Jamila Woods On The Moment She Realised Her Race Mattered

FIFTEEN minutes with Jamila Woods was a self actuating lesson in unapologetic blackness, personal politics and the value of creatively purging.

Widely known for her work with Chance The Rapper, Jamila has since carved her own lane in the industry and our hearts, creating the widely acclaimed sonic masterpiece HEAVN.

While music was the conduit for our conversation, I was compelled to dive deep into the mind of Jamila Woods, the person. We discussed her self-care practice, when she realised her race mattered and how her lived experiences continuously intertwine to inspire and define her.

As a person of colour in a presumed place of privilege, it was deeply refreshing to hear the Chicago singer’s measured response to the issue of POC’s being commodified in media, but not necessarily valued as much as their non-POC counterparts.

Knowing that Jamila is an activist, I was inspired to explore her thoughts on the radical social movement to political correctness, both positives and negatives. While society is now coming together to attempt to unlearn it’s complacency when it comes to sexism, racism and prejudice, how effective have our attempts been to date?

Lillian Ahenkan aka FlexMami

Lilian: I just want to say a huge congratulations on HEAVN. It just must be really, really amazing to have a physical manifestation of all your efforts and all your truth. How are you processing the reception of it?

Jamila: It feels really good. It feels good to finally have it be physical and I think that what’s cool about it is that now it can travel to more places … I got to go to Europe just the end of last year, and I’m really, really excited to go to Australia and Japan. So I think that the physical really helps it travel further, which I was hoping it would do, so I’m happy about that.

Lillian: It’s really interesting, in this technological day and age, you still need the physical person or body to really communicate the message, even though we have all these streaming sites and everything. It’s super interesting.

Jamila: Yeah, that’s true.

Lillian: I wanted to say that for me, personally, ‘Blk Girl Soldier’, in many ways, was the kind of candour that I needed and the candour that I encourage myself to experience and to be among. I guess it was refreshing to see another person of colour discuss the ways in which black women are commodified but they’re just not valued as much as other people of colour. And I wanted to ask you, have you always been so secure and so confident in your blackness?

Jamila: I feel like it’s definitely been a journey. In my family we always celebrated Kwanzaa growing up. We had a really strong sense of culture, I would say. Black culture. But it wasn’t always something that I saw as celebrated by other people in my surroundings, ’cause I grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood and I usually was in a predominantly white school. So my home environment was very nurturing and celebratory of blackness, but it [also] made me an outsider in a lot of places. And it made me want to conform to whiteness in a lot of my school spaces.

So it wasn’t until I went to college and I ended up by accident majoring in African Studies. I took a class on hip-hop and … it changed my whole path, I think, in college, because she wasn’t just teaching about the music of hip-hop, but she went into the system and power structures and how that influenced black culture and how it continues to.

It opened my eyes. I always felt like blackness was something I had to straighten out or downplay. I didn’t see it as necessarily beautiful in and of itself before I realised all these ways that I had been taught. I had to unload a lot of things, I think, after that. But it felt very freeing to do that.

Lillian: And just that you were saying, when you were a bit younger, you were surrounded by whiteness outside of your home and then at home, your blackness was celebrated. Is there a moment in your childhood where you really realised that your race and ethnicity mattered in a way that you didn’t expect?

Jamila: Yeah, there was this time – I wrote a poem about it. There’s kind of like a 7-Eleven, it’s called White Hen Pantry, where we would always go get snacks after school, in elementary school … They always had these corny paintings up of different holidays. They had a painting for St Patrick’s Day, or a Christmas painting, and everyone would scratch their initials into the paintings.

And so one time, my friend – who was also brown – and I were scratching our initials. And this would happen every day, so it was a pretty normal thing. But then the owner came out, and these undercover – they said they were undercover cops – came out and dragged us into the store … We got in a lot of trouble for doing this thing, and I just remember being really confused. Our other friends were there, who were white, and the cops just told them to go home and leave us.

So that was one of the moments where I realised that I’m being treated differently for being black. But no one really said it. No one ever really said it, even though we had to go and tell our principal, who was also white. Like apologise and never brought up … And so I always just had that moment, and that’s one of the moments where you look back at it after growing and learning more things, you’re like, “That’s so fucked up.” In the moment, I knew that, I just didn’t have the language for it.

Lillian: It’s really interesting in that way though, ’cause I’m finding with this whole social zeitgeist and this movement of change, it’s like microaggressions are real … Even though, if you’re a person of colour in creative industries, you might be celebrated and really rewarded for being who you are, that doesn’t really translate into the general world sometimes. You kind of have to step back and go, “Hey, I’m being tokenised here, or I’m being wrongly treated.” But I think it’s really interesting. And thank you for sharing that. It’s really lovely.

On that same sort of tone, I just wanted to talk to you about your really strong personal and identity politics, ‘cause I guess those intersect in the music that you create. And I wanted to ask, was that always going to be so integral? Or did you find that was what you knew how to do express, and so it came out really naturally?

Jamila: I think a lot of my writing style comes from starting out as a poet in terms of writing first. I always loved singing, but in high school I discovered poetry and spoken word. A lot of my teachers were really encouraging us to read poets like Gwendolyn Brooks and Patricia Smith, and poets who really write about what they experienced and where they come from.

And so Patricia Smith has this poem called What It’s Like to Be a Black Girl (for Those of You Who Aren’t). And it’s just this really short poem. I had never seen poems like that at school. That just really laid out what it’s like to experience what I experience. And it’s not trying to be political or trying to be really about race … She is a black girl, so in talking about her experience, there’ll inherently be issues of race or power … That’s what she lives.

And so that’s how I think about how I write. It’s not necessarily needing to be political or needing to just write about issues because they’re popular or because a lot of people are writing about them. But just always staying true to what do I see happening in my community, what am I experiencing. And that’s always where I’m trying to write from. At least, that’s definitely where it’s coming from with HEAVN … I was doing a solo project for the first time after being in a band, so I was definitely looking back at a lot of my poems.

What are the stories that I haven’t really gotten to tell yet as part of my band? And so, yeah, a lot of that did end up being about my personal experience, my community and black women who have influenced me.

Chicago singer, poet and activist Jamila Woods
"My home environment was very nurturing and celebratory of blackness, but it [also] made me an outsider in a lot of places. "

Lillian: And are there any stories that you have yet to tell that you really want to touch on?

Jamila: There’s a lot, I’m sure. I think that’s what I’m trying to figure out now, or once I finish the next couple tours, is to just sit … I have a lot of friends who are poets or musicians, and some people are just like, “Yeah, I have 100 songs in a folder and I’m going to write 100 more.”

I’ve never been that type of person who can be super prolific, but I always feel like I need periods to just marinate and live, and then things start to come. So I don’t anything really planned, but I’m just hoping to read a lot and just be in the community more, talk to people, have conversations, ride the train. Do things that allow things to come, more stories to come.

Lillian: Yeah, that’s completely valid. And on that same topic of personal identity politics, I want to chat to you about how you explore your voice and your activism. ‘Cause now you’ve seen the way that society has come together to attempt to unlearn their complacency when it comes to things like sexism, racism and prejudice, and all things that I know you have thoughts on. But also more recently with the hashtag #timesup, and also at the Golden Globes, where a few celebrities wore black to make a statement about sexual harassment.

Some said it was tokenistic, others said it was necessary. What do you think about these wide-scale movements? Do you think that they’re completely necessary? Do you think they negate the validity of chatting about these things, and turns it into a bit of a spectacle? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Jamila: To me, it seems like at its best, it was an example of everyone seeing what’s within your power to do asset mapping. In Chicago, there’s an organisation that organises spaces for white people to talk about racism, and they talk a lot about asset mapping, so don’t just sit and feel guilty for being white. Look at the resources that you have and how you can use that.

And so I see that as celebrities doing that. Celebrities aren’t going to be the ones necessarily doing the same things that a community organiser will do, and those shouldn’t be equated. Wearing a colour of a dress isn’t the same thing as organising grassroots movements, but there’s still value in setting up a fund, a legal defence fund, and that’s very applicable to their world…

But there’s also a limit to that, too. So I don’t think that should be stopped, or there’s anything wrong with it. But I just don’t think that that’s all that needs to happen. I know it gets complicated when certain people who are putting in the work and not putting in the work.

But I liked what [actor] Tessa Thompson said, calling out Lena Dunham, but then also being like, “But this isn’t the point. I’m not apologising, I’m not trying to bash her either, but the point is that you have an issue to work on”, and not letting the media make it about, you know, two women who are fighting over who should have worn black.

The point is just, it should never distract from the issue at hand. And I think the most successful actions are those that keep the issue at hand, at the centre.

Lillian: Last but not least, I just want to talk to you about self love. I’m a huge fan of it and I think it’s integral to my journey as a person of colour and where I exist, but I want to know how you practise it. Because I know for a lot of people, it can be as superficial as taking a bath, but for others it’s a lot deeper than that.

Jamila: I think what I really realised, especially this past break that I had, is my self care has a lot to do with the physical states around me. So I got to really deep clean my house and I resolved every month I’m going to buy myself flowers, ’cause they just are really beautiful to me.

And when I have a clean house, it makes my mind feel clean. I’m not as stressed and I can just breathe and relax, and I don’t get a lot of time to just spend at home, so I really think self care to me is, “Oh, I have this event, I really should go”, but choosing to stay home and not feeling bad for missing the thing. And not feeling bad for being antisocial. So owning that I need time alone to recharge and be in my own space, and feeling happy about that as opposed to feeling guilty about it.

"Celebrities aren't going to be the ones necessarily doing the same things that a community organiser will do, and those shouldn't be equated."

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