Chicago's alternative rap and R&B scene has exploded in the past five years. Led by Chance the Rapper and his band, the Social Experiment, it's seen mainstream successes like Vic Mensa, poetic homespun talents like Noname and adventurous songstresses like Ravyn Lenae.
It's an eclectic scene united by poetry, positivity and empowerment—all things Jamila Woods has been steeped in since she was a teenager. Like the other pillars of that scene, she came through spaces like Young Chicago Authors, where she met Nico Segal from Social Experiment, and later, Chance, Noname and Saba.
When she graduated from Brown University, Woods formed a band. The band broke up—which put her in tough position. "I still wanted to make music, so at that point I was just kind of figuring out how to find collaborators and make my first solo album," she says.
In January 2015, she wrote "Blk Girl Soldier," about a woman who "scares the government" and conjures up "Deja vu of Tubman." Around that time, she met the producer oddCouple and began writing more songs and playing them for her friends. That's when her deep ties to the scene lifted her up.
"They were pointing out to me, like, you should stick to writing, it just seems like it's shaping up to be something," Woods says. "So that kind of changed my perspective, because at first I was just trying to prove to myself that I could still write songs, and practicing, so it was seeing how people responded to it that made me feel that it could be part of something bigger."
That "something" turned out to be HEAVN, the album Woods released on SoundCloud in July 2016, and was recently given an official release by indie label Jagjaguwar. Featuring collaborations with oddCouple and other young artists from Chicago, the project is an exploration and celebration of black womanhood and Woods' hometown.
Woods says the album is a product of forcing herself out of her comfort zone and pushing herself to "build [her] network further," using her poetry skills and personal connections to inform a work that is at once hyper-personal and community-driven.
"Something I learned from poetry is that getting really, really specific and writing about your story, your experience, really does help it resonate universally," she says. "After shows, I'll talk to people about which songs they relate to. You know, someone who's like, 'Oh, I'm an introvert too, I really responded to the "Way Up" song.' Or even something you wouldn't expect. Sometimes people are like, 'You know, I'm not a black girl, but 'Blk Girl Soldier' really makes me feel empowered.' That's what's really amazing about music."
Woods has reached a point in her life where she's able to balance her music career with her passion for poetry and community enrichment. She now teaches at Young Chicago Authors, where she got her start, helping the next generation tell their stories.
"Working with students re-inspires me," Woods says. "It's a symbiotic relationship, in a way."
SEE IT: Jamila Woods plays Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., with Vagabon, on Monday, Dec. 4. 8 pm. Sold out. 21+.