Jamila Woods Takes the Stage for ISG’s Soul Music Series

Most people have unknowingly heard Jamila Woods on some of Chance the Rapper’s hit songs, such as “Blessings” and “Sunday Candy.” The sold-out crowd at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISG), however, was treated to tracks from her own 2017 debut album HEAVN and latest release, LEGACY! LEGACY!. Hailing from Chicago, Woods’ work emphasizes themes of Black ancestry, feminism, and identity.

On Oct. 26, ISG hosted another one of its Thursday Live concerts in the temple-like Calderwood Hall. The theme of this particular session was “Soul Searchin’,” which entailed a mix of R&B and soul vibes and featured the talented singer Jamila Woods and her opener, Dalaun.

A recent Berklee graduate, Dalaun opened with fellow Berklee students on the keys, electric guitar, and drums. Her smooth voice, which sounded somewhat similar to that of the popular R&B singer SZA, complemented the rhythmic drums, especially in one of her two released singles, “Feel the Distance.” Perhaps her most notable track was “Loving Me More,” stripped of all instrumentation save the piano keys, in which she sang about the importance of self-care and mental health. 

Dalaun carried the high notes incredibly well in chanting “As I grow and change / Every day’s a day to love me more,” which echoed through the otherwise silent Calderwood Hall. The most energetic track of her five-song set was the funky “Golden,” in which improvised and wavy guitar solos amped up the crowd, allowing Dalaun to comfortably groove her body to the rhythm. Although she has only two songs on most streaming platforms now, her debut album releases on Nov. 22.

Once Dalaun finished, the ISG Museum Manager of Public Programs, Catherine Morris, welcomed the lively crowd to grab drinks and snacks at the bar downstairs during the brief intermission before Jamila Woods performed. She laughingly encouraged the audience members to imbibe some “liquid courage” to better enjoy the rest of the night.

Woods then entered, greeted by a welcoming applause from the crowd around and above her. She began with the first song from her latest album, LEGACY! LEGACY!, in which each track is named after and inspired by a distinguished person of color. In performing “BETTY,” Woods established the tone for the evening as an evocation of her values for racial diversity, black heritage, and feminism, chanting “These great greats won’t let me lie / midnight eyes wide” and “I am not your typical girl” in catchy melodies and somewhat poetic meter. 

She increasingly grew angrier in her lyrics but still maintained the sultry R&B tones supported by the drums in “BASQUIAT” and “GIOVANNI,” the latter of which saw her sing “A hundred motherf—kers can’t tell me / How I’m supposed to look when I’m angry.”

Throughout the night, Woods often strutted in place with her mouth close to the microphone, embracing the vibes of the background instruments while passionately sharing her lyrics. The band appeared resolute with all of the performers wearing black, but she exhibited subtle and tasteful flair with her puffy shirt.

One of her most poignant songs was “BALDWIN,” in which she emphasized the public misperception of black identity by singing, “You don’t know a thing about our story / Tell it wrong all the time.”

Further in the set, Woods channeled the energy of the room with “EARTHA,” repeating “Who’s gonna share my love for me with me” multiple times and thereby leading the intimate audience to chant and clap in unison. Not all of Woods’ songs were political, however, for she weaved in the romantic yet empowering love songs “Stellar” and “Lonely.”

After a dynamic 12-song set, the audience gave Woods a standing ovation for over three minutes and remained standing impatiently, imploring an encore. Catherine Morris reentered the room and said “There’s always icing on the cake … I’ll just let y’all wait,” reassuring the crowd of one more Woods performance. A few tantalizing moments later, Woods reappeared and sang “LSD,” her most popular hit and arguably her catchiest track of the night. Everyone in the audience was dancing and grooving to the rhythms and Woods’ smooth voice.

Overall, Woods deftly fuses mixed rhythms of featuring jazz, soul, and R&B vibes with serious undertones. Some might say she is the modern version of Lauryn Hill, for she creatively uses her talented, dynamic voice to evoke empowerment and solidarity through her politically-infused lyrics. Watch out for Woods’ future solo works and collaborations, for she is a serious and multi-faceted force to be reckoned with.

Featured Image by Scott Greenhalgh / Heights Contributor