On the opening track of Jamila Woods' "Legacy! Legacy!" (Jagjaguwar), the poet-educator-activist picks up where she left off on her extraordinary 2016 debut album.
"Great greats come down," she sings, "they whisper to me quiet, 'I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive.'"
It's an echo of "HEAVN" (Closed Sessions), which three years ago established Woods as a deceptively gentle voice of resistance, an artist who embodied her community's outcasts – women of color, in particular – and gave them a voice, a soundtrack.
Amid the pastel colors and insinuating melodies, she was no pushover: "They want us in the kitchen / Kill our sons with lynchings / We get loud about it / Oh, now we're the b–––?"
The follow-up reaffirms its predecessor's refusal to be boxed in politically, socially and musically. From its exclamatory title on down, the album plays like a news bulletin from the past, bringing to life a series of transformative figures in music, art and literature who were oppressed in various ways but refused to knuckle under.
The songs are shout-outs to artists who cut their own path – poet Nikki Giovanni, singer Eartha Kitt, blues legend Muddy Waters, funk rebel Betty Davis, jazz greats Miles Davis and Sun Ra, literary icons James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Octavia Butler, poet Sonia Sanchez, iconoclastic painter Basquiat.
In many cases their art, their individuality was appropriated, exploited, homogenized, stereotyped or diminished by a society that constantly reminded them they were/are second-class citizens because of their ethnicity. Yet these outsider artists all found a way to break through. Their lives were lessons in resilience: "I am not your rib, I am not your Eve," Woods insists on "Giovanni"; "Funny how a title makes them think they own you," she protests in "Sonia"; "I'm tryin' to see eye-to-eye but you look right over me," she growls while channeling Eartha Kitt.
Just like these artists resisted being boxed in, so does Woods' music. These are songs that elude genre – a blend of trip-hop, rap/spoken word, R&B, gospel. There's rock guitar and smudgy electronic underpinnings, ambient atmospherics and head-bobbing grooves. Woods' voice toggles between rapping and singing, as always informed by her command of inflection and tone, honed over years on the Chicago open-mic and poetry slam scenes.
In the end, Woods argues, the giants on whose shoulders she and her generation stand were strong enough to prevail. They were able to be themselves, to express their humanity through their art as an example for those who would follow. As she sings in "Sun Ra": "My wings are greater than walls."