When soul singer Jamila Woods sat down to write the treatment for her latest music video, she says she couldn’t shake the image of braids rising from her head and floating in the air. With that first potent visual as a seed, she worked with Chicago production company VAM and director Sam Bailey (VAM’s digital art director) to create the video for “Holy.” The song appears on her 2016 debut album, Heavn, which was just rereleased in digital and physical formats by Jagjaguwar and Closed Sessions.
The video takes its cues from the gospel inspiration that’s clearly audible in Woods’s ode to self-care and self-love: it uses the African-American church and praise dancing as visual metaphors for recognizing the holiness and worthiness of one’s self.
The opening scene focuses on Woods’s face as she reclines in the tub. As the camera pulls back, her long braids begin to levitate, so that what might have looked like a routine bath feels more like a sacred ritual. Shani Crowe, the Chicago-based artist who created the crystal-laced halo of braids Solange wore on Saturday Night Live last November, created the superlong braids for Woods’s video too. VAM cofounder and art director Jordan Phelps fashioned a lightweight pulley contraption, and the crew tied it to each of Woods’s plaited tresses with clear fishing line to create the surreal sequence.
The scene is a symbol of strength, Bailey says: “Strength in her braids, strength in her hair, and strength in our bodies and our lives.”
Woods and Bailey, both Chicago natives, are not just collaborators but also friends. They met during the production of the hugely popular Web series Brown Girls—Bailey directed it, and Woods served as music supervisor. Shot in Chicago, the series was written by Woods’s best friend, Fatimah Asghar, and based in part on their relationship. Woods asked Bailey to direct the video for “Holy” after they worked together on Bailey’s first such job: the video for Daryn Alexus’s “I Ain’t Got It,” also a VAM production, where Woods costarred. Both women’s careers have blown up over the past year, thanks to the success of Heavn and Brown Girls, and Bailey recently moved to LA—but she says there was never a question of whether the video for “Holy” would be shot anywhere but Chicago or involve anyone other than Chicago creatives and artists.
The first time Bailey heard “Holy,” she was in a bathtub herself. Woods’s gentle insistence in the chorus—”I’m not lonely, I’m alone / And I’m holy by my own”—moved her so deeply that she cried.
Her intent in the video was to show what Woods sings: “Love in and of itself is a very radical thing,” Bailey says. “And self-love, specifically with black women, is radical and we don’t talk about it enough.” She wanted to push the subject out into the open. “It’s about loving yourself first and foremost, and that’s not something we’re taught as women to do—especially as black women to do.”
Chicago burlesque performer Jenn Freeman, stage name Po’Chop, took Bailey’s invitation to be part of the video as a huge validation: “It felt like a confirmation in where I’m headed in my art, that I’m exactly where I need to be.” She says her work reimagines traditional burlesque performance as “centering on and edifying black bodies.”
Freeman also loved working with a cast and crew made up largely of people of color. “It makes me feel like my art is valued and in good hands, and I can trust the crew,” she says. “I can relax and allow myself to be vulnerable and go to places I wouldn’t necessarily allow myself to go.”
Woods says that’s what “Holy” and its video are about: the freedom to be yourself, to accept where you are, and to unshackle yourself from anything or anyone telling you you’re not good enough or worthy enough, whether it’s outside oppression or your own insecurities.
The video premiered three days after a Texas police officer shot and killed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, an unarmed black teen who was driving away from police, and two days before the the U.S. House of Representatives voted to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which threatens access to healthcare for millions, particularly women and trans people. Piled atop enormities such as these are the myriad daily microaggressions suffered by “black women, black people, queer people,” Woods says. “It does take a heavy toll on me, on people. I do think taking time to build yourself up and to just care for yourself is a radical act.”
Bailey agrees—it’s not just radical but necessary. “You’re not going to be able to love anyone else or receive love if we’re not learning to love ourselves,” she says.
The video’s images of church and praise dancing reinforce its message—that we’re holy beings, no matter how the rest of the world devalues us. But how do you worship when the deity is yourself?
It’s a question Woods says she continues to ask herself. The answer she gives now goes back to that first scene in the bathtub, with her braids lifting like a halo around her, and to the video’s homage to the praise dancing she saw in church growing up.
“The braids lifting and the image of that freeing dance is what I want to do with all of my insecurities and worries and standards and expectations of myself,” Woods says. “To allow myself a moment of life without having those things weigh on me, to preserve myself and allow myself to go through the day a little stronger and more centered.”