Published May 07, 2019"I was just at a high school the other day, and I showed the students slides with pictures of every person that has a song on my album," Chicago singer and poet Jamila Woods tells Exclaim!, talking about her Black History-centric new album, LEGACY! LEGACY! "And only one of them sort of could pick out James Baldwin, but otherwise didn't know anyone like that. That's sad, but also like, exciting for this project to maybe be a way in. And also to show them what they might already know."
What started as a personal exercise to identify notable black artists, writers, musicians and thinkers of the 20th century and write about their cultural impact eventually evolved into her second album, her followup to 2016's HEAVN.
Appropriately titled, LEGACY! LEGACY! highlights and celebrates black culture — names such as writer James Baldwin, jazz great Miles Davis, actress Eartha Kitt, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, novelist Octavia E. Butler and more — track by track and name by name. With these names acting as muses, Woods ended up creating songs titled "Miles," "Giovanni," "Baldwin," "Betty," "Sonia," "Eartha" and more.
It grew, she explains in our interview, from a desire to explore these artistic legends — by way of a growing her own creative practice — and building from there.
"I didn't really think about making a follow up to HEAVN; I was kind of just trying to write songs when I had a break from touring. A lot of times when I'm looking for new ideas, I'll look at different texts and things that inspire me. I ended up writing 'Giovanni' and 'Muddy' and realized they were both named after people. And then I just made a list of people who I would want to challenge myself to keep writing titles after and figuring out different ways to approach that each time," she says.
"Each of the songs was like a self-portrait, almost through the lens of the writings or the teachings of these different people and how they influenced me. In some ways this album is more autobiographical; I'm trying to be more personal, and it's almost like by reading and immersing myself in these people's work kind of gave me the bravery to do that. These songs are kind of different entry points into each of the people."
It didn't start so ambitious, Woods admits.
"I thought it might be like an EP or something I would do for fun. Eventually it kind of became this bigger project and I realized, 'This is my second album.'"
While many of these names might not be known to the populace at large, Woods admittedly felt LEGACY! LEGACY! was an exercise well past due — a statement on the historical erasure that these figures have encountered.
"Most of the people on the tracklist, I didn't know about them in high school. I discovered them in college and after college searching on my own," Woods admits — hence the aforementioned high school visit.
Backed by production from Peter Cottontale, oddCouple and Slot-A, Woods specifically reached out to names like Saba, theMIND, Nico Segal and Nitty Scott to round out the conversation on black art and creativity. That, she says, was intentional.
"There are certain songs where I felt like I wanted them to be a conversation versus just me. 'Sonia' is the song named after Sonia Sanchez because it talks a lot about the experience of being a woman of colour. A lot of times, the issues that women of colour face, we end up talking about that amongst ourselves. I thought it made sense I get a really amazing woman of colour like Nitty to feature on Sonia. It was really the subject matter of Basquiat that made me think about Saba. I was just curious what he would have to say about thinking of Basquiat, particularly that interview where the interviewer asks him if he ever gets angry. I think a lot of times black artists are expected to have certain emotions or display their emotions in certain ways."
Making music — and, by extension, art — is both universal and personal at the same time, she notes.
"That's something I think a lot about. I think it takes me back to the poetry spaces that I came up in. It's about the specificity. The most specific that you can get about your story and what makes your story universal, but also to resonate with people in a particular way. My teachers are telling me, 'You like to not shy away from being specific.' It doesn't have to be something that's alienating. It's also an invitation to other people think about their particularities."
Woods hopes that that process of making art and music — one that digs into the personal and the historical at once — is contagious here.
"I hope the songs spark curiosity in people if they don't know one of the names — or if they do know the name they'll want to dig into the references more. That's cool."
LEGACY! LEGACY! is out May 10 courtesy of Jagjaguwar.