for every black person. Could you talk a little about what you meant by that?
What I was trying to say with that, was about how people tend to do that, and might’ve seen it that way. So, to counter that perception, I used inspirations from a lot of black writers of all genders to inspire what I wrote, so it didn’t just feel like I was just writing from my experience but always have a collective voice. I think I try to do that a lot in my poetry and my music—like sampling and taking in references that influence me. But, I don’t feel burdened or that I pigeonhole myself by writing about blackness, because that’s what I am and what I know. It’s all about expanding the notion about what a black girl can be. That’s what I think is really exciting about all of the young black women in music and poetry right now. When I was younger, I saw a lot of images that made me feel that way sometimes, like I wasn’t being a black girl the right way and there was a definition that I wasn’t fitting into. So, when I’m creating I’m trying to make more space.
In the past, you’ve talked about comparing poetry to modern hip-hop and dissecting the elements of both to connect the works. What do you think are the connective elements of hip-hop and poetry?
I like what one of the editors of the Breakbeat Poets book Nate Marshall said. He said, “Hip-hop is in the water.” Since I have been writing, hip-hop has existed and I’ve seen how it has affected this next generation of poets. Just in terms of thinking about tradition, that tradition of oral poetry that existed before the poetry you might’ve seen in an English classes—there’s a simultaneous tradition that is just as old as those that hip-hop descends from. It kind of brings all of those things together. It was when I got to YCA that I first realized there was a different way of teaching poetry than I was taught. That idea of putting a Nas song with a Gwendolyn Brooks poem was that they’re both—at the root—telling a story. So, what I tried to figure out was a way to see the lineage there. Kevin Coval, the artistic director of Breakbeat says that Gwendolyn Brooks was kind of low-key the mother of a lot of hip-hop, because she was the teacher of a lot of poets in the black arts movement and the black arts movement was a big inspiration for a lot of people who started hip-hop. So, it’s really important to teach that history because it’s not really taught that way, and it’s the truth. That really influenced my writing when I started becoming a teaching artist, because I realized that there’s a history of the kind of writing I do. Like I had learned that it was called an allusion in school, but I realized that it was also just called sampling in a rap song. A lot of hip-hop is like a collage. So, it’s influenced my writing and has given me new language to talk about my writing. Music also just inspires me often. I definitely listen to more hip-hop than I read books. I like having that cross-pollination and not just having to read in order to write, but also being able to listen in order to write.
When you attended Brown University, you said you found your own community of artists that inspired your work. How important was branching outside of your Chicago community and getting these new perspectives on your writing?
I had this mentor who was this playwright named Daniel Alexander Jones. At Brown, we had all these visiting artists who would come to our theater class during our senior year, and literally everyone from my class was going to New York or LA. And after his lecture, I just asked him, “Do you think New York or LA would be better for me?” And he was like, “Well, tell me a little bit about what you’re trying to do.” So I was saying how I was from Chicago and he was like, “Well, you’ve been talking to me about Chicago for the last five minutes. It sounds to me like maybe you should go there since it sounds like you have such a strong community. Those other cities—if you go there and don’t have anything to do, you’ll just be like everyone else. It’s better to grow your wings someplace you’ve already started.” That’s really why I came back to Chicago.
Do you ever look back on your old writing and cringe with embarrassment or do you view it more as something that helped you grow as a writer?
There was a small video of my first LTAB poem, and my family always quotes it back to me. It’s cute and sweet to look back. I don’t always cringe, because I know at certain points I was working through some really big issues and I would write very coded poems. I would write these things that I wasn’t ready to say straight-out, so I kind of look back at it and it’s nice to see the progression of being able to talk in the first person and talk about things that have happened to me, rather than in codes.
In addition to the arts community in Chicago, it’s becoming a major city for the civil rights movement. A lot of your songs like “Blk Soldier” and “Heavn” deal with a lot of these themes. Do you think it’s important for artists of your caliber to have a strong message, or is it okay to sometimes just sing songs about popular culture and light themes?
I think the art that I respond to is truth telling and speaking truth to power. I like the James Baldwin quote, “Artists must disturb the peace. Otherwise, chaos.” To me, a poem about a flower for no other reason that to just write about a flower is just like, “Ugh, why would you waste your time on that?” That’s chaos, to me. What artists should strive for is to break the perfectly neat little structures of privilege and whiteness that people in power cling to. I think it’s important for artists to shed light on those things.
You work very closely with Young Chicago Authors. Could you tell me about your role in the organization and how your working with young writers?
YCA is a nonprofit that works in all forms of literacy—poetry, hip-hop and journalism—and we go into high schools throughout the city and setup long-term residencies. The bigger thing we do every year is the “Louder Than A Bomb” poetry festival. I work in a lot of different fields, but what we did over the summer was an intensive internship program with poets who come through LTAB and maybe want to be a teaching artist one day or want to do more professional poetry. It’s kind of like a bridge between high school and being a professional artist. There’s also an open-mic every Tuesday night, which is the longest-running youth open-mic in Chicago. When I started going in high school, it started becoming more of a place for rappers and singers. So, it’s kind of really become a hub for a lot of the hip-hop and music scene in Chicago, even though it’s mostly rooted in poetry. So, I’m really proud to be a part of that exchange of poetry and music.