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Jamila Woods Sings Reminders of the Past for Sake of the Future

Jamila Woods opens for Raphael Saadiq at Parker Playhouse Thursday.
Jamila Woods opens for Raphael Saadiq at Parker Playhouse Thursday.
Photo by Bradley Murray

Jamila Woods immortalizes giants of black American culture with her 2019 album Legacy! Legacy! In an age of anger and rage, the power of her voice is a beacon for those searching to remember the significance of the past.

She’s managed to not compromise on her message or her creativity as she has grown into the artist that has come to remind black women/girls of their rich history and power. Her neo-soul vocal style is rich with confidence and rhythm in ways that are similar to Erykah Badu. The tracks on her latest album are all named after iconic black figures and highlight her attempt to bring a historical reference to her LP.

In the song “Eartha,” she opens: "I used to be afraid of myself/Hung my smile on the shelf/Hid my teeth when I laughed /Now I’m far too grown for your plot." She’s referencing the self-conscious feeling that she got from the world around her. Summoning Eartha Kitt to give her the confidence that she had speaking out against the Vietnam war when invited to the White House in 1968, resulting in a serious blow to her career. Woods concludes that she will be bold and exceptional in spite of whatever onslaught.

It feels like Woods has decided to take the gloves off in her writing and approach her music with all the power that her ancestors have given her. In a time when many fear the country tumbling toward a fascist ethnostate, people need to be shown just how much power lies within them. Woods sees the reality of her life and the life of black America on the track "Sun Ra,” featuring theMIND and Jasminfire. She lives it, she breathes it, and she is done apologizing for it: "I'm a bad one baby, I'm a warrior/Never let them shame me out of my anger/I just gotta get away from the Earth, man/This marble was doomed from the start and/I won't be around to see it when it goes/Black girl Garvey, I'll be on my own."

She sings of the supernatural and the power her spirit has. Her focus on the truth about humanity in this country is unparalleled and she has faith in herself — not so much in the natural progression of civilization, but in herself.

"Come with me, get this air/Our heaven could be right here (My wings are greater)/Come with me, get this air/Our heaven could be right here (My wings are greater than walls)."

Woods is no novice to collaboration and the creativity that comes from working with artists that share in your vision. Most of the soundscapes for the album were created by producer Slot-A, a Chicago beatmaker who has worked with some of the biggest and most talented artists that have come out of the Second City. I first heard of Woods when I was living in Chicago — she started out as part of Milo & Otis, known locally as a sweet-ass neo-soul group that had people dancing in bars and venues all over the city. When Chance the Rapper hit the scene, Woods soon found herself collaborating on the song “Blessings” off of Chance’s album Coloring Book as well as working with Nico Segal on his Surf album. Segal also helped produce and plays trumpet on the track “Baldwin” on Legacy! Legacy!, adding that Motown vibe.

On “Baldwin,” Woods talks about the changing landscape of Chicago as a result of gentrification and how they wash away the history of the people that live there. The song opens with her singing: "You don’t know a thing about our story, tell it wrong all the time/Don’t know a thing about our glory, wanna steal my baby’s shine."

She speaks to the importance of reading about her people's story in this country and references directly Toni Morrison and Cornel West. And let's be honest, most Americans have no clue about black American history. They proclaim their love for Martin Luther King Jr. but don’t believe in anything he stood for and most likely despised him when he was marching and rallying black America. Woods pushes this idea even further on the song “Muddy” in reference to Muddy Waters: "They can study my fingers/They can mirror my pose/They can talk your good ear off/On what they think they know, they think they know/They say now more than ever, I think they forget/What our history is/What we do, what we made."

This constant whitewashing of history and propaganda peddled by bad actors to the ignorant masses has rotted the core beliefs of so-called free society, and Woods asserts it won’t be tolerated any longer. Liberals wish to feel they are exceptions here, but they are as much a part of the ignorant masses as their conservative brethren. They expect the oppressed to be reasonable and non-violent, yet forget it was liberals that people in the Civil Rights Era feared most, because what they wanted above all — before justice — was civility.

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Woods has seen the world forget about black America’s struggles. With Legacy!, she is attempting to shake her own people out of the fog of a status quo of misrepresentation and pandering. Records like Woods’ are rallying cries that give birth to a revolution. It’s apropos that she comes from Chicago, a city historically at the forefront of civil rights, but at the same time the most segregated city in the United States. And that’s saying something.

In the song “Zora,” Woods puts her heavenly voice to Slot-A’s banger production, where she is comfortable expressing the difficulty of fitting in when the color of your skin is constantly putting you in a box due to the outside forces of white supremacy. She hits the listener hard with lyrics like: "None of us are free but some of us are brave/I dare you to shrink my wave, I'm on a new plane/I'm all out of fucks to give, yeah/Fear ain't no way to live, yeah/Must be disconcerting how I discombob' your mold/I've always been the only, you're so unoriginal/Your words don't leave scars, believe me, I've heard them all/I may be small, I may speak soft, but you can see the change in the water."

Woods’ speaking on how she breaks the mold of what you perceive and those names you call her, that hate you give, won’t be the death of her. Woods may be small and speak softly, but the things are changing and those institutions that have been erected to hold her back know it and are afraid.

Jamila Woods. With Raphael Saadiq and DJ Duggz. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, January 30, at Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale; parkerplayhouse.com. Tickets cost $30 to $50 via ticketmaster.com.

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