On her debut album HEAVN, Jamila Woods is reclaiming the narrative; about black people, especially women; about the city of Chicago; and about herself. Like her frequent collaborator Chance the Rapper, Woods released HEAVN for free on the streaming service SoundCloud to widespread acclaim, earning a spot on several “best of 2016” lists (including ours). Given the weight and veracity of Woods’ criticism and the social climate of America today—fittingly, HEAVN arrived just a few days after the police killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rogue—the voice Jamila Woods lifts on HEAVN is increasingly necessary.
Black femininity is at the center of HEAVN. On the opening song, “Bubbles,” Woods establishes a crucial part of the album: if you are not a black woman, you do not understand black womanhood. “They call you shy/Always ask why you listen before you speak,” the song says, and from this point on it is clear that HEAVN is the proclamation of an ignored voice that demands to be ignored no longer. Woods speaks of her hair and of her name, reclaiming her identity from a Euro-centric society while also celebrating who she is. When the song, “VRY BLK,” ends with an account of black women in an office setting knowing how to play a kids playground game that none of the white employees know of, it is portrayed as a triumphant and proud moment despite the face-value triviality of something like a kids game.
Along with black femininity, HEAVN challenges the narrative surrounding the city of Chicago. Tired of the fetishizing and politicizing of Chicago—as politicians on both sides exploit it as an agenda piece—Woods is taking Chicago from a click bait to a place with real people. On his guest verse in the song “LSD,” Chance the Rapper declares that, “This ain’t for no Vice doc,” and in a time when the President of the United States claims he is going to “send in the Feds” to fix Chicago, offering no indication of any understanding of the issues and policies present in the city, Woods’ and Chance’s mission is a crucial one. “LSD,” which stands for Lake Shore Drive, uses Lake Michigan as a neutralizer to the various narratives surrounding the city of Chicago. “…The water hasn’t been gentrified. The beach is still a public place, and that’s an amazing grace about Chicago. We have many problems, but the water always stays,” Woods said in an interview with the A.V. Club. Jamila Woods will not her home, the place that she knows and loves, become exploited by those who don’t understand.
HEAVN also works hard in the space of Woods’ own experience and thoughts. Songs like “Lonely Lonely” and “Holy” serve as declarations of self-love and care that—within the context of a society that continually silences people of color and women—are radical statements. “I’m thinking of how hard it is for people, especially black people, to find love and love each other, especially in Chicago where you can be afraid… That’s not a conducive environment to loving someone,” Woods said in an interview with Pitchfork. In HEAVN, Woods’ is reclaiming the love for herself and for others that have been unfairly taken away.
Throughout the album, Jamila Woods makes continual references and connections to the history of African-Americans, especially to black women Civil Rights leaders. She references figures like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Sojourner Truth—figures that are commonly studied in history classes and during black history month, but feel removed to white America, as if these people existed in a time and place completely separate from our current context. “Déjà vu of Tubman… Look what they did to my sister/last century, last week,” Woods sings on “Blk Grl Soldier,” connecting the messages of black women in history with hers, attacking the comfort and distance white America feels from the adversity these women faced. She makes clear that these women’s fight—that Harriet Tubman’s fight, that Rosa Park’s fight—is her fight too.
HEAVN stands out as one of the most poignant and resonant albums released in recent years. Its slow-burning R & B sound provides the perfect atmospheric support for Woods’ words of comfort, mourning and admonishment of the various layers of racism in America, particularly in the contexts of black womanhood and Chicago. For listeners with certain identities and experiences, it serves as comfort and validation, while serving as a challenge to others. It takes on the various narratives about black people, black women and the city of Chicago, offering truer and fuller representation to all of them. Woods’ fight is a difficult one given the long lasting legacy of racism and prejudice in America, but Woods makes something about the fight of black women unmistakably clear in “Blk Grl Soldier:” “She don’t give up.”
- Jordan Petersen