Over the past few years, more and more of the world has turned their eyes to young Jamila Woods, a poet and educator turned Neo-Soul luminary. She came to Brighton Music Hall on Saturday, June 1st, and her amazingly powerful and exuberant presence could hardly be contained within the compact space of the venue.
The Legacy! Legacy! Tour, commemorating the release of Woods’ new album of the same title, began only one week prior to the Boston show. Being only the 7th stop on the road, Woods and everyone on stage were clearly still excited to be performing and celebrating their recent hard work.
Everything about the night was meant to communicate intimacy, which was immediately apparent from the moment I stepped in the concert hall. Slot-A, one of Woods’ music producers and friends, was out in front of the stage with his turntables, chatting up the crowd and voicing that he just wanted to get everyone dancing and having a good time. He knew members of the audience and set up the friendly environment when he told everyone to turn to the person next to them, making the space that night clearly about fostering care and community, in addition to a good time.
Nitty Scott, a relatively unbroadcasted contributor of the concert, nevertheless brought much of the character of the night into a compact yet rich opener set. An emcee and poet based in Brooklyn, what seemed to characterize her stage personality was a marrying of mourning and elation – Scott said herself, that women, especially women of color, are multifaceted and can never be flattened into a single being. At one point, she was singing her heart-wrenching “For Sara Baartman,” a memorial of a South African woman put on display in freakshows in the 19th century, and then as she and the audience began to feel the beat transition, she started to get lower and lower on stage and her passionate demands of remembrance turned into a cheeky grin as she seamlessly began to joyously dance and crowd banter. After a moment in the new song, she remarked on the musical evolution that had just occured, saying that we, the crowd, and she, the artist, could transition from sadness into “turning up” real quick – and everyone knew that that was okay, even necessary in the face of all the violence that Scott was addressing in her music. That songs of joy and sexuality are as much a statement of healing and resistance as any songs about grief. Clearly a trained emcee, her crowd vamping as well as her interactive singing and dancing left the crowd moved, excited, bopping, and ready for Woods.
After a short break, Woods’ four person band merrily wandered on stage, joking with one another before assuming their positions. Although the crowd was screaming in anticipation, Jamila Woods came out from the back hall-way and stepped on stage calmly and modestly as if she were about to teach a class on poetry or perform spoken word (both things she does outside of the concert hall). Without a word, she opened the show the same way her album begins, with “BETTY,” telling the audience that Woods is not “your typical girl.” Legacy! Legacy! is an album in which each track is a tribute to the artist of color of which it is titled after, such that Woods is making claims both about herself, in showing where her inspirations come from as well as trying to display the amazing strength and power of the artists she sings about.
The excitement and pride that Woods and her team felt was obvious in the performance of “SONIA,” during which Woods invited Scott back on stage to deliver her verse of the song – Scott left directly after, upon which Woods commented as much to herself as to the crowd that “everytime I hear that verse I love it more.”
Fans of her first album, Heavn, would recognize the format that the set took in her use of recordings – while her first album used audio of Woods herself speaking, the performance had spoken recordings accompanying certain songs of the artist that it is named after. The lighting would dim and Woods and her band would sink into the shadows, allowing the voice to fill the space. Muddy Waters’ laugh at the thought of teenage white boys singing his music as well as him, and Eartha Kitt’s cackle upon being asked about compromising for a man echoed through the venue before the lights would come up again Woods’ would sing in their name.
For much of the performance, Woods’ lack of prolonged conversation with the crowd seemed to communicate her desire to center the artists, but she eventually spoke about Sun Ra’s way of thinking as crucial to her own coming to be. Woods spoke about his Afrofuturistic claims of being from outer space rather from where he was born and raised – she reflected on how strongly she identifies with Chicago, and that perhaps she only does because she doesn’t know anything else about where she comes from. In that moment, the performance and the entire album was put in a new context; upon the seizure of Woods’ ancestral knowledge, her legacy, she has come to learn and honor the history she can access – the artists of color she admires, whom are her made heritage, her found family. After performing “SUN RA,” Woods went into “Stellar,” her first song of the night from Heavn, an album so explicitly set in Chicago, and yet ends with several songs that are set in space. “It might be the only way/That I can show you how it feels to be inside of you…You are stellar” sang Woods, echoing Sun-Ra’s Afrofuturistic ideas of identity displacement.
For the final song on the set, Woods declared to the audience that it was time to celebrate all the black women in the room, and finished with a rendition of “Blk Girl Soldier,” before saying a coy goodbye, clearly knowing the audience would not allow her to stay off stage for long. After a few minutes of yelling, Woods and the band came back out for an ethereal-as-ever rendition of “LSD,” her song paying tribute to Lake Street Drive in Chicago, showing the crowd that she still has in place in her heart for her city, even though she may have moved from honoring it in Heavn to honoring those whose art has inspired her in Legacy! Legacy!.
Woods is continuing to develop as both a thinker and a musician, and that was evident on stage that night. All her fans can ask for is that Woods continues to be so passionate about her work as well as her commitment to her musical, as well as her own, growth.