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From Church Choirs To Performance Poetry: How Jamila Woods Found Her Voice

Anyone who has heard Jamila Woods' music knows she's an extraordinary artist. In our inaugural edition of Slingshot, you'll also learn what an extraordinary person she is, too.

Woods' lyrics depict a childhood spent growing up black on the south side of Chicago — emphasis on growing up.

Her debut album, HEAVN, combines familiar playground double-dutch rhythms alongside references to Toni Morrison folk-tale collections. She is part poet and part professor.

In her community, Woods serves as a mentor. When she first released HEAVN last year, she was working with hundreds of kids as the Associate Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors, a non-profit that aims to encourage and educate the city's burgeoning talent.

Her work in — and for — her community, combined with her massive musical talent, makes us proud to present Jamila Woods as a Slingshot artist.

In this interview, Woods came to 88Nine Radio Milwaukee as part of The Music Lab: a free, monthly arts program for Milwaukee-area high-school students to connect with and be inspired by music industry professionals from around the country. Each lab includes one special guest performance, a Q&A conversation and an open mic session for students to sing, rap, recite, dance or express their creativity in any other way.

Woods spoke to 88Nine Radio Milwaukee's program director, Jordan Lee. You can listen to their conversation above, or read on for an edited transcript.

Jordan Lee: Jamila, I want to talk about your story. Because you kind of go through these phases, and these phases are similar to any other growth or process that anything goes through in nature, in the universe, where you kind of start one place and you get to another place. And I realized, as we're sitting here with all these young individuals who have so much potential, sometimes when you're in that phase, it feels like you could never get to the phase that you're at today. And so I was hoping maybe we could go back, way back in time and talk a little bit about the processes that you went through as an individual, and get a little bit more personal into your story. Let's just start with your family dynamic and creativity and where that lived in your youth. Like really young, like single digits. Let's start there.

Jamila Woods: Single digits. I have a terrible memory, so I don't remember that much stuff, but I did grow up in a really musical family. My mom played guitar. She's really, really good at guitar. But when she was growing up, it wasn't an option for her to pursue music. So she ended up going to medical school, and her parents wanted her to get a real job. But she always instilled in us the idea that we should do what we love. And all of my siblings play a billion different instruments. I was kind of lazy when it came to my lessons, I would cheat and memorize the finger numbers of piano and not really learn to read music. I like singing the best, and I admire all of you who do play instruments because it takes a lot of discipline. But I grew up singing. My dad had this boom box, and I would just sit on the kitchen counter and listen to music for hours and try to emulate different people's voices.

That's how I remember falling in love with music: just kind of sitting, listening to music, and then going to church with my grandma. I was in the children's choir so I sang pretty much every Sunday. And the great thing about singing at church where I grew up was old people – they'll clap no matter what. And I didn't really sound good in the beginning at all, but I loved it. And so I kept doing it, and I didn't really think I had the best voice either when I was younger, because I remember the two other girls who always got the solos. One in particular, she could do all these crazy runs with her voice. She could sing really loud. We were a trio and all three of our voices were really different. I just remember always thinking Arifa had the best voice ever, and I always compared myself to these people who had qualities that I aspired to.

So that's the beginning, the discovery phase. And at that point you can make mistakes because you're a child and, like you said, polite adults –

You can always make mistakes.

But the pressure, I feel like, comes on then maybe in those early double-digit years, those most awkward years where you're trying to figure out who you are and then you're trying to understand, "OK, what do I define myself with as a creative?" So for you, I know, we start with music. Poetry is a big part of this, other creative arts are involved. What's the next phase, like that junior high to high school cusp? What was that like for you as a young woman?

I think, for me, junior high and high school were more about figuring out how to fit in in the places where I was, how to make friends, and how to be good at something. It wasn't like I knew I wanted to be a singer from when I was young and I was always on this path to be a singer. In high school, I grew up in the South Side of Chicago and my school was on the North Side. And so my school was a total culture shock to me. Everyone was wearing Birkenstocks and had Tiffany bracelets and North Face jackets. I just didn't have the right things. I didn't watch the right TV shows. I was just trying to find my place in my high school, because it wasn't a very artistic culture. There was one art club where all the genres met at tables after school. It wasn't a great artistic space, and it wasn't until I discovered this after-school program called Gallery 37 that I started finding other people who I felt like were weird like me, who would obsessively memorize all of Whitney Houston's lyrics or whatever it was. We all have our things that we're obsessed with as artists. Kind of by accident, I got into poetry. [In] this program, you would choose what genre you wanted to do, and I of course chose singing as my first choice. Then I chose musical theater, then I was like, "Performance poetry? What's that? Sure. I'll try it as my third choice." And then I got into that one. I was kind of disappointed. The first day the teacher had us read what we had submitted – she had an advanced group and a beginner group – and she put me in the beginner group and that really pissed me off because I thought, you know, I'm good at writing. I always was confident in my writing skills. I loved writing stories growing up. That put a fire in me to show her that I was really good, and in that process, I kind of fell in love with it.

What I loved about poetry was the way that my mentors always taught me, in the tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks and other Chicago poets, that your story is important and no one else has been in your shoes and can talk about it better than you in whatever form you choose. Whether it's storytelling, poetry, music, you know yourself best. When I first started out, I would have that typical spoken word slam poetry voice where [puts on halting spoken word cadence] I would talk like this for no reason. And my coach was – one day we were rehearsing in her kitchen and she was literally like, "Stop, start over. Stop, start over. That's not your voice," until I kind of got boiled down to talking how I talk. And that's another thing that I learned from poetry: it's just how you talk the words that you actually say. All of that is poetry, all of that is worthy of being expressed. And I think it was poetry that gave me the confidence in my voice, like I was saying before, that I didn't have when I was younger. I was focusing on what my voice couldn't do compared to other people, and so focused on that that I couldn't appreciate all the things that my voice does naturally and that I can do. So that was a good lesson for me in high school.

So high school comes and goes, and I remember reading that, for you, the decision of where you wanted to go for post-high school and college was definitely driven by this understanding of your creative forces. So, ultimately, Brown was the decision. Let's talk a little bit about how you kind of walk away from the shackles of the awkwardness of high school and now you're your own woman.

Still awkward.

It's still awkward, freshman year of college is the worst, but still, now you have a little bit more choice and you get to kind of define who you are. Where in the creative process, now, are your wings starting to spread? What was that process like for you?

I think I chose Brown because I wanted to go to a place where there was a community of poetry. Not that the poetry program at Brown was really good, but that the city of Providence, where Brown is, has poetry. There's a poetry club and I think I never took a poetry class. I never took a music class in college. I learned about a lot of amazing things: I studied theater, I studied Africana studies. But I'm glad that I never took those classes, because I feel like all of my learning was very community-based and that was something that was important to me when I was choosing where to go.

I don't know if an awkward phase ends or if you just become more comfortable in your own skin. But I think college was a good place for me because I found a group of friends that, to me, to this day, are still some of my greatest artistic collaborators. I have a poetry collective; all of us met during college. My first band was started with my friend that I met in college. At Brown, I learned a lot about ideas. It was the first time I heard about -isms, like racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and heterosexism. All of these ideas, it gave me language to describe things that I had experienced growing up, like microaggressions, I guess you could call them. Growing up, I was often the only black girl in my class. There would be comments, like, "How did you get into this AP class?" or "Can I touch your hair?" All these comments kind of build up in you. You know you're different, but there's not necessarily a language to describe it. So in college, I was having all these amazing conversations with other people and kind of coming into that understanding, and that definitely impacted my art. But it wasn't like I had to learn what poetry was, or learn what a good singer was. I think I'm still learning and I don't need to call a school, an institution to do that. I need communities and spaces like this, definitely, to do that.

That segue was actually perfect for what I wanted to say because I had a similar situation. I was the black punk kid. I didn't understand where I fit in high school. I go to college, I discover hip-hop, I discover electronic music, I discover a community. Ultimately, I was focused more on that – the community that I found – than I was about the institution. Now, let's kind of shed away and we'll use college maybe as a late teens phase. Let's talk a little bit more about that collective, the community, Louder Than A Bomb, all these things that started to come together for you at that time, that maybe eclipsed beyond the idea of "I can do this" to "I am doing this."

After I graduated, I got really good advice from one of the visiting artists at the school [who] said I should go back to Chicago. And I think us being from the Midwest, sometimes we might think we have to go to New York or we have to go to L.A. or someplace like that in order to make it or be successful. And after hearing me talk for a few minutes, like, "Oh there is this open mic called YCA where I grew up," he was just like, "Obviously you should go back there. You already have all this stuff going for you. There's a community." And so when I did that, I was at first working in different internships and it was actually my friend from Brown who randomly showed up at my house one day, like, "We're going to start a band." He had been trying to start a band; he didn't even want to go to college to begin with. His mom forced him and as soon as he graduated he was like, "All right I'm doing it. If you say no, I'm driving to California and finding someone else." So I was like, "Whatever, sure, we can write songs after work." And it just started that way, and I think it was having that really safe space with a friend who I really trusted to just explore and just write, not thinking about who it was for, besides just what sounded good to me and what I wanted to talk about. And that was a band called M&O, or Milo & Otis, that we had for several years, and it was through that that I met my manager – who's still my manager today – and I got so much experience performing in different places.

After a while it was clear, you know, we kind of just went our separate ways. And it was this moment where I was like, "Oh wow. So I'm actually by myself now." Having a band is a different thing than being a solo artist. I think that was a really important test for me. I could see that I can still make music, even if I'm not relying on someone else to be collaborating with me. I can still do it on my own. Being a solo artist almost requires you to be more outgoing, and seek out producers, seek out collaborators in a different way that I didn't have to do before. I think that was probably the biggest moment of growth that I had working on Heaven, that debut album that I most recently put out. And I think it does showcase a lot of the things that I've loved since I was young. Like layering my voice and having that choral feeling to my voice, even when it is just me. And so I don't know if that answers your question, but I do feel like I'm doing it now. I definitely feel like I am doing it but I'm still definitely at the beginning. And like I said before, I aspire to learn more about the production side of things and learn instruments and play instruments. I should never feel comfortable like, "Oh, I did it. I'm where I want to be." I don't think I would ever want to feel that way because what drives me forward [are] the things that I feel like I'm not so good at yet, or that I still want to learn.

That's awesome. That actually segues into my last question. And before I ask my last question, I'll remind you guys, you're next. As we've been talking, I want you to think about how this relates to your own personal feelings, your own personal story. I want to take it full circle, so that little 7-year-old version of yourself and you today: Where do they coincide? How do you fight the fear of "I can't do this" that you had when you were singing in church, because now you have to do something bigger, newer? You're challenged professionally now to be meeting expectations. How does this all play out in the present for you?

Jamila Woods: Yeah, it's interesting. I was thinking about that the other day, because I don't know if I'll ever have a time where I don't think, "I'm afraid, I can't do this." I get to perform at Pitchfork in Chicago this year. I love that festival and it'll be like the biggest place I've ever performed in. Every day I wake up like, "Oh my God, I can't do this. Solange is going to be performing there! Like, what? How will I do that?" And so I think that's OK, it's OK to feel that way. And one of the coaches used to say, "If you're not nervous about something it means you don't care about it." So I think it's OK to feel nervous, it's OK to feel afraid. I think what helps is practice and, to me, ritual and giving myself space to be with myself and be present with myself, which I'm still not very good at. But I like meditating and even when I can't meditate, there's this thing called 'morning pages' in this book called The Artist's Way [by Julia Cameron] that I read. It basically just means waking up and writing down three pages' worth of whatever is on your mind. It's hard for me to get to three sometimes because it takes me a while. But even if I can just do one page of whatever – it doesn't have to be a poem. It's literally like what you're thinking about, what you're nervous about, what you're worried about, what you're really excited about. And it clears your mind, in a way, to be able to receive creativity. To me that's what it feels like when I'm able to write a song or write anything. It feels the best when it feels like I'm just receiving it, not like I'm trying to write something. And so I think if I get in the habit of being present in that way, it helps me to not sit in the fear or the worry, 'cause fear and worry is usually not present — it's usually thinking about the future, or reliving something from the past that I didn't like. So if I try to stay in the present that's a good way for me to shake off the fear or the worry.

Awesome. OK. All my theater nerds will like this: I'm going to break the fourth wall. I'm going to come on down and we're going to start asking you guys [to] ask some questions. Does anybody off the bat have a question? Don't be shy. That's what you came here for. Yes. Who is this?

Audience question: What's the process that you go through when you're writing a song?

Often, most recently, it starts with me getting instrumental, and I love the beat selection process. But, say I have that, a lot of times I need a lot of stuff around me. Like I always think of Basquiat, when I watched the documentary, how he would paint. He had the TV on, the radio playing. That's how I feel; I need a lot of stuff to pull from. So I usually have poems that I've written or books that I like, or I start out by looking at a lyric from a song that I really like. And usually it's just taking one element of one of those things and then starting something new of my own. That gets me into a starting place of a song. So sometimes I'll even give myself a prompt.

The songs that I'm singing today, the first one ["Heaven"], it started out — I had writer's block; I was really stuck. I listened to "Just Like Heaven" by The Cure. I don't know if you all know that song, but the hook of the song is just this really epic guitar part. There's no words. And so I thought, "OK, let me try to write a song that has a hook with no words." And I think when I give myself a limitation or some kind of challenge like that when I'm stuck, that's really helpful. So that's how I wrote a song called "Heaven" and it kind of uses the first few words of the Cure song and then goes in to talk about something totally different that's more related to my ancestors and my idea of black people loving each other through time, [whereas] the Cure song is kind of like, "show me how you do that trick" — how love happens, basically. So I took that idea and jumped forward and related it to my life and what I've been thinking about. So I find myself stuck a lot lately, because I do work — I still teach and I still do a lot of different things. So I have to switch my mind into a creative zone. I like giving myself prompts like that a lot in order to get unstuck.

Audience question: When you just started being an independent artist, what was your process of getting your first pieces of art out to people? Like, the networking process.

In Chicago, I think it's easier, maybe here, too; it's a more grassroots thing. So there's blogs and there's places you can get shows when you're just starting out. The open mic circuit was really helpful to me. The first time my band performed was at the weekly open mic that I had always done poems at. I had been doing poems there for so long, I was like, "OK, can my band do a 15-minute feature?" We filmed it and we put it on YouTube. And so it was just a very, very grassroots approach. I think it's important to know how you want to represent yourself as an artist, so if you have a song, it's not just enough to perform at places. You also want to have a press package. We Googled all this stuff and we made like an online Bandcamp EPK. And we would have business cards, sometimes very handmade business cards – like, buy the business card thing, we don't have a printer so we just hand-write every single one. Very, very grassroots. I think you can probably figure out much more efficient ways to do those things. But it was fun, too, because we were experimenting with, you know, what font looks like us? You can have fun with that process of how you're going to represent yourself. And I think that that's a really important first step.

And the second thing I'll say is the whole thing kind of changed when we met our manager, Sharod. Building a team around yourself is the next step, and I've seen a lot of great examples in Chicago recently. Your manager doesn't have to be like, this guy in a suit who discovers you somewhere. It could be a friend who believes in you and who has time to send emails for you. I've seen a lot of examples of that recently. Even Chance the Rapper and Pat the manager, they were just friends. You know, they're almost the same age. So you can build a team around you without feeling like it needs to be someone older, someone from a different place. So I'd say building a team and using your community around you as a resource for your network.

Audience question: If you could go back into the past and see a younger version of you, what would you say to her as inspiration?

That's a really good question. I really wish I could actually do that but I think I would say that everything about yourself that you don't think is worthy is actually the s***.

I used to laugh like this – [imitates laughing] – all through like middle school, because I didn't like my teeth. And I used to get my hair permed all the time, which was awesome for a while, but when I went to college, people didn't know how to perm my hair, so it was really terrible. I used to go through all this stuff to look a certain way. I used to try to watch "The Simpsons" just so I could know what people were talking about. But really like, my dad was watching "Pootie Tang" or "Law and Order" and all these random things. That's really interesting. I don't want to be cookie cutter, like what everyone else is like. I've written so many poems about my natural hair. I've written so many poems about my family.

I would just tell myself to appreciate what I have and not try to emulate other people, which sounds really basic. People say that a lot. But just start with one thing. How can you find inspiration in that thing, just for a day? Try to think about things in that way. That's where I get a lot of ideas for songs or poems, just from thinking about that.

Audience question: Understanding that there are levels to the music industry, for people like you and Chance the Rapper, what are a few things that you do now that are different than what you used to do that make you on the higher level of the music industry?

I'm still learning more and more about the music business and what that means. But, for example, with PR and getting yourself on Billboard Magazine or Complex, it's so much easier when you have a PR person that does all that for you. Like they know people at every single magazine and it's easy for them to just be like, "Oh, my artist has this video — put it out." And then they get it out. Me and my band mate used to have Excel spreadsheets full of every single email address of every single place we wanted, and we would email them all the time. Sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn't. Certain things like that become easier once you once you do get those types of people on your team.

But I also think that now there are a lot of examples of people doing things their own way, not the traditional way. Maybe, instead of spending the money on a PR agent, spending the money and making a really creative video. There is a person from the Word Play open mic who just got their video to go sort of naturally viral, just with their community.

The first time that I performed at South By [Southwest], we did it unofficially. So we were carrying all our gear. It's in Austin, Texas. We were really sweaty, in the hot Texas sun, carrying bass amps and things. And this past year when we went, we had all our back line provided so we could just roll up in our SUV or Uber and get out. So things become easier. But I do think that I value those times when they were hard because that makes me more appreciative. I think there was something very beautiful about how much we had to love what we were doing when we were working that hard at it, and I think that when things get easier, there are still things that I want to work just that hard on.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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