Neo-soul singer-songwriter Jamila Woods had no sooner dropped her remarkable “Legacy! Legacy!” album in May than she jumped onto a plane and took off for a world tour that kept her away from home for months. The good news is, she’s back; the bad news is, we’ve got exactly one chance to see her before she goes on tour again. The girl is a hot commodity.
Her appearance this month, as part of the Red Bull Music Festival, is billed as “Legacy! Legacy! Unfolded,” which is good news; because we’ve had some time to live with the album, and it’s one of those works that draws you further in the deeper you go. It was only after many listenings that I personally twigged—being a bit thick—that the legacy referenced in its title is an entirely personal one. The tracks, all written (or co-written) by Woods, are named after the major figures in the singer’s artistic pantheon, but the tunes aren’t about them. They’re about the impact those artists have had on the woman singing them. The passion and integrity that comes through each tune makes it clear—Woods herself is the legacy.
Many of the title-checked artists are women of color, including in the bravura opening track, “Betty,” which pivots on the work of funk diva Betty Davis, and gives the album as close to a mission statement as you could ask for. “I am not your typical girl / Throw away that picture in your head… Work harder now, work harder.” The next tune, “Zora,” after the poet Zora Neale Hurston, amplifies the challenge: “None of us are free but some of us are brave / I dare you to shrink my wave.” In these, and other tunes on the album , we hear the clarion call of empowered sisterhood.
But Woods is too encompassing a talent to draw inspiration only within the confines of race and gender: she acknowledges her debt to men as well, including Miles Davis and Muddy Waters, and crosses not only the racial divide but the performing arts one as well, to embrace Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. (“I like you better when you see me less / I like me better when I’m not so stressed / We could do it like Frida, we could build a bridge then / I could come see ya.”)
Kahlo’s not the only visual artist represented; “Basquiat” is her nod to Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work stokes her righteous anger. “They wanna see me bare my teeth, yeah / I’m a stovetop, baby / I smile in your face, but the oven’s on high.” Woods brings on Saba as a guest artist on this cut; the album features other guests, including Nico Segal, Jasminfire and theMIND; it’s unlikely any of those artists will be joining her onstage at Red Bull, but Woods’ voice is sufficiently galvanizing to fill the house. And she won’t be alone behind the mic, in any case: she’s got all those spirits she’s resurrecting—and the message they deliver through her is timed to this exact, precarious moment. “Somebody’s daddy always laid out on the street / And for what?” she sings in “Baldwin.” The answer: “Your precious lethal fear.” It’s a searing moment, but it’s followed by the healing power of the title writer: “My friend James / Says I should love you anyway / And that’s okay / But oooh, yeah / You’re making it hard for me.”
November 27, 9pm at The Geraghty, 2520 South Hoyne, (312)967-2520; sold out.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena,” and his literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.