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Review: Jamila Woods, HEAVN

Surrounded by violence, Jamila Woods has created a profound ode to self-love and healing

/ July 29, 2016

“I don’t wanna wait for my life to be over
To let myself feel the way I feel
I don’t wanna wait for our lives to be over
To love myself however I feel” – Lonely Lonely

I am listening to HEAVN in the midst of the murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Deeniquia Dodds and on the anniversary of Sandra Bland’s death in police custody. I’m listening to HEAVN every day another black life becomes a household name before proceeding to the hashtag graveyard, as we lift up each name with the knowledge that it will not be the last time. This July, we testify against the low boiling point of the police again. And as I hold myself and my community, I am depleted.

While we call for #BlackLivesMatter, we still have to #SayHerName to bring attention to the direct and elusive ways state violence affect black femmes and women in ways both similar and different from our brothers and fathers. Jamila Wood’s debut album HEAVN offers a time to check in on self-care after already running on empty.

“I know it’s late but the question, ‘What type of love do I deserve?’ it was really laying heavy on my mind”
-Spoken at the end of “Breadcrumbs” by an anonymous black woman

HEAVN is an album-length love song to the undersung and under-celebrated. From beginning to end it is a call to black women everywhere that it’s never too late tap into the revolutionary spring of being both black and a woman. In a world that denies us humanity, devalues our labor, and negates our experiences, Jamila reminds us that being kind to ourselves and our communities is one of the most potent actions we can take. HEAVN makes space for the unsung heroes of the black community – the black women, girls, femmes, non-binary, nurturers and caretakers who hold it down.

“I be in my nightgown, chicken wings ready
If you bring the mild sauce, we can go steady
You can have the coleslaw, we can share the one straw
Sit outside on my block” – LSD

Jamila’s heaven is located somewhere between Chicago and her own personal bubble. HEAVN is an invitation to slow down, take it easy and find rootedness exactly where we are by reconnecting to our origin stories and legacies of black girl magic. Always mindful of speaking from her own life, Jamila inspires reflection by sharing her intimate daydreams, inviting us to her childhood stoop on Emerald St (“won’t you be my neighbor”) and to share her love for Lake Michigan (“you gotta love me like you love the lake”), blurring love for skin with love her city (“My city like my skin, it’s so pretty / If you don’t like it, just leave it alone”).

Differentiated from depersonalized memoirs of Lemonade and global ambitions of Chicago rap and R&B artists of the moment, Jamila’s record feels closer to home. It finds its universal appeal through its specificity to Jamila’s lived reality. If The Life of Pablo is about struggling through the contradictions of being a black man in America, and Chance 3 is about being a black man coming of age into fatherdom, then HEAVN is about the importance of building self-love. On “Blk Girl Soldier,” Jamila urges us to care for ourselves in a world that seeks to bottle us up, recalling the example of Henrietta Lacks: “They put her body in a jar and forget her / They love how it repeats.”

Jamila reminds us that we can move through cycles of increasingly hostile circumstances by following our inner pace. She validates us each step of the way. Slower, soulful tracks like “Bubbles” and “Lonely Lonely” feel as familiar as the sacred (but overlooked) rituals of caring for ourselves a black women, as simple as the self-soothing motions of putting on lotion after a shower. Being surrounded by death and violence can become surreal and require taking a step back and spending time alone. Gospel anthem “Holy” shows that moving back to care for yourself is not a political retreat, and in fact helps the longevity of the movement overall.

HEAVN is a rallying call to seek out the divine in the every day until we eventually find holiness in ourselves. Jamila proposes a heaven that isn’t as unattainable as salvation – her HEAVN is about finding solace and faith through our own relationships to ourselves and our mentalities in the struggle, as individuals and collectively.

Jamila’s background in social justice and experience as a teaching artist lends itself to the encyclopedic history lessons permeating the album. To make sense of the current moment, she brings us into both the past and future. The album’s first single, “Blk Girl Solder,” recites names of freedom fighters Soujourner Truth, Ella Baker, and Angela Davis, while also drawing lines into the present: “Look at what they did to my sisters / Last century last week.” And for times when we can’t make sense of the present, songs like “Stellar” remind us to imagine better futures. “Way Up,” too, may read as an ascent to heaven, but it’s also a nod to Afrofuturism’s potential to extend beyond the temporal and spatial limits created by state violence.

“Can’t find my home
I wanna go
To my own private planet I’ve been dreaming of
Little moon in my head I be moving on” – Way Up

Soundbites and sentiments from holy scriptures, church songs, playground hand games, and protest chants are placed throughout the album. With vulnerability and sincerity, Jamila tills our nostalgia for childhood naivete by revising the familiar  into contemporary meaning. For those of us who were never treated like children and had to grow up too fast, these melodies bear the weight of foreshortened black adolescence.

In the tradition of black women, Jamila knows how to subvert these tunes to take on more power. To the tune of “Miss Mary Mack,” “VRY BLK” adapts popular playground tune into an earworm of empowerment, connecting the past to the present and the personal to the political, a mind-hack to revolutionary self-care.

In an industry that continues its historical legacy of treating black women as sideshows and background instruments, Jamila has emerged center stage as a solo artist. Previous collaborations with well-known artists such as Chance the Rapper on “Sunday Candy” and “Blessings,” and a notorious experiment with Macklemore, could have situated Jamila as an accompaniment or someone building a career that caters to white audiences. But the accomplishment of HEAVN is that it maintains a fervent commitment to the clarity of her message and devotion to living her truth – humble, quiet, poignant.

“It’s a long ‘i’ baby, but your tongue too lazy
Fix your face and say your grace
Before you pray to me” – In My Name

Such quiet is not to be confused with lack of command. On “In My Name” she reminds listeners that her name is pronounced with a long “i,” calling on the phrase “My name is my name” (both Pusha T’s album and the famous line from Marlo Stanfield on The Wire). The song ends with an Assata Shakur quote, a call to revolutionary action.

Speaking up has always been a double-edged sword. Black women are demanded to bear witness to loss, publicize our mourning, and then get pathologized and reduced to the trope of the crazy black woman for truth-telling.

“They want us in kitchen
Kill our sons with lynchings
We get loud about it
Oh now we’re the bitches” – Blk Girl Soldier 

“I could be crazy / But my crazy is my own” – Lonely Lonely

Existing in a world when even surviving and witnessing poses a threat to the status quo is revolutionary. As we know from Diamond Reynold’s testimony, part of the state violence that black women face is being forced to bear witness to state violence. When asked why she did not believe that witnessing police brutality was enough to hold up on court and that she needed to record the murder, she said, “I knew they wouldn’t see me as being the person telling the truth.”  When Erica Garner attended the POTUS Town Hall, the network had no intention of allowing her to ask the President a question.

What else can we do but move forward?
-interlude at the end of LSD spoken by anonymous black woman

When summer heat gets too hot to bear, we sit on our stoops, thighs stuck to the concrete in puddles of sweat and bear witness to it all. In spite of heaven’s redemptive promise, Jamila’s record offers neither linear progress nor the certainty of immediate change. What Jamila shows us is a path forward building on the deep legacy of black women’s movements and struggle – a legacy of survival, care, and growth in the face of impossible conditions.