To make sense of life, Jamila Woods studied the wisdom of her ancestors, synthesized it into poetry, and scored it with music. The result is “Legacy! Legacy!,” an astounding, soul-nurturing album that became even more fulfilling when she performed it at a sold-out Union Stage on Tuesday night.
Woods’s résumé might identify her as a Chicagoan, singer-songwriter, award-winning poet, teacher and activist. If it doesn’t also include “truth-seeker” or “soothsayer,” it should.
She earned those titles on 2016’s “Heavn,” an examination of “black girl magic,” and affirmed them on “Legacy! Legacy!” On that album, Woods pays tribute to legendary artists of color, each title — “Betty,” “Octavia,” “Sonia” — in all-capital letters, like a statement of purpose.
Her purposes vary. On “Miles,” she embodies masculine energy. On “Muddy,” she shakes off appropriation. On “Sun Ra,” she reclaims her cosmic past. On “Zora,” she tangos with the unknowable. These conversations with her forebears aren’t without tension. On “Baldwin,” Woods interrogates James Baldwin’s “love thy neighbor” approach to racism by connecting the dots between gentrification and police violence. For the condo builders, purse-clutchers, and cop-callers, Woods gracefully calls out “a casual violence in your speech and your silence.”
Woods’s voice is warm and distinct but never showy, which is fine; with lyrics this powerful, she can afford an understated delivery. Onstage, she performed with the wide, mischievous eyes and animated facial expressions of a performer who honed her craft at poetry readings and open mics. “I may be small, I may speak soft, but you can see the change in the water,” she sang, and true to her lyrics, her words were like stones in a pond, rippling out to the audience. Her band (Justin Canavan on guitar, Erik Hunter on bass, Leonard Maddox Jr. on drums, and musical director Aminata Burton on keyboards) amplified the ripples into cresting waves.
The waters may be rough and deep, but Woods and her band looked like they were having fun on the surface, like when she threw casual shade at “that other dude” who lived in Frida Kahlo’s house, or when the band broke into go-go interludes and all-out jam sessions. The performers were not the only voices on the stage. Before some songs began, recorded interviews and poems by Woods’s muses filled the room. One of those voices belonged to Eartha Kitt, the singer and activist.
“I have to compromise?” Kitt asked, amid belly laughs. “For what?!”
On this evening of exploration, affirmation and self-love, it was clear that Jamila Woods knows she doesn’t have to compromise, either.