Soul Singer Jamila Woods Is Raising Her Voice

With a new music video and forthcoming album, the Chicago poet and Chance the Rapper collaborator is speaking out for black women. “Ain’t nobody checkin’ for us,” she sings.

by Kristin Larson

Jamila Woods

Moments ago, the Chicago poet and singer Jamila Woods, who first broke out after an especially soulful verse she contributed to Chance the Rapper‘s “Sunday Candy” last year, released her video for “Blk Girl Soldier,” the first single in the run-up to her anticipated debut solo album, Heavn, out June 23.

“I’m in the finishing mode,” the soft-spoken Woods said of Heavn, while taking a break last week from her day job as associate artistic director at Young Chicago Authors, the nonprofit in Wicker Park. (Chance is an alum of YCA’s WordPlay program, considered the longest-running youth open mic in town.)

“I just did a studio session for, like, eight hours yesterday,” added Woods, whose delicate features stood in contrast to her oversized, colorful beaded earrings. “Mostly finishing vocals, waiting on a couple musicians.”

I couldn’t help but ask Woods—who also sang the chorus on “Blessings,” from Chance’s latest album Coloring Book, not to mention a verse on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “White Privilege II,” which addresses racial issues—if she was holding out for any particularly noteworthy guests to make last-minute appearances on her album. “I can’t say,” she replied, smiling. “Hopefully, yeah.”

The eponymous single, “Heavn,” is an unlikely mash-up of lyrics from The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” and beats from The Roots’ Dilla Joints album. “In poetry, a lot of times we take the first line of a poem and then we write our own poem, so that’s what I did with The Cure song,” explained Woods, who has won a Pushcart Prize for her poetry.

The Chicago native, who discovered Young Chicago Authors when she was in high school, is excited to clock the reactions to the “Blk Girl Soldier” video, in which she name-checks famous black female activists like Rosa Parks, Audre Lorde, Assata Shakur and Sojourner Truth. Like many young artists in her hometown, she’s not afraid of the political. “She’s telepathic/Call it black girl magic/Yeah she scares the government,” she sings over a rousing beat.

Jamila Woods

A former member of her church choir, Woods claimed it took a while to develop confidence as a solo performer. “When you’re in a choir, it’s about blending into how everyone else sounds,” she explained. “And there are certain things that you have to have: belting, crazy runs, all of that is really great. I still practice those skills, but I didn’t think about what I learned through poetry and what I was already an expert at, and learning to love and use those nuances about my own voice.”

Woods never seriously considered pursuing music until a classmate from Brown University showed up in Chicago and asked her to join a band with him, the now-defunct Milo & Otis. “That gave me a lot of confidence in terms of what my voice can do,” she said. “With lyrics, being a poet gave me a different approach than other people.”

Living in Chicago—she resides in the Pilsen neighborhood on the southwest side—helps keep things real. “They say Chicago is for haters,” Woods said. “No one will just sweat each other and say, ‘Oh, you’re so good,’ if you’re not. Which is another reason I’m inspired to stay.”

Plus, working with young open mic’ers in a city that has been making national headlines for its violence has its benefits. “It prevents me from becoming jaded,” said Woods. “I’m surrounded by young people who are writing about the violence they’re subjected to. That’s a big part of our pedagogy—it starts the ‘where I’m from’ prompt. When you’re young, you’re told a lot of things. But you’re also already an expert: ‘No one knows what it’s like to grow up on 100th and Western Avenue in Beverly better than me, so I should write about it.’ That allows for a multiplicity of voices.”

After all, it only takes one voice to get through to a young person who may otherwise feel alone. Woods knows that better than anyone: The album cover for * Heavn is inspired by the book cover for Heaven*, by Angela Johnson. “I read this book when I was young,” Woods recalled. “It’s about a black girl growing up in Heaven, Ohio. The cover has a black girl with clouds behind her. It was the first book cover I ever saw with a girl that looked like me.”

Produced by Biel Parklee.