The past year has been a defining one for local poet and singer Jamila Woods. Her debut album, Heavn, dropped in July 2016. She’s toured nationally, and last month she commanded one of the two large stages at the Pitchfork Music Festival, having been bumped up from the side stage after a fortuitous cancellation. Woods’s talent reaches beyond Chicago’s south side, but she remains dedicated to the city that defines her. For her latest video, “LSD,” Woods collaborated with Chicago Public Schools students, Chance the Rapper, and local production company VAM—and the video itself speaks to the joyfulness and resilience of Chicago’s black and brown communities. It premiered at a House of Vans event Monday night, and today it went up online—along with a behind-the-scenes documentary about the partnership that created it.
“It was cool to relinquish control,” Woods says. “I like to always have a lot of control in every single part of everything, and I liked just being able to trust the process that the student would find with VAM.” CPS students had been invited into the process via a contest that Chance announced on Twitter in May, asking them to submit treatments for the “Heavn” video—the winner would see her idea become a full production, and would join a group of other promising applicants shadowing members of the crew on set.
VAM’s existing relationship with youth communities made it easier for Woods to let go of the reins. “They already love integrating young people into their sets,” she says, “and I hope it’s something more people do.”
VAM cofounder Vincent Martell, who codirected “LSD”, worked closely with Woods’s label and Chance the Rapper’s nonprofit organization, SocialWorks, to coordinate the project. “What I love about ‘LSD’ is that it’s a true love story to the city of Chicago,” he says. “It’s kind of a celebration of all of these beautiful neighborhoods and people who usually don’t get the proper acknowledgement.”
The colorful video depicts Woods and Chance celebrating with friends and family at a barbecue. In the intimate backyard gathering we see people playing spades, a clothing swap, and Chance handling the grill. The visuals are a bright, almost psychedelic take on the traditional south-side family affair, a full-on display of the joyful, carefree blackness that’s often ignored in conventional media depictions of the city. Down to its last detail—the intricate box-braid hairstyles, Joe FreshGoods and Vic Lloyd’s don’t be mad T-shirts—”LSD” combines the exhilaration of a Chicago summer with unadulterated hometown pride.
VAM and Woods worked hard to maintain their vision of an inclusive Chicago. “We shot on the south side. We didn’t leave the south side,” Martell says. “It was a way for us to show how beautiful the south side is and to show the natural flyness of the black and brown people who live there.”
Out of hundreds of student submissions, Woods chose a treatment by Prosser Career Academy student Ashley Huicochea. “I wanted the vibe to not just be the things about Chicago that people might always gravitate towards—the Loop or beach spots,” Woods says. “I wanted it to be about the neighborhoods, and how there’s all these pockets of beauty that aren’t typical landmarks. I liked that Ashley’s treatment was rooted in the neighborhood.”
Woods also appreciated the relatability of Huicochea’s treatment. “I work with students at YCA [Young Chicago Authors], and what I really liked about Ashley’s treatment was that it was so personal. She would say things that I thought applied to people broadly in Chicago, but it was still like, ‘I grew up in Humboldt Park, and my family would have carne asada in the backyard.’ She used pictures of her family members to show examples of the shots, and that was really cool. It felt like looking into someone’s actual life in a very specific way. I always love that specificity. It makes it possible for something to feel universal.”
VAM used an aggressive social-media campaign and Woods’s connections through her work as a teaching artist with YCA to reach CPS students directly. “We didn’t go through CPS,” says Martell. “We put out a general call, and the students replied that way. It’s a lot more difficult, but all of the submissions were genuinely heartfelt. These kids really wanted to be a part of it, rather than it being forced through some curriculum. The kids had a lot more fun and freedom with it. They were a bit more edgy than I initially thought. They brought the edge and then some.”
Huicochea knows how important chances like this are for students. “It meant a lot for me to be able to work on this project,” she says. “This opportunity felt like a blessing to me, because I’ve never had the privilege of being able to afford film school or even had the resources to create and learn cool things. The only way I had filmed before was through my phone—I never had big equipment to work with or anything. Having my idea selected and turned into a whole production was like reassurance for me, and was like a green light that told me that maybe I could do this, regardless of having all odds stacked against me—and that maybe my ideas are kind of cool.”
Breakthroughs in the production and film industries are notoriously difficult for women and people of color, but VAM has dedicated its resources to promoting inclusivity—and not just by collaborating with artists such as Woods and Chance the Rapper. VAM digital art director Samantha Bailey, codirector of “LSD,” also directed the webseries Brown Girls, which earned an Emmy nomination last month. Martell sees Bailey’s success as providing a template for Chicago’s youth. “It shows that we do have the power to make things change in large industries,” he says. “What Brown Girls did was a testament to the community. To see it getting that love from Hollywood was amazing. I think to see this Chicago girl take it in her own hands and do this shit is inspiring.”
VAM hopes to inspire other Chicago production companies to offer the same opportunities to students. “It’s not hard,” Martell insists. “We don’t have a lot of money, and we were still able to hire a bunch of the students we worked with for future productions. These kids are really smart and incredibly talented.”
Prosser Career Academy
Treatment winner, director shadow
Simeon Career Academy
Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep
Nicholas Senn High
Lindblom Math and Science Academy
Art direction shadow)
Bulls College Prep
Art direction shadow)