Jamila Woods | photo by Ashley Gellman for WXPN | agellmanphotos.com
Jamila Woods’ cultural time capsule makes for a commanding set at The Foundry
Chicago’s Jamila Woods makes enchanting, eclectic rock and R&B music grounded in strong songwriting, but to sum up what she does by calling her a “musician” would be a massive oversimplification. Woods has a poet’s grasp of vivid and evocative language, a cultural historian’s drive to contextualize the stories of the past into lessons for the present. She has a compelling visual sense, from coolly calculated movements onstage, to the eye-popping pillars with lyrical snippets that stand behind her four-piece band.
More than a typical concert, Woods’ performance to a packed house at The Foundry of The Fillmore Philly last night was a seminar, a workshop, a multimedia encapsulation of a time and place in history, weaving together stories of personal frustrations with observations about the collective struggles of marginalized citizens over the past century. This is a central theme of Woods’ new album Legacy! Legacy!, where almost all the songs are named for important voices in black and brown cultural history — Octavia Butler to Miles Davis to Jean-Michel Basquiat.
But this isn’t as surface as “this one’s about the author of The Fire Next Time.” Rather, the song “Baldwin,” which made a rousing appearance towards the end of last night’s set, finds Woods considering the outlook and philosophy of James Baldwin and how it plays against day-to-day life: navigating microaggressions from outsiders who try to define the narrative of other people (“You don’t know a thing about our story, tell it wrong all the time / Don’t know a thing about our glory, wanna steal my baby’s shine”) and remaining strong in the face of more overt racism (“We don’t go out, can’t wish us away / We been burning brighter everyday”). As the song wound down, Woods leaves the conflict unresolved: “My friend James says I should love you anyway / And that’s okay, but you’re making it hard for me.”
Like many songs in last night’s set, “Baldwin” was introduced with an archival audio snippet of its namesake: James Baldwin saying “the only people in this country with any notion of who they are are the black people.” Earlier in the night, a clip of a Muddy Waters interview talked about how “you can’t counterfeit that,” meaning the deep emotion in his music, while we heard Nikki Giovanni reading “I can fly / like a bird in the sky” from her poem “Ego-Tripping” as an intro to the song named for her. In terms of theme, “Giovanni” echoes the sampled poem, as its swift midtempo groove finds Woods singing about personal strength, and paraphrases it in the chorus: “There must be a reason, there must be a reason why.”
Some songs kept that level of higher concept, others brought the lyrics down to raw personal experience: “Anybody ever been in a fucked up relationship before?” Woods asked as she led into the fierce bounce of “Sonia,” where opener Nitty Scott appeared onstage to spit a commanding verse mid-way through. The theme carried over to the more nuanced “Frida,” which Woods explained is about painter Frida Kahlo and “that dude we won’t talk about.” She mentioned a trip to Mexico City, and a visit to the home Kahlo shared with muralist Diego Rivera; two free-standing houses, connected by a rooftop bridge. “That way they could be together but have their separate space,” Woods said. “That, to me, is relationship gold.”
She was funny, she was charismatic, but she also seemed somewhat reserved — while we saw pointed gestures, and particular lyrics punctuated with momentary bits of dance, Woods mostly stayed in place at the microphone stand, keeping her stage presence very focused and intentional. By contrast, drummer Leonard Maddox and bassist Erik Hunter were extremely expressive, and lapsed into virtuosic riffs and rhythms (even when it wasn’t their designated solo time). Guitarist Justin Canavan and keys player and musical director Aminata Burton took the middle ground, keeping things upbeat and lively (the vibrant Burton especially) but not detracting from the songs and the person singing them.
And Woods had a great deal to say. Even though her critiques and reflections on society’s relationship with its black citizens didn’t exactly begin with Legacy! Legacy!, lyrics like “The camera loves us, Oscar doesn’t / Ain’t nobody checkin’ for us” on the set-closing “BLK Girl Soldier” from 2016 her debut HEAVN felt elevated in the light of the new material. Woods thanked longtime fans for their support between the ballad “Stellar,” an interpolation of the Incubus song of the same name, and the trip-hop groover “Lonely,” saying “your love gave me confidence in my abilities.”
Those abilities have grown exponentially with the new record and this dynamite band bringing it to life, but Woods’ ambition seems greater still. One of the most poignant moments of the night came when she performed “Sun Ra,” named for the free jazz visionary who lived in Philly towards the end of his life, but also spent time in Woods’ Chicago. But if you asked Sun Ra, he’d say he was from space.
“That always felt so powerful to me,” Woods said. “I feel so strongly attached to Chicago, it’s where I grew up, but I wish I could know all the places my ancestors are from, and unfortunately black people often can’t know that. But Sun Ra said ‘fuck that, I don’t need people to tell me my narrative. I’m from Saturn.'”
And if Saturn is where Woods is when she’s telling us the next phase of her story, we’ll be there to listen. Check out photos and the setlist from last night’s show below.
Sonia (ft. Nitty Scott)
Blk Girl Soldier