Jamila Woods’ album brings black girl ‘HEAVN’ to Earth
15 Aug 2017
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Octavia Butler once said, “you got to make your own worlds, you got to write yourself in”. Perhaps, then, it was fitting that I interviewed Jamila Woods the day before Butler’s birthday. In a world where blackness is often othered, what does it mean for her album HEAVN to heavily feature themes and sounds from outer space? Hailing from Chicago, Jamila Woods’ music not only envisions, but actively takes to you to another planet — one of out-of-this-world love. HEAVN is a love album, an album that speaks to how a city can be your first love, how we learn to love ourselves, and how we love others and are loved in turn. For Woods, “so much of the idea behind it was expanding the definition of love to include things that aren’t always as perfect”.
In the stunning visuals of her latest single ‘Holy’, we are invited into the intimate moments of black womanhood as we watch them physically command space, dancing across the screen while shrouded in white and — much like how black women move through this world — baptising us in the quiet holiness of their being.
With a mantra for a chorus, ‘Holy’ reminds us to find beauty in our solitude and figuring-it-out stages. Woods sings, “woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me/I’m not lonely, I’m alone and I’m holy by my own”. Speaking on this, Woods said, “I definitely noticed growing up in the black church how music was not just music for the sake of music, it always had a very powerful healing quality… [Watching] the people in the room and the choir play such a part in liberating the people in the room from whatever they were going through just felt like very cathartic. They seemed very vulnerable and like they were shedding all their trauma from the week through their music”.
These lyrics have gotten me through many mornings, but if you put them in conversation with similar songs on HEAVN such as ‘Lonely Lonely’ and ‘Bubbles’, Woods demonstrates how self-love is never a linear process. Despite how we may think of Black Girl Magic as femmes covered in glitter and smiling to the heavens, the most magical thing about us is our resilience; how we hold our own in a world that doesn’t check for us and calls us crazy, yet knowing all the while exactly “which oils turn our skin from brown to gold”.
“I see how we have these innate ways of healing ourselves… I think that is black girl magic”
Regardless, Woods has found comfort in the fact that she is “not from here”, and HEAVN is an ode to how black women are out of this world in the most magical way possible. “Black girl magic can put black women in a box where it feels like you have to be perfect all the time and very sparkly. When you think about magic in general, it’s something not a lot of people believe in. But, to me, growing up with my mum as an alternative medicine healer who practiced Reiki and would use her hands to heal us when we weren’t feeling well, I see how we have these innate ways of healing ourselves. Even when we go to the beauty shop and how that operates as therapy for a lot of black women who wouldn’t even think of going to therapy; or, for example, when my grandma cooks and leaves an essence of her in the food. These are all things that feel innate and that other people wouldn’t recognise as magic, but we do because it sustains us. I think that is black girl magic; a way of seeing each other.” Thus, in HEAVN’s world, black women find peace in ourselves and each other. Sisterhood saves, and the sacredness of women of colour in particular can be seen throughout the album.
Recently, HEAVN acted as the soundtrack to Woods’ fellow Brown University alum and poet Fatima Asghar’s ‘Brown Girls’, a webseries that follows the awkward years and the friendships that keep us afloat during them. There is a particular episode where the main characters swear themselves in as lifelong members of the “single girls club”, and in a scene that could easily be any conversation between my friends and I, begin to talk about what they would want out of love. A few mimosas in, Victor sums up my frustration with *feelings* perfectly: “I want that shit, that shit that makes you wake up in the morning and want to go to work and deal with racism because you know you can go home to your bae at the end of the day”.
“HEAVN is a blueprint for where we may go, and a chance to live in these worlds that we create on a daily basis for a little longer”
Unbeknownst to them, but very clear to the audience who have been watching their beautiful friendship unfold, this is a love that they have twice over in one another. The voice notes of various people in Woods’ life dropping similar knowledge are interspersed between her album; from Eve Ewing’s anecdote on the power of her name before ‘In My Name’, to the story of the black women reminiscing over their shared childhood games at the end of ‘VRY BLK’. “All the voice notes and skits in the album are either friends of mine or students of mine who answered these questions that I had, and it just showed that community element and how the album couldn’t have been made if I was not teaching artists or if I didn’t have the friendships and relationships that I have,” Woods says.
In these moments, be it at the usual bar where the drinks are too expensive but strong enough to make up for it, or when all our friends are over, squished into one bed and laughing until way too late, we create these worlds within our world. We do not only claim our seats at the table, but make our own dining room altogether. All this goes to show that possibilities only stretch as far as our imagination can take us. HEAVN is a blueprint for where we may go, and a chance to live in these worlds that we create on a daily basis for a little longer.