Singer and poet Jamila Woods performing in New Orleans on June 8, 2019. Photo by Emily Carmichael

Jamila Woods’s first performance in New Orleans leaves us ready for more

“Come sit with me on my couch,” Jamila Woods’s performance said in everything but words. She sings like red wine with your best friend, where you feel comfortable to close your eyes, crack your neck and divulge truths.

Woods performed in front of a sold-out crowd Saturday night, June 8, at Gasa Gasa, a crowd who loved her. The audience screams of “We love you!” started as soon as she stepped on stage, feeling almost conversational in the small, intimate space. Woods, easy and content, seemed unfazed by the adoration and jumped right into “BETTY,” singing, “I am not your typical girl. Throw away that picture in your head.”

You might know Woods for her silky vocals on Donnie Trumpet and Social Experiment’s “Sunday Candy” with Chance the Rapper. Woods has released two albums, HEAVN and, recently, LEGACY LEGACY! which the New York Times described as “pointed, twisty, at times gut-punchingly potent.”

With her poet’s sensibilities, the gut punch feels good. Woods, a published poet and the Associate Artistic Director for Young Chicago Authors, delivers her societal critiques and bare-faced vulnerability with an even cadence. The word people use for this is “smooth,” but it feels inadequate here, betraying the sliding depth in her tone and the sharpened gravity of her lyrics.

Live, this smoothness can occasionally lull into monotony, but no one goes to see Woods expecting to hear New Orleans bounce. People go to see a woman who makes bike shorts, a cropped jacket and a Kufi-style hat look cooler than they ever did in high school while singing songs that are poetry. On that front, she delivered.

Some of her lyrics convey an anger that recruits you, makes you want to be in it. This can be considered the perennial goal of an artist, to use the beauty in honest critiques to congregate others, inspire us to see life from a different tilt.

Take her song “BASQUIAT.” It has a call and response, “(Are you mad?) Yes, I’m mad (What make you mad?) I can’t recall. I plead the fifth, writing’s on the wall,” that has you pledging yourself to her ideas before you know what’s happening.

Each song on Woods’s latest album is named and dedicated to one of her heroes. The homage, though, is not always obvious to those not steeped in cultural history. She did take pause during her performance to explain a few of her songs. “FRIDA,” she said, is based on Frida Kahlo’s eccentric living arrangement with her husband: they lived in two separate houses connected by a bridge.

Her lyrics then, announce, “I like you better when you see me less. I like me better when I’m not so stressed…I’m not scared of lovin’ ya. Multiply my sides, I need a lot of area.”

Songs like “FRIDA” and “Lonely” strike a different tone, one that does not parse words with softer emotions but expresses them in earnestly and matter-of-factly. Her body of work is so persuasive because moments like this make you trust her.

This was Woods’ first time performing in New Orleans. “In this city, people listen with their bodies,” she remarked at the end of her performance. It’s true, the crowd was swaying as long as Woods was singing. For a set that started at 11:15 p.m. and ended well past midnight, on the same day as Pride, this is at least in part a testament to Woods.

Woods dedicated her last song, “VRY BLACK,” to black woman, and sang it with a raised fist.