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Each track on Jamila Woods’ latest album, Legacy! Legacy! is named after an artist of color — from visual artists Frida Kahlo and Jean-Michel Basquiat to musicians Muddy Waters and Miles Davis to writers James Baldwin and Octavia Butler.
The album title comes from a line in a poem by Chicago artist and poet, Margaret Burroughs. “It's written to black young people and all about like, look at these people who have come before you. What will your legacy be now that you have all of these people who have come before?” says Woods, who says that this theme was present in her album.
“I'm not writing songs about people. I'm writing kind of the imprint that all of these people's legacies have had on me,” she says.
KEXP’s Cheryl Waters spoke with Woods about Legacy! Legacy! and her connection to the artists referenced in the song titles.
I didn't really try to write about any of them, I think that would have been way harder. I don't think of them so much as biographical songs about the people, but more so, each song is a self-portrait of myself through the lenses of each of those people. And it allowed me to be more vulnerable and honest about some of the things that I felt and that I have experienced, because I felt almost like standing on the shoulders of ancestors in some cases, or elders in some cases, of just these people who kind of gave me the strength to tell these stories that I don't think I had a way into them before.
I was just thinking about moments of microaggression, both interpersonally that I have experience with white people, but also like looking at Chicago, all cities, really, the gentrification that's happening in certain neighborhoods and just the way that that affects people on a daily basis. And he was saying if you're trying to write a song critiquing someone or battling them, essentially, you have to almost love them. You have to know them to the point of loving them to really do it properly. You can't just come at it in a surface level way. So, then I was reading all these articles about police brutality and the fear of black people, black men. . . And so, trying to really connect to, what are the emotions going on that's at the root of this violence and trying to kind of come at it from that. And so that's kind of like what the verse is trying to do in that song.
That song is inspired by Zora Neale Hurston, and she has an essay called “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” In it, she says I feel most colored when I'm thrown against a sharp white background — talking about when she went to college and was the only black person around. But then she also says, I feel most colored when I'm surrounded by other black people and we’re laughing and all of our laughs join in this chorus. It’s kind of this feeling of how she defines her blackness. And I really related to that because I grew up in the Beverly neighborhood in Chicago, that was mostly white and would often go to church, mostly black. And just trying to figure out where I fit, always feeling like not black enough in one space or too black in another space. And so, that chorus line of “you will never know everything, I will never know everything.” No one can tell me what my blackness is or define it for me because I'm still discovering it and it's infinite and I'm still gonna be discovering it my whole life. And so just kind of that mantra of self-acceptance and giving myself permission to be my full self however that evolves.
I've always been really interested in Afrofuturism and just the idea of envisioning black people in the future as a radical thing, because often black people aren't gifted, allowed a future. And so, with Octavia specifically, I saw the pictures that went viral of her notebooks where she wrote down all the goals that she had for herself. And literally every single thing came true. It was like, I want to have a house for my mom. I want to win this award. And to me, that was very powerful. And when I was reading her book, Kindred, which is all about this woman who falls through a hole in a dimension and ends up in slavery times. Basically, after I read that book, I started researching how black people would learn to read in slavery times and how it was literally a crime, stealing a book from someone's library to teach yourself phonics like in a dark room. And so just thinking of the history of black people in writing and how amazing it is to me that however many years later, Octavia Butler used writing to bring her goals to life. And then, being a teacher [at Young Chicago Authors], working with young people, looking at the ways in which still I have students who are insecure because they don't speak proper grammar or they don't get an A plus on their essay because they struggle with writing. I just wanted to create a song that's like you are already everything, you are the truth already. You're a fact already. No one can take that away from you. It's kind of a song to myself, but also to my students or to anyone who kind of doubts themselves in that way, because I think Octavia Butler is just a great example of someone who manifested things through only what she had.
The recording engineer’s work is highlighted on a new Light in the Attic compilation titled Kearney Barton: Architect of the Northwest Sound.
Kiwanuka plays at the Showbox in Seattle on Wednesday, January 29th.