DEEP TALK: Jamila Woods

As Summer gives way to Fall, there’s a definite feeling of introspection in the air. At Perfect Number, we’ve been reflecting on why self-expression is so important in helping to ground ourselves in uncertain times. With that in mind, we caught up with kindred spirit Jamila Woods to lay it all bare. A Chicago-based singer-songwriter and poet, Jamila’s work focuses on the importance of reclaiming your power and explores topics such as gender and sexuality without societal constraints or stigma.


Can you tell us a little bit about your work and how you got started?

I'm a music artist and poet. I've always loved singing as long as I can remember. I used to sing in choirs growing up and would sit by the stereo for hours, trying to emulate my favorite artists. In high school I got into spoken word and slam poetry, which was very empowering for me and gave me more confidence in my own voice. After college, a friend and I started a band, put out a couple albums and crowd funded our own cross-country tour. That experience helped me fall in love with songwriting and live performance and so I continued making music as a solo artist.


Your work touches on the empowerment of your culture and race. How does this inspire you?

Blackness is an eternal well of inspiration for me. A lot of Black people have to chart our own paths to learn our collective and familial histories. I feel empowered every time I seek out and discover some new story or facet of my identity.


How has your journey of self-expression progressed through your creative work?

My work is centered around the intersections of my identity and how I can make space for expansiveness and multitudes within them. My experience of gender has always been tied to my Blackness. A lot of times I feel alienated by the word 'woman' by itself, because it's connotation has felt incomplete or exclusionary to me. I resonate with a lot of Black feminists and queer writers of color who have taught me about intersectionality and nonbinary ways of thinking. Realizing my femininity doesn't have to fit in a box or be tied to womanhood has been very freeing.


Perfect Number is all about celebrating the multifaceted nature of femininity. What does the concept of femininity mean to you?

Lately I've been reading Audre Lorde and thinking about my intuition as part of my femininity. I'm trying to hone it and remember how to listen to it instead of doubting it. I'm noticing a lot of times my intuitive voice comes to me in the form of a question, like "What would happen if you tried this?". Often I ignore it unless I'm really present and paying attention. It's made me think more about how questions aren’t always a sign of not knowing something. Questions can also be like signposts that direct you to pay attention to something you need to see or know.


As women we often face social stigma around what femininity is supposed to look like, how do you navigate this?

So much of my work is designed to help me navigate and dispel these kinds of stigmas. A lot of times I write in an aspirational way, writing lyrics as affirmations to help me reframe my thinking to not be bound by limiting beliefs. Day-to-day I still struggle with insecurities and doubts stemming from these kinds of stigmas. However, I notice that when I ground myself in the wisdom of my ancestors and Black queer feminist thinkers, I feel more able to recognize the stigmas for what they are: tools of the powers that be to try to make us feel shame for being our authentic selves.


Having recently left your post as Artistic Director at Young Chicago Authors, can you tell us more about what you did there and what made you want to get involved?

I left my position at Young Chicago Authors (a non-profit that supports the Chicago Public Schools and provides young people with classes about poetry,) in 2019 after working there for seven years. It was important for me to be able to work at one of the places where I discovered poetry myself. I learned so much about working with young people, curating community spaces and teaching poetry and I know that my experience there has greatly influenced the way I approach my projects. I'm always thinking, “how can I involve my community in this?”, and when I'm stuck in my writing, I know how to give myself prompts and push through creative blocks. My latest project, LEGACY! LEGACY! Was definitely inspired by my teacher brain, wanting to create songs with a lot of depth that point listeners back to my source material.

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Photography by Mercedes Zapata