Chicago-based poet and musician Jamila Woods kicked off Black History Month with an enchanting, empowering set.

2/1/18 – The Fraser Studio

“I am the kingdom, I am not your queen” sang Jamila Woods to the audience at WGBH’s Fraser studio. This kingdom came ready to heal; Woods came equipped with songs about self care and freedom, sang affirmations to a crowd that snapped in sympathetic agreement, and stuffed a poem into our fists—one to hold in the alley just in case.

The warming words of the Chicago hip hop artist and poet felt at home among the semi-circle of faces that sat cross-legged on Persian rugs. Throughout the night, Jamila Woods wiggled her fingers, opened her arms, and waved her hands at the audience, casting a spell with her blk girl magic.

The intimate setting lent itself well to sharing stories about her songs; after launching into her set with “Stellar,” she revealed that “Breadcrumbs” was inspired by her “ultimate relationship goals,” her grandaddy and her grandma. “Leave me breadcrumbs for the ride / To guide me back,” she sang with her arms wide, beckoning the crowd to sing along.

The Fraser studio glittered with cell phone screens and echoed with “yeahs” and snaps of approval. “If you know this one, sing along,” Woods said, as a cover of Destiny’s Child swirled suspicions about cheating into a song demanding respect. The tune of “Say My Name” crept into “In My Name” as a bass line, tying the two songs together even after Woods was well into scolding those too lazy to properly pronounce her name.

On “LSD,” bassist Erik Hunter held one hand against the strings of his guitar, muting them as he tapped them with the other to replicate the drum sounds that pulse throughout the song: boom bap bap bi-bap. And somehow, though the recorded version contains a verse by Chance the Rapper, it didn’t feel like anything was missing in the stripped-back one.

The minimal setup meant Woods was limited in her ability to build layers, but she adapted well: “Bubbles” shed its fizzes and pops and transformed into a slow (anti)ballad of sorts. “Holy” had support from the crowd, who chimed in. “Woke up today with my mind set on loving me,” we sang, as if the words were wrapping themselves into a comforting hug. To Woods’s surprise, the song ended with a standing ovation, leaving her bashful. “Oh! I’m not done yet!” she exclaimed.

It was fitting that the show was on the first day of February—there couldn’t have been a better start to Black History Month. (Though clearly, a Jamila Woods performance doesn’t require a designated observance to feel like a celebration of blackness.) And while the set list spanned a number of complicated emotions and experiences, the overall feeling of the night could have been captured with a single track off of HEAVN: “Popsicle”—an interlude in the Jagjaguwar record label re-release but the ending of “VRY BLK” on her original mixtape. In the spoken word snippet a woman describes one of her favorite things about blackness:

One day these random girls are at my office, and one girl’s like, y’all remember how to play Rockin’ Robin? And we all broke out into formation, and we were like “Popsicle, popsicle, a bang-bang me we was rockin’ in the treetop…” And it was so great, it was like, these Black women that I did not know, had met that day, and we like all knew how to play Popsicle together. And then like all of the people who weren’t Black were just looking at us like… “Did y’all go to elementary school together?” It was literally like the best inside secret that I felt like I had ever had. That’s one of my favorite things about blackness.

Much of the audience at the Fraser that night were already in on that secret, but for a few hours, Jamila Woods opened her kingdom’s doors and humbled the rest of us with a scene of strength and solidarity. 

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