Jamila Woods stays pretty busy. The Chicago singer, songwriter and poet released her debut album, HEAVN, last summer. And when she wasn't recording, she could be found working with young artists in her community as the Associate Artistic Director at the arts nonprofit Young Chicago Authors and as an organizer of an annual youth poetry festival called Louder than a Bomb. "My community doesn't feel like an extra piece of what I do — it feels very integral to my creative process," Woods says. "They're my first audience for my work and the audience that I care most about."
It makes sense, then, that HEAVN is about Woods' personal experience, but also about her city. "To me, HEAVN was about expanding the notion of love to include self-love and love of the city where I come from, which is often talked down upon in media," she says.
Woods, who came of age in the Chicago arts and poetry scene, left to study theater and Africana Studies at Brown University. As she prepared to graduate, she thought being an artist meant she needed to go to New York or Los Angeles, so she sought advice from a mentor. "They asked me where I was from, and I just talked about ... the artistic community that I had come from," she says, "and the mentor was just like, 'Obviously, I think you should go back to Chicago. It just seems like you have such a community there and it's a place where you can grow your wings.'"
So she decided to go home. Woods says that, while working on HEAVN, she thought about the idea of "staying as an act of resistance." On the album's title track, she sings, "I don't wanna run away with you / I want to live our lives right here," a lyric she says is about both her own choices and the choices of her ancestors.
"It's kind of a twofold thing," she says, "thinking about staying in Chicago, a city where a lot of people would say, 'Oh, that's not really a city you can be successful in, or build a life in, or sustain love in,' but also thinking about my ancestors, and how they took their lives into their own hands."
Woods writes songs that honor the past and present of black resistance, but she wouldn't describe herself as an activist. "I feel like that might be unfair to people who actually spend a majority of their time putting their physical bodies in harm's way in order to make direct action — which is what I think an activist is," she says. Instead, she considers herself an organizer, someone who creates space for marginalized voices to speak and be heard.
She interprets the phrase "protest music" broadly. It "doesn't just have to encompass those things that force you to go out and take action," she says. "[It] can also encompass things that allow you to sit with yourself ... and feel valid in your emotions."
The song "Blk Girl Soldier," a rallying cry for black women and girls, feels like it's doing that work. "Traumatic things ... happen to black people, but then you still have to go to work the next day, or you still have to wake up and teach a class, or go take care of your family, or whatever it is you have to do," Woods says. "I had just been bottling up all my feelings about these things ... so I remember this song being a way for me to cry about a lot of those things and just feel them and sit with them."
"My mission as an artist is always to create art that's useful," Woods says. "I want my music to feel like it has a tangible effect on people, like it allows them to check in with themselves, feel affirmed, feel able to continue into their day or into their path with renewed energy and a renewed sense of self, because ... that's what I hope to manifest in myself."
HEAVN is out now digitally, and comes out on CD and LP on Oct. 6. Hear more from Woods — and more from her album — at the audio link.
Producer Suraya Mohamed and web intern Katie Anastas contributed to this story.