A joyful noise spilled out of a storefront church on a clear Sunday morning in Bed-Stuy. Tambourines jangled, worshipers worshiped, and I thought to myself, What a perfect prelude to an interview with her holiness Jamila Woods!
If you’re not already familiar with the Chicago songstress-poet, then open up whatever you use to listen to music, search “Jamila Woods,” and play her 2017 debut album HEAVN as you read the rest of this profile. Because to read about Jamila’s rich tone and vivid word play is one thing, but to actually hear and feel those gifts? An entirely different story. No, not a story, a testimony — a testimony to us black girls and our supernatural shrinkage (“Bubbles”) and our hand-clapping games and our can’t stop, won’t stop activism (“VRY BLK”) and our radical self-love (“Holy”) and our revolutionary strength (“Blk Girl Soldier”) and our undeniable magic (“Giovanni”). The subject matter resonates, like getting “the nod” from a sister stranger, and yet there’s ample space to tailor each lyric’s intricate narrative to your own life — to just breathe and be seen.
And so during our interview that Sunday, Jamila sat very still in the bedroom of an airy AirBnb apartment, preparing to spin yet another intimate world for her devout fans at AFROPUNK. A bunch of cosmetics cluttered the table to her left and before her crouched celebrity makeup artist Delina Medhin. The two had met on Instagram after Delina responded to Jamila’s call for a woman or non-binary makeup artist of color. “It’s so crazy how that can just work really well,” Jamila told me. “Just putting it out there, what you need.”
But does the universe actually conspire in helping us get what we want? I’m not sure, but if it were to collaborate with someone, I’ve no doubt it’d be this powerful 28-year-old who sprinkled quotable gems throughout our interview with the same ease that she sports a stunning low cut and bold canary lids. Let me back up though, to the moment Delina peeled a damp white sheet mask from Jamila’s smooth brown face, freeing up her mouth to move and our discussion on beauty to begin.
What’s the look for Afropunk today? Do we know yet?
Jamila: Today we’re doing like a pop of color on the eyes…
Delina: The look is going to be very minimal with foundation. We’re not going to put a lot of product on her skin. And because [she’s] going to be so far away from [the cameras], and it’s going to be such a big screen, I really want to make sure she looks contoured. Not in a way where it’s a lot, but just so you can really see definition in her face. It’s more going to be about the pop of color on the eye. We have some yellow that we’re going to use all over the lid. I’m going to layer it with a cream, and then we’re gonna put on powder to set it.
Jamila: The color yellow just always feels like a really fun summer color. And it’s the perfect contrast to the black leather and spandex material I’ll be wearing today. To mix yellow with that, it represents my personalities and incorporates that range in my music, from bubbly sounds to more darker sounds.
You had mentioned that you were looking for a specific kind of makeup artist for Afropunk. Why is that?
Jamila: I just feel like when you’re talented at makeup, you should be able to work with all kinds of skin colors. But that’s just not the case. I just have had really bad experiences, particularly doing photoshoots and they’re like, “Oh we’ll have a makeup person” and then it’s like a white person who doesn’t really get my skin color right. So I just like to make sure that I reach out to a person of color.
I was on Instagram last night and your photo came up. It was the debut of your haircut! Could you talk about the new look?
I’d been thinking about cutting my hair for a little bit. I’d see someone with short hair and be like, “Ooh, I want to do it.” But it had taken me years to get my afro as big as it was. It was my identifying factor, the thing I loved the most. I kind of relied on my hair a lot. But I just felt this inertia like, “No I need to cut it now.” Cutting it off was almost like asking, “What else can I love? What else can be my favorite thing?” So yeah, it feels nice. I didn’t realize how warm my afro was keeping me though. I was like, “Oh, my head is so cold!”
Where did you get it cut?
I go to this salon called Amazon Natural Look Academy. It’s a natural hair school and a salon. There’s this barber there named Kojo. He’s really cool. He used to cut Common’s hair apparently.
I feel like hair has played a major role in a lot of your work…
Yeah, I’m really inspired by black hair in general. It’s just a great metaphor for so many things. For a while I’ve been writing poems that are all inspired by black hair, and I think it just bleeds into my lyrics naturally. It just shows up, like in the song “Bubbles,” [which is about] this time I hadn’t really been taking care of my hair and hadn’t combed it out in a really long time and so there was shrinkage. When I finally combed it out it had grown like double the length, way longer than I had expected. To me it was a metaphor for how you can’t see your growth if you’re scrunching yourself and not actually looking at yourself for however long. It was just a moment where I was like, “Oh I actually am making progress. I actually am growing, I just haven’t been looking at myself to see it.”
How do you prioritize your physical appearance as an artist and as a black woman in the music industry?
Yeahhh…(Laughs) I think a lot of times women, especially women of color and women in positions of power or visibility, feel this pressure to just always be on and always be presenting a certain way. That’s why I liked seeing Jessie Reyez yesterday [at AFROPUNK Day 1], she was like, “I’m in a white T-shirt, I don’t care how my hair looks, y’all gon’ get this message.” I really feel that.
I think I had to, at some point, make it an internal process, and not pressure myself to always look good leaving the house. But I do love the process of learning how to make my hair look good and how to take care of it. Doing a wash and twist-out would take me like two hours and that’s two hours of self-care time that I wouldn’t have spent otherwise. So I kind of treat it as a sign that I am dedicating time to myself, as opposed to being like, “Oh, I’m going to look bad if I don’t do this.” Because there have definitely been times where I didn’t have two hours and I had to just be like, “Okay, I’m gonna have to spray some water and pull it a little bit.”
I remember Princess Nokia was on tour and I was going to her concert. She was like, “Oh, why don’t you come out and we’ll sing Blink 182 together?” I was like, “I would have done a twist-out if I knew I was gonna go on stage!” But I just ended up just doing that water-and-pull situation and it was cool. I don’t like having to feel like I need to do something. I challenge that feeling when it comes up in me, because it does come up a lot. I can only do so much though because I also work at Young Chicago Authors, the non-profit where I grew up writing poetry, and I am just always really busy. So I’m just trying to not be to hard on myself or beat myself up over things.
Who are some of your style and beauty icons?
I just saw the Betty Davis documentary, have you? It’s hard to see. I don’t know how many times it’s been screened, but I love her. I love Betty Davis. I remember when I first learned about her — I was reading the Miles Davis biography — and just learned how her relationship with him helped him evolve and change his whole style. Then, I looked at a picture of her and was just like, “Wow!” She’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen. Just a huge afro and her amazing body suits.
The thing about her is she was making music in the 70’s and influenced so many people who are icons now. She influenced Prince and I think Madonna, every type of music. Just thinking about Beyonce’s body suit, I feel like Betty’s body suits were the precursor to those. I just love that. Betty called herself an introvert, but then would have this transformation on stage. People would say, “Oh, you’re one Betty off stage and you’re one Betty on stage.” And she’s like, “No, there’s one Betty and I just have multitudes.” That’s really inspiring to me.
There’s no doubt that Chicago influences your sound. How does your hometown inspire your sense of style and beauty?
Chicago is amazing. There are a lot of genres of art in Chicago and a lot of people just have kind of a DIY attitude towards things. There’s not really an industry for fashion or for music, like we don’t have a structure, so we’re just making our own sort of thing. It’s a lot of collaborative energy. So I love discovering what local designers are making.
My band is going to be wearing shirts by an artist named Des. I love his work because it incorporates a lot of Chicago pride, but he also just went to Ghana where he’s from and did a whole line kind of mixing the two styles of Chicago and Ghana. And he has a shirt that says, “Chicago Girls Do It Better.” I love it. I just really like getting inspired by what I see people around me making. We try to wear a lot of Chicago designers all the time.
So who are some Chicago beauty and style influencers and creators that you’re loving right now?
I love the Eugene Taylor brand. The designer’s name is Tesha [Renee] and her new line is unisex and just really colorful and unique. She made me this custom piece that I wore on tour a lot. She also does these really cool sort of underboob cut-out shirts with super long sleeves. Every time I wear it, people are like, “Where’d you get that from?” I really like her and the way her mind works.
I don’t have very long nails, but there’s this nail artist named Spifster, who I’ve always wanted to work with. Her nail art is so cool, because she can take inspiration. If I told her I really love Betty Davis, she’d probably create something that looked like her outfit looks like on my nails. We keep missing each other, but it’s going to come together at the right moment.
There’s this store called Koko Rokoko, and it’s kind of like a vintage store. They have a lot of stuff that’s pretty affordable and they have amazing denim.
There’s designer Chelsey Carter of Alex Carter. She’s doing a series called Hues where she makes mini collections out of different colors. She started with black, which I wear a lot of, so I’m really excited about the rest of the series.
Then there’s Fat Tiger Works, Jugrnaut, and Leaders 1354, which are sort of like hip hop gear shops. There’s a lot of businesses that are doing really well in Chicago, so I like to see what I can create on stage, like what’s the whole band wearing? Often I’ll get t-shirts or something from there to just give [my show] a Chicago feeling. Like, “Chicago Til The World Blow Up” was on one [shirt]. Juggernaut had a shirt that says, “Chicago Everywhere”. Just a lot of Chicago pride is what I like to incorporate.
Makeup by Delina Medhin:
IMAN Cosmetics Luxury Concealing Foundation, Tom Ford Shade & Illuminate Contour Cream, Ardell Demi Wispies Lashes, Essence Cosmetics Lash Princess False Lash Effect Mascara, Danessa Myricks ColorFix in “Primary Yellow” and Waterproof Cream Primary Palette, Cozzette Matte Eyeshadow in “Sun Up”, Anastasia Beverly Hills Brow Powder in “Ebony Duo”, Anastasia Beverly Hills Brow Wiz Pencil in “Medium Brown”, Laura Mercier Translucent Loose Setting Powder, and Mented Cosmetics Lipgloss in “Mauve Over”.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BONUS: Watch Jamila get glam for her Afropunk debut!