Even if you don’t recognize her name, you probably know Jamila Woods’s lilting voice. She has handled the hooks for a string of infectious hip-hop hits: Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s “Sunday Candy,” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “White Privilege II,” and, most recently, Chance the Rapper’s “Blessings.”
This summer, Woods breaks out on her own with Heavn, a lyric-driven, minimalist album that showcases a depth seldom seen in contemporary young artists. “My artistic manifesto exists in the world as poetry,” says Woods. “So even though most of the things that I’ve done have been on other people’s projects or could be pigeonholed in certain ways, that’s not how I perceive myself.”
At 26, Woods, who lives in Pilsen, has created an album that tackles her experience of “beginning to know myself as black girl,” she says. That theme permeates the first single, “Blk Girl Soldier,” released in January, a kind of modern protest song. The tune heralds a message of empowerment for those who need it most: “See she’s telepathic / Call it black girl magic / Yeah she scares the gov’ment / Déjà vu of Tubman.”
As the lyrics demonstrate, Woods, a graduate of Brown University, has entrenched herself in the world of words. She is a Pushcart Prize–nominated poet and an associate artistic director at Young Chicago Authors, the group best known for holding the annual poetry slam Louder Than a Bomb. With her music, she has found a way to marry her passions for both verse and song. Among the influences she cites are the poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Amiri Baraka and the lyrically provocative Erykah Badu.
Growing up, Woods was introduced to music through the church. She sang in the competitive Chicago Children’s Choir and the chorus at Lilydale First Baptist Church. “In church, the music is for everyone,” says Woods. “People are singing off tune, loud, they’re not ashamed—it’s for their healing. That’s kind of just what I strive for, that feeling.”
Weekends were for singing, but weeknights—specifically the late-night hours when her parents and three younger siblings were asleep—were for devouring books. “I’m nearsighted, in part, because I would read past my bedtime in the dark,” she quips. “I didn’t want my mom to see that I was still awake.”
After graduating from St. Ignatius College Prep in 2007, Woods went on to Brown, in Providence, Rhode Island, where she took courses in African studies and theater and performance and joined an a cappella group. “I realized I had a knack for [music], beyond just loving it,” says Woods. She also learned she could set her poems to music. “It was kind of natural to sing, but it was different—poetry teaches you a lot about what you have to say as an individual.”
It’s clear that Woods has plenty to say. Take 2015’s “Beverly, Huh”: “Bet you spit / your black out / like tobacco / that’s why you talk so … / Bet the police protect your house. / Bet you know their first names. / Bet your house has a hundred rooms. / Bet a black lady comes to clean them.”
The lines capture Woods’s sense of isolation as a black girl growing up on the South Side in mostly white, middle-class Beverly.
“I’m creating art that can be healing,” she says. “Art that can make you feel like you’re not alone, like you’re not an outsider. Art that is useful.”