Between songs at her soundcheck at PUBLIC ARTS, the venue attached to Ian Schrager's PUBLIC hotel in downtown Manhattan, Jamila Woods is quick to pull out her phone. For the Chicago-based singer, it isn't a sign of disengagement; in fact, it's just the opposite. As her musical star has risen, Woods has held onto her full-time job as the Associate Artistic Director at Young Chicago Authors. She teaches, writes curricula and trains teachers at the non-profit, and is still coordinating via email, even as she takes vacation to promote her album's re-release on Jagjaguwar Records.
She is both product and steward of that Chicago institution and the musical scene that's blossomed around it, a scene that's helped produce Chance the Rapper, Saba and Noname, among others. Her music holds the soul of that community — the dedication to an art that can uplift and engage even as it challenges.
"Balancing my work with Young Chicago Authors with music, it's definitely a challenge, but I always feel like teaching is part of my writing practice," she said. "I used to go to the open mic at Young Chicago Authors called WordPlay ... It was a really important space for me, I think I performed my first ever musical performance at that open mic. And I think it kind of empowered me to take my lyrics so seriously and to apply what I came up doing in poetry to my music. So it's really important to me that I keep time to be around that community and around students."
Our Night Owl video crew caught her after she'd finished her soundcheck and before she went backstage to prepare for the show. Against a backdrop of blue velvet, she performed a stripped-down version of "HEAVN," the title track of her debut album. Her words and voice were front and center as she leapt from an interpolation of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" to a meditation on race, love and family history. After the shoot, she checked her phone again and disappeared backstage. Hours later, she reemerged to a full house.
Director: Nickolai Hammar; Producer: Ben Naddaff-Hafrey; Series Producer/Supervising Producer: Mito Habe-Evans; Animation: CJ Riculan; Audio/Video: Nickolai Hammar; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann, Keith Jenkins