Jamila Woods is a literal Wonder Woman. Among her many talents: she’s a singer, a poet, a teaching artist, and now a director. A Chicago native, Jamila’s debut solo album, HEAVN, was released in 2016, and she just released the short film for her new song, “Giovanni” (watch below). I’ve known Jamila since we were both 17. We bonded over our shared love of poetry while in a lunch line at college. Since meeting her, I’ve been struck by her vision—Jamila sees with a piercing gaze. She’s an artist of witness, but also an artist of possibility, constructing new world orders in her art for us to find a home in. Over her birthday weekend, we had a conversation about “Giovanni,” genre as a filter, and the legacies she comes from. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity, and for audience, because sometimes when we get together, we speak a language no one else understands.
Fatimah Asghar: Talk to me about the song “Giovanni.” When did you write it and what you were thinking about when you wrote it?
Jamila Woods: I wrote it after I had recently taught, or had been teaching, Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Ego Tripping.” I thought, what would it be like to write a cover poem that’s a song? The lyric “there must be a reason why”—it was cool to think about that. I interpreted that like, there must be a reason why I am the way I am. I thought about the women in my life who make it possible for me to believe in myself, and have faith in myself, that I’m doing right by the people who’ve poured so much love and time and energy into me. I watched this interview where [Giovanni] interviewed Muhammad Ali, and at the end she reads from her book Gemini (1971). There’s this part where she’s like, I guess I do want to be famous because my mother deserves for the world to know her name. That’s the whole spirit of my song, because I wanted to include my mom and my grandmother, and other women in my life who inspire me. I believe that they deserve everyone to know their names.
FA: In the video, you tread this experimental line between being both a documentary and a traditional music video. What was the decision-making behind that?
JW: That was a collaboration between me and Vincent Martell, the other director. At first, I wanted to feature these women and interview them about what makes them feel strong, what makes them feel powerful, what they love about themselves, what they have learned about themselves. We played around with different places to insert the interviews, but it felt right to put them in the middle as opposed to in a separate video or at the end. Having my grandmother and mom bookend it, and having the rest of the women in the middle, felt like the answer to the question of there must be a reason why. They are the reason why.
FA: I love that. In terms of the video, it goes between feeling like VHS quality to more of a digital quality. It’s like it exists in the past, the future, and the present. Why did you and Vincent develop that aesthetic, and were there any fears about doing that?
JW: I like what you’re saying about time, what it does to time. I’m trying to lean into a collage aesthetic and push what that means for me. I was originally inspired by Arthur Jafa’s films. I saw one that’s just stitched together from viral YouTube videos that have Black people in them, footage of people in church, footage of a burning star, just all this stuff. It was very poetic, the way each clip connected. That was one of my inspirations of wanting the video to feel like a collage. And there’s a nice nostalgia to it, especially with some of the styling. It kind of calls to mind blaxploitation, because of the fro, which is fun.
FA: How do you navigate multiple genres and allow them to inform each other?
JW: I like thinking about genre as a vision, or as a filter, something you can apply to whatever you make. I intermittently write poems when I’m teaching, or if I end up in someone’s workshop, but when you also do a lot of other things you’re like, am I not a poet anymore? If I haven’t written in a while, is that part fading away? But it’s been cool to lean into my poetry as a songwriter. At the same time, when I work with other artists, that’s when I realize how much I have to grow and learn. I want to be versatile because I want to be a songwriter for other people as well. When I used to be in a band, I was better at that chameleon-ness. Oh, my bandmate made a poppy-sounding beat, I’m going to write a poppy-sounding thing. This is an R&B-sounding thing, I’m going to do that.
FA: I think about that with poetry, too, being like this project is more narrative, or this is more experimental. Thinking about the project you’re currently working on, and coming out of your album HEAVN (2016), what kind of growth have you seen? How has your voice changed?
JW: Part of the growth has been trusting my audience, which I think also comes from poetry. You don’t have to spell out every single thing, because at a certain point, you’re catering too much to the audience as opposed to just saying what you have to say. I feel myself doing that, because what I’m trying to communicate is more complicated. Not that HEAVN wasn’t, but it was very much in the spirit of Gwendolyn Brooks, reporting what I’d seen and what I felt, but in a way that was said very plainly. In this project, there’s a lot of nuance to what I’m trying to communicate, and I’m trying to say it how I’d say it to you, how I’d say it to someone very close to me, how it would come up in my mind. I want to allow myself to talk about these complicated things and not feel that I have to get it right.
FA: When we were in college, we were part of this thing called The Third World Center, and when we were getting to know each other we’d have to do these things called life maps, where we would chart out the lessons we’d learned through our lives and why they were important to us. To me, your project feels like a living life map.
JW: That’s so cool to think about it as a life map. I think that’s true. In understanding my multitudes, it allows me to also see the people I admire who have inspired me in their multitudes. Everyone has their own things that they love about Nikki Giovanni, or anyone, so I’m not defining what it means for you, but this is what it is for me.
FA: To switch gears a bit, “Giovanni” is your first time directing. What led you to that? What did it feel like to direct?
JW: Oh my gosh, it was really good. I learned a lot. I come up with a concept, and then I try to get closer and closer to bringing what’s in my head to life. Sometimes things get lost in translation, and often a really cool thing happens instead. With this, I had to push myself to think in more detail. For every frame, I’ve got to know more. That’s what this experience taught me. Because when you get there, there’s all these split-second decisions. Also, I knew I wanted this to at least be co-directed by a Black woman. I was like, oh, OK, well I’ll do it!
FA: I love what you’re saying about trying to translate the thing in your head. You have this postcard by your bed, or Post-it note, which I then stole and put by my bed, that says, “Let the space between where I am and where I want to be inspire me.”
JW: Tracy Ellis Ross said that.
FA: I love her. What is the place you want to be?
JW: I want to feel like I’m integrating all of the parts of myself. I’ve gotten closer over the past year, but I feel like there’s more. What I’m realizing is that a lot of what I want to do requires more visioning. I’m doing this show on November 30th [in Chicago], and it’s going to be a multidisciplinary performance of the whole album of HEAVN. It’s more things than I’ve ever been able to work with at once: lighting, projection, dancers, full wardrobe, costuming.
FA: That’s so interesting! Also, it was just your birthday. You got a really beautiful James Baldwin quote tattooed onto you. Can you talk about what the quote is and what it means to you?
JW: It’s from an interview with Studs Terkel, where Baldwin talks about the artist’s role in society, and he says, “Artists have to disturb the peace. Otherwise, chaos.” I just love that on both sides it’s chaos. It affirms that there’s never going to be a time where everything is just cool. To be on the side that’s disturbing the peace is where I want to be.
FA: Thinking about the role of legacy in this project, where does your legacy come from?
JW: My grandmother. She’s like a third parent to me. She raised me and my siblings, along with my parents. At one point, I played her “Giovanni,” and she was like, “Stop putting my name in your songs! You better stop that!” It’s everything I think about, because she is the matriarch, one of the matriarchs, of our family. I think of all the things she taught me through her language, but also through her actions. She’s the first poet I knew. Before I knew who Lucille Clifton was, I knew about economy of words just through how my grandma talked. I want people to know her name, and I want to communicate the things she taught me. That’s part of what I want my legacy to be.
FA: I love that. What is your grandma’s name?
JW: Joycetta. Joycetta Freeman was her maiden name, but she’s Joycetta Woods.
FA: Thanks girl. I love you.
JW: I love you, too.
Poet, screenwriter, educator, and performer Fatimah Asghar is a Pakistani, Kashmiri, Muslim American writer. Fatimah Asghar is the author of the poetry collection If They Should Come for Us (One World/Random House, forthcoming 2018) and the chapbook After (Yes Yes Books, 2015). She is also the writer and co-creator of the Emmy-nominated...