Jamila Woods Fuses History With Hip-Hop on Legacy! Legacy!

Jamila Woods sings at the Treefort Music Fest in March 2018.
Jamila Woods sings at the Treefort Music Fest in March 2018. Steel Brooks
What's in a legacy?

People spend their entire lives chasing the answer to this question. We all want the memory of who we are and what we brought into this world to last long after we’re gone. Scientists want their discoveries to shape the future. Artists want their work to inspire others for years to come. In order to create our own legacies, we have to take a look back at the people who came, who saw, and who created before us. By looking at our heritage, we can form our own cultural identities.

29-year-old Chicago artist Jamila Woods addresses these questions on her latest album Legacy! Legacy! Using music as a means of preservation, Woods tries to capture what it means to her to be a black woman, carrying on in the tradition of artists of color before her.

Fans may recognize Woods’ unique falsetto from her very first collaboration with a major recording artist, Chance The Rapper. In 2015, she sang the hook on "Sunday Candy," a song by Chance's side project Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment. The following year, she released her own project HEAVN on SoundCloud landing on year-end top album lists by NPR, Esquire, Consequence of Sound, and Pitchfork without spamming a single Twitter thread. Embarking on her first international headlining tour, Woods has a lot to say with her sophomore album.

Where self-love and self-respect were central themes on HEAVN, Legacy! Legacy! takes a more conceptual approach. Each song is named after significant artists of color throughout history, drawing on their unique contributions for inspiration. Woods intentionally speaks to experiences unique to black Americans, but fans of every ethnicity can relate to the emotion expressed in her music. "GIOVANNI" is a backdrop for the singer to explore themes of belonging and self-promotion. Lyrics from the famed poem "Ego Tripping" (written by the song’s namesake, Nikki Giovanni) make an appearance in the vintage-themed music video. We see Woods dancing confidently, daring the audience to tell her she isn’t the best thing since Wi-Fi. The variation in the album keeps even the most seasoned fan guessing. Often, the music can varies wildly, not only from one track to the next but within a single song. Compositions like "BASQUIAT" take the listener effortlessly from a runaway jazz song to nodding to the tempo of a swinging hip-hop beat within the span of five minutes.

A poet by trade, Woods has made it her mission to find the middle ground between her music, her message, and her poetry, and present that to her fans. “It’s a relatively new phenomenon, noticing the intersection between the poetry and hip-hop communities and being conscious of the ways I can provide space for women of color within that,” she said to the Chicago Reader in a 2015 interview. It’s worth noting that she’s achieving this goal fairly successfully — her live shows are selling out.

As R&B makes a resurgence thanks to everyone from Solange to FKA twigs, artists like Jamila Woods are reclaiming the genre and reinvigorating it, incorporating elements of pop and hip-hop to reach a younger audience. But unlike her peers, Woods’ talent goes beyond above-average singing: Legacy! Legacy! is the work of a poet, speaking from within, inspired by her past and her present.

Jamila Woods. With duendita, TRUVONNE. 8 p.m. Monday, June 17, at Valley Bar, 130 North Central Avenue; Tickets are $15 via Ticketfly.
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