Photo by Johnny Fan for Okayplayer.

First Look Friday: Understand The Driving, Soulful Sounds Of Jamila Woods

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

What a time to be alive, right?!

Music is shifting the culture and moving a new generation of artists to the forefront, as this week's First Look Friday subject is one of the most dynamic voices to come out in a long while. Raised in Chicago, Illinois, Jamila Woods is considered "a modern-day Renaissance woman" by the Chicago Sun-Times and a creative force amongst her peers.

A graduate from Brown University, most have heard her name mentioned alongside the likes of Chance The Rapper, Saba and Noname Gypsy, yet she has proven that she is more than capable of cultivating her own sound and style. A poet and vocalist with supreme skill, Jamila Woods explores topics involving blackness, womanhood and her hometown of Chicago. Inspired by legends such as Erykah Badu to Toni Morisson to Frida Kahlo, Jamila Woods is a jill-of-all-trades.

In addition to being a founding member of the Young Chicago Teaching Artist Corps and the associate artistic director of Young Chicago Authors, Jamila Woods is also the front woman of M&O. Buoyed by her church upbringing, this Pushcart Prize nominee is shaping the future sound of Chicago with soul, hip-hop and R&B. A true powerhouse if there was ever a living description, Jamila Woods' musical aesthetic is on par with her community activism.

We here at Okayplayer were honored and blessed to speak with this artist and educator about her influences, being signed to Closed Sessions and what she has learned from her contemporaries.

Okayplayer: To music snobs the world over, you are making an impact. What is it that the Chi is seeing and hearing that the world has yet to discover?

Jamila Woods: Chicago is full of brilliant artists. It feels like every time I go to an open mic or music event I learn about someone new here in Chicago. We have really long winters here, so for a lot of people the cold season is a period of hibernation. I’m excited for 2016 to unfold because I know I’ll get to see what everyone in Chicago has been working on for the past few months.

OKP: For those who have a passion for music, they honed their skills and practiced their craft. Who are your most cherished influences in music and why?

JW: I love Erykah Badu because she’s so unapologetically herself and always striving to evolve. I love her sense of humor and how she’s not afraid to try different genres of art. I’m also really inspired by Sia. Reading about her background as a songwriter really stuck with me, how she balances being inside someone else’s head to write for them while still working on her solo projects. In the future, I would like to write for other artists in addition to making my own music.

OKP: Your first single, “blk girl soldier,” is very empowering and is paired with some really strong lyrical content. It has placed you on the radar of music snobs who have a heavy presence in the industry. Can you talk about how life was for you while developing as an artist in the Second City?

JW: Growing up in Chicago has greatly impacted the way I approach my art. I grew up singing in the children’s choir at my grandma’s church, and later sang in the Chicago Children’s Choir in high school. My first memories of performing music are with choirs and for a long time I didn’t believe my own voice was strong enough or interesting enough to be heard on its own. It was through writing poetry and participating in youth open mic spaces like Gallery 37 and “Louder Than A Bomb,” that I realized I had something to say and that my voice was something worth hearing. Coming up in Chicago taught me how important an element of community is in making my art. A lot of my music plays with layering my voice in different ways to achieve a choral effect. I also sample a lot with my voice as a way of shouting out my influences and mapping where I come from.

>>> How important will Chicago be to the music industry? Find out what Jamila Woods has to say on Pg. 2...

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

OKP: Can you also talk about the importance of the music industry scene in Chicago and where you see it evolving in the next five years?

JW: The music industry in Chicago is exploding. What’s cool is watching everybody find their own unique path. There’s no cookie cutter way to “make it” and it’s exciting to see everybody making moves. Over the next five years, I hope to see a solid music industry develop with resources to support and make space for up-and-coming artists in the city, all while still allowing them the artistic freedom to be themselves.

OKP: On “blk girl soldier,” you touch on topics such as the lack of diversity in the entertainment business and the resilient fight within the black woman. How does a song so defiantly beautiful as “blk girl soldier” fit into your forthcoming album’s narrative?

JW: The project is still very much in progress, but a major theme is affirmation. An affirmation is a declaration that something is true. A lot of times affirmations are used to speak things into existence. blk girl soldier declares that black girl lives matter. It speaks to the resilience I have seen in black women around me and that I hope to manifest in myself. A lot of other songs on the project attempt to conjure my dreams or beliefs into existence in a similar way.

>>> What has life been like for Jamila Woods since signing to Closed Sessions? Find out on Pg. 3...

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

OKP: Since signing with Closed Sessions -- what has been the best experience so far as a professional recording artist?

JW: The best experience with CS so far has been working with Odd Couple. He’s such a talented producer and he likes weird stuff like I do. I’ll bring him a piece of an idea and he’ll get really excited and run with it. I’m looking forward to see what else we come up with together.

OKP: What are some elements that you’ve learned about yourself that comes out in your music?

JW: I like making sounds with my voice that aren’t necessarily words, somewhere between scatting and stuttering. I like economy of language and lyrics that say something without becoming too wordy or cluttered. I also like a lot of different genres of music. I had a really intense alternative rock phase in middle school, and I think it’s fun to pull from those influences in addition to the R&B, soul, hip-hop and gospel music that I love.

OKP: Can you talk about the first song you wrote and what it was about?

JW: The first song I ever wrote was called “Entire.” I recorded it in my bedroom on GarageBand. It was a self-love song that I wrote after a bad breakup. The first line of it goes: “This is a love song for myself, I’m not gonna talk about you in it.” The lyrics are kind of snarky in a laughing-to-keep-from-crying sort of way.

OKP: How can your music speak truth to power in an age where people are so quickly digesting sounds and disposing of artists in a nanosecond?

JW: I think it helps to have layers to the music. With poetry, my favorite poems are the ones where I notice something new every time I read it. That’s how I try to approach songwriting. There may be a message behind a song but it’s never something that can really be fully digested in one listen, so you have to keep coming back.

>>> What was it like for Jamila Woods to be in the studio with Chance, Saba and Noname Gypsy? Find out on Pg. 4...

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

OKP: Collaboration is uniquely a key to the success of certain creative individuals who wish to change the game. Who would you want to work with in the new year and why?

JW: I would love to continue to build with some of the people that I’ve collaborated with before, simply because I feel like the more comfortable I get with someone the better music I can create. I also would love to do a posse cut with all-women artists from Chicago, that’s something I been dreaming about for a while.

OKP: You hold a lot of respect and clout with the likes of Chance The Rapper, Nico Segal, Noname Gypsy and Saba, so what is it about those artists that have made such an impact in music and your life?

JW: Working with Chance and Nico has taught me a lot about songwriting — hook writing in particular. Seeing what they have built with the Social Experiment is very inspiring to me and is a large part of why I am really set on having my first project be free. Noname Gypsy’s presence in music is so vital. To me she’s like if my favorite poet legends were reincarnated in one rapper. When I’m a grandma I’m gonna be telling my grandkids about her music. I love how Saba sounds when he raps, and how he’s such a good storyteller. He’s a true producer in the sense that he knows how to curate a song. Sometimes when people invite you to feature on songs the part they ask you to sing might not always sit right in your voice or feel natural, but with Saba it always feels like he creates a very intentional soundscape and knows exactly when and how to invite other people into it to create good music.

OKP: What is the overall message that Jamila Woods is trying to present in her music?

JW: There isn’t one overall message I’m trying to present. Writing songs started off as a very personal, private way for me to process my own thoughts and feelings. Since then I’ve become more comfortable sharing my music with other people, and I’m always feeding off their energy and the things I see happening around me. My music reflects what I feel and what I see.

OKP: Can you break down the inspiration behind “blk girl soldier,” which was produced by Jus Cuz and Saba? Speak about the inspiration behind the creation, production and song lyrics.

JW: I wrote the song in one night after hearing the beat. When I’m feeling stuck writing, sometimes I’ll go to a song I love and take the first word from that song and start a new song. The first word in Erykah Badu’s “Soldier” is “see,” so I took that and wrote a song about black girls and sampled a chant I learned at a Black Youth Project 100 meeting. Writing the song felt like having a good cry and making a collage at the same time. Because of the subject matter it was therapeutic to write, and also felt important to include a multitude of voices in addition to my own.

OKP: How do you see yourself changing the music industry for the better versus all of the bad stuff that goes on within it?

JW: I don’t have a lot of experience with the music industry in a traditional sense, but I do have a strong intuition and try to always be conscious of the kind of situations I put myself in. Right now I work at a non-profit called Young Chicago Authors where I teach poetry workshops and help create platforms for young people to express themselves. I’ve found I really enjoy being in a room with people who share the same passion as me and figuring out how to combine our powers for good. I hope to use the skills I’ve learned organizing and teaching poetry at and translate that to a music setting.

OKP: Can you share any interesting stories that might’ve happened during the creation of Surf with the Okayplayer audience?

JW: My favorite moment of making Surf was when I was sitting in Nico’s living room and he played the beat for “Questions.” I love when you hear an instrumental and you instantly feel like you’re in another place. It’s the closest thing to traveling to another dimension that I can imagine. Once I heard the beat I heard how the flow of the lyrics should go and then I fit words into that pattern. It was like I knew the mood of the song before I knew exactly what I wanted to say, which felt really nice. I hope to get more and more comfortable working in studios, but really my ideal working environment is still my bedroom or a friend’s couch, so that whole process of writing the song was very special to me.

Be sure to keep your eyes and ears open for more from Jamila Woods (and us!) by following her on Twitter @DuhMilo.