The album art for Jamila Woods's Heavn

Earlier this week, extraordinary Chicago soul singer Jamila Woods released her debut solo full-length, Heavn, through local hip-hop label Closed Sessions. On the sedate “Lonely Lonely,” the 26-year-old (who’s also a poet, teacher, and artist) takes pride in fighting through darkness and despair: “I put a sun in my lamp / I put a Post-it Note on my mirror / So I might love myself / So I might be enough today.” While society offers lots of spurious quick fixes, Woods sees the value in sadness. To her it’s an important part of life, and it helps her understand who she is. “Don’t take from me my quiet / Don’t take from me my tears,” she sings. To intrude upon or attempt to invalidate someone else’s sorrow is to undermine their independence.

On Heavn Woods spreads the gospel of what she calls “black girl magic,” and its message of self-care and self-love is of the utmost importance. It’s especially welcome to have a healing elixir like this album after the events of the past week: the fatal shootings by police of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the redoubled conservative pushback against Black Lives Matter after the killing of five Dallas officers at an otherwise peaceful rally, and here in Chicago, the arrest of 20-year-old activist Ja’Mal Green, whose $350,000 bail is widely viewed as an attempt to intimidate other protesters into silence. It takes a lot of inner strength to hope for a better future when it looks so much like things are getting worse.

Thank goodness for Woods. She spends her days creating safe spaces for young people of color as the associate artistic director of Young Chicago Authors, and she infuses Heavn with the same sort of irrepressible positivity she brings to that work. Woods recently told the Fader that Heavn is “about black girlhood, about Chicago, about the people we miss who have gone on to prepare a place for us somewhere else, about the city/world we aspire to live in.” The album is inspired by her personal experience, but its music and message are for all of us—while not everyone knows what it’s like to live as a young black woman in America, we can all do our part to make life here better, especially for those who’ve been historically oppressed.

On the album’s latest single, “LSD,” Woods sings, “You gotta love me, better love the lake / You wanna love me, better love the lake.” She sees herself in Chicago, and she loves the city despite its imperfections—she knows the things that make it wonderful, not just the ugly parts that outsiders like to sensationalize. (Chance the Rapper sharpens that point with his guest verse: “This here ain’t for no Vice doc / This here ain’t for no Spike opp.”) Woods knows that when the world seems to reject every aspect of your being, when you’re barraged with the message that the color of your skin means your life is barely worth saving, one vital way to fight back is to love yourself.
Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.