Jamila Woods played a radiant show at the Turf Club last night in front of a sold-out crowd, along with special guest Nitty Scott. The Turf was the first stop on her national tour in support of her latest album, LEGACY! LEGACY! , which was released just this month. “This is the first time I’m performing a lot of these songs live,” she told the crowd.
Throughout the set, the crowd reached their arms to the ceiling, clasped hands, and raised fists — dancing to newer songs and singing loudly along with older favorites. Near the end of the night, fans cheered loudly while the band whipped white t-shirts around in the back, and Woods couldn’t speak for several minutes. “Can I tell you guys something?” she asked after a pause. “I cried at breakfast this morning because I couldn’t believe this is my life.”
Poet, singer-songwriter, activist, and educator Jamila Woods makes modern R&B music fusing elements of soul and rock. Her lyrics are accessible and meaningful; and they draw on history, personal reflection, the injustices of the past and present, her home, and her lineage. Born and raised on the Southside of Chicago, Woods began her music career after returning home from college and forming the duo M&O. She built relationships with other Chicago artists including Chance the Rapper, who made an appearance on one of those early M&O records. The two collaborated again on Chance’s songs “Sunday Candy” and “Blessings,” and for Woods’ “LSD,” which appeared on her first full-length album — 2016’s HEAVN.
LEGACY! LEGACY! is her sophomore full-length release, and like the title suggests, it draws on the lives and art of many different artists and philosophers of color, who collectively span time periods and mediums. Each song on LEGACY! LEGACY! is named for one of these figures, and throughout last night’s performance, Woods conjured their voices in between songs. With the house lights dimmed and stage completely dark, recordings of Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Ego Tripping,” Eartha Kitt’s voice informing an interviewer that she would never compromise for a man, along with others, filled the relative silence. “What is compromising? Compromising for what?”
On the album, Woods speaks in the voices of these figures, and uses their legacy as fuel to express her own wisdom and experience. “Don’t call me legend ’til I kick the bucket. Never could define me, so fuck it. I shed sounds like snakeskin, style like chameleon,” she sings on the song “MILES” — last night gazing out into the light above the crowds’ heads. “I thought of it not so much as writing songs about these people, but thinking of the songs as self-portraits,” she told Pitchfork in May. “I was looking through the lenses of these different people, their work, things they said.”
While many of the figures referenced on the album are widely considered to be legends, Woods infuses an underlying critique of what that actually entails, and how white culture has a long, violent history of appropriating the work of black artists and trying to define it. “How many times do I sit and listen to you, I don’t know why I keep sitting and listening to you,” she sings on the song “EARTHA,” addressing Kitt’s interviewer and all he represents.
On the song “GIOVANNI” she sings, “Any minute now you get the message. Eenie meenie miney pick an apt description.” “You got questions, I know that’s right. There must be a reason why.”
“Are there any students here tonight?” Woods asked the crowd before launching into “OCTAVIA.” “I’m a teacher, and I wrote this song for some of my students. Especially black students, if you’re struggling in school—you know so much and no one can take that knowledge away from you.”
Woods closed with “Blk Girl Soldier” off HEAVN, which had the crowd singing along at top volume, holding hands, and waving arms. She returned to the stage after her band performed an exuberant instrumental finish, to close with the house remix of “BETTY.” “BETTY (for Boogie)” is an ode to both Betty Davis and Boogie McLarin, an educator and dancer who taught Woods about the black origins of Chicago house music. Both Betty and Boogie uplift histories that are looked over, and also champion their beauty. On “ZORA” Woods sings, “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes you can’t stick unto me. My weaponry is my energy.”
“Other people are misunderstanding the limitations of my identity, which is expansive,” Woods told Pitchfork, “I’m still discovering it, so they can never know it fully.”
Nitty Scott’s opening set was energizing, joyful, and cathartic. She rapped of finding home within diaspora, and joined Woods on stage for a verse on “SONIA.” “Make some noise if you can feel your ancestors in you tonight,” she said, smiling into the cheering crowd.
It was announced yesterday that Woods will return to the Twin Cities in May 2020 to join fellow poets Danez Smith and Fatimah Asghar at the Walker Art Center for a night of poetry and collaboration.
Lydia Moran is a music and arts writer in Minneapolis.