Growing up Black in a country that litigates your subjugation means having to carve out space for yourself to feel comforted. Home becomes a restorative place of freedom. The voices of prominent figures who look like you are the balm making your silencing survivable.
Jamila Woods, an artist, poet, activist, and teacher from Chicago, is something of an archivist, collecting bits of solace from black and brown figures throughout time and channeling them through her own life. Borrowing from the words, sights, and sounds of her idols, her newly-released second album Legacy! Legacy! relives the past as an integral part of her present.
Woods’ life is set in the context of her shared Otherness: the badge of being a Black woman, the mark coming with misogynoir. In this context, scraps of ideas are gathered from women and men of color on Legacy! Legacy!, drawing up the guidance in a well enriched by legends from Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin to Frida Kahlo and Jean Michel Basquiat.
Like Zora Neale Hurston in her essay How it Feels to Be Colored Me, Woods recounts how her Otherness is most apparent once white bodies wander in to take seats in her space, making her acutely aware of her own appearance. She declares she’s “always been the only / [in] every classroom [and] every home” and yet she still trusts her ancestors are watching over her; that the progenitors of Black culture are alive and interceding in her life as if this world hadn’t tried to crush and erase them.
In the opening track “BETTY,” Woods sings, “These great greats won’t let me lie / Midnight eyes wide feels like I’m at the riverside / Great greats come down, they whisper to me quiet / ‘I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.’” In the spirit of Betty Davis, the record centers her difference. Woods sets herself away from the spells of men, away from conceptions of what womanhood is, and away from her own insecurities and into the inviting blanket of candy from her grandmother Joycetta’s purse. This comfort is shared as all the “great greats” littering this album whisper into her ear that they’re alive—through her.
Structured after the legends who inspire her work, and a desire to fill in the gaps of a cultural history that is slowly being erased, Legacy! Legacy! roots itself in 13 different figures. Each song is a product of immersion, one which required an obsessive education undertaken by Woods and lead producer Slot-A in the form of hours spent watching interviews, reading poetry or prose, and simply listening to music.
The effect is an engagement with each figure, invoking a suite of sounds honest to each great’s spirit. Every narrative is wrapped into Woods’ own life but it also shared, as if her history is being wrapped into the lives of her idols in ways that refuse to be unwoven. As she lives, these figures defining her history also live.
This cultural history itself is murky. On “OCTAVIA,” Woods acknowledges the fear written into textbooks, and in conjuring up the spirit of Muddy Waters she illuminates America’s consistent history of denigrating and then pirating Black culture. Woods sees Black history—the history eliminated from elementary school educations—as the true and ever-present fact which has given birth to our present. Her personal history books are distortions of time, rewritten and sung back to us in her breathy vocals, swaddling as much as they inform.
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Legacy! is defiant in the way all Black and Brown expression is deemed radical: as an expression divergent from centuries of rewritten history that have been as quick to declare white people saviors as it has been to erase the humanity and contribution of stolen African peoples.
Over 13 tracks, Woods mines her personal archive for the specific attachments inspiring her now, and as time is manipulated in these attachments, it becomes less clear whether she is attaching ideas she’s collected to moments she’s lived or whether, inversely, the lessons she’s learned dictated the course of her life. Maybe the difference is unimportant; the entire concept of the album renders time as inconsequential, lifting the anchors of specific points and letting voices exist in the ever-present and constantly redefining now.
In the context of the present, Legacy! lets Jamila Woods live out the full range of her emotions, like the seething anger that roars on Nikki Giovanni-inspired “GIOVANNI” or the dull, diffused anger at white supremacy that is captured in the vocal echo and crawling jazz-tinged hip-hop of “BASQUIAT.” Her wish to escape the constraints of not just America but the earth is captured in the space mythology of “SUN RA,” while the ever-grounded James Baldwin reminds her to love amidst the circles of whites she finds herself.
Our greats were complex figures who battled targeted eradication, but also the internal and interpersonal turmoil of life. Even amongst the list, Woods draws conflict abounds: Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin volleying back and forth in conversation or Miles and Betty Davis’ brief marriage. Successfully bringing these pieces back in communication means living their warring ideals, and the music follows suit.
On “BASQUIAT,” Woods invites her Chicago neighbor Saba to transform the song into a visceral expression of catharsis; “Yes I’m Black no need to elaborate,” he raps. Later, she invites Nico Segal to join her on “BALDWIN,” trusting his trumpeting to give the song an anthemic tilt. When music icons are referenced, Woods makes sure to give a subtle nod to their stylings (i.e. the tight confines of “MILES” and the ripping guitar of “MUDDY”).
The most successful aspect of Legacy! Legacy! isn’t in the well-mediated conversation or even the sonic palette of the album, but rather, in the attachment that she conjures between herself and every figure whose name she checks. Woods dips into Sonia Sanchez’s poetry with Nitty Scott on “SONIA.” Later, Eartha Kitt’s anti-compromise stanza from a 1982 interview becomes Woods’ default relationship position.
On an album that cares for and considers so much of contemporary Black life, from womanhood to love, violence and gentrification, through the lens of the greats, listeners can find solace knowing their lives and words still linger over us. The dead still live, and the living speak.
When Sandra Bland died in 2015, African Americans across the country knew something was wrong. We understood that, at best, the circumstances of her death—ruled a suicide—were murky. With the recent release of a short video from the time of her arrest, three days before her death, the feeling of erasure and senseless devaluation of our lives has been renewed.
As Legacy! masterfully demonstrates, though, as we leave behind pieces of ourselves—in speech, writing, song, or memory—we give those behind us the opportunity to adorn themselves in the full range of our experience; to constantly renew our ethos, keep us in conversation with the present, and give us life beyond the oppressively regulated limits of our own vitality—as Woods does alongside 13 legends and her ancestors.