Thursday, July 25th, 2019

Jamila Woods – BALDWIN

Her legacy is secure on our sidebar, but she clearly has more lofty ambitions…


[Video]
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Alfred Soto: Absorbing James Baldwin’s incantatory power into musical history that encompasses soul horns and a unforced communitarian spirit, Jamila Woods remains skeptical of his legacy anyway. She understands how an influence is a menace too. 
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Nellie Gayle: How do you live a legacy, honor a history, that’s equally heartbreaking and triumphant? Jamila Woods brings brightness and joy to her reflections on African American history in the United States, without ignoring the trauma implicit in its story. “Your crown has been bought and paid for. All you have to do is put in on your head” the video quotes from Baldwin. Much like the author she named the track after, Woods will not gloss over the daily suffering and indignities of white supremacy in the US. But also like Baldwin, she’s an optimist who derives happiness and hardwon joy from a history of resistance. So long as there is a vibrant culture and community whose stories deserve to be celebrated (not just told), Woods will literally sing its praises with melodies reminiscent of Bill Withers – upbeat, sunny, and heartfelt. Another Baldwin quote for Woods, one that deserves to be framed & hung up on bedroom walls in times like these: “To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.”
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Nortey Dowuona: A warm, dreamlike roll of piano chords swirl with the wind as a loping bass limps alongside dribbling drums as warm bursts of horns drift past Jamila, who gently stirs the cauldron, which bubbles warmly as the kids gather around in cautious excitement.
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Kylo Nocom: “BALDWIN” is a perfect explanation of how the idea of (argh!) optimistic and loving resistance can (often justifiably) feel like a pointless endeavour, especially when applied to the struggles of black Americans. Poetic descriptions of gentrification, police brutality, and non-black inaction are painfully outlined, betraying a central exhaustion that lies in Jamila’s doubts of her friends’ and icons’ messages of hope. Jamila’s croon also reads as tired, perhaps unintentionally, but with the help of some tasteful vocal accompaniment the sincerity beneath her uneasiness is allowed to flourish. Despite the underlying hesitance, “BALDWIN” is ultimately inspired by a real desire to see love as a means towards building community. As for Nico Segal, it seems he was just invited to aim at my weakness towards percussive horn blasts, punctuating the lines that seem to resonate the most powerfully: “we don’t go out, can’t wish us away.”
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Joshua Lu: Utterly sublime and warm, like the aural equivalent of a hazy summertime sunset, which is startling for a song with this subject matter. “BALDWIN” touches on the different ways racism manifests, bringing up not just images of black fathers dead on the streets and white women clutching their purses, but also referencing the “casual violence” in white speech and white silence. It’s subtly damning, and Jamila sounds too weary to accept the solution she’s been offered, to extend love to the people who will never reciprocate it. The song ends uncertainly, hanging on a cryptic line and an unsatisfying melody, as if daring the listener to provide their own resolution.
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Joshua Copperman: “BALDWIN” struggles with its namesake’s theory that “you must accept them with love” – ‘them’ referring to white people – “for these innocent people have no other hope.” How is love even possible, even in Woods’ definition of love, with the aggressions both macro (police brutality) and micro (purse-clutching) addressed in the lyrics? Obviously, there aren’t easy answers, but Woods’ educated guess on surviving is not just resilience, but community. That chorus starts with “all my friends” for a reason. It’s not quite as anarchic as “You can tell your deity I’m alright/Wake up in the bed, call me Jesus Christ,” but it’s the same eventual conclusion. Instead of defying religion, Woods defies the expectation of being respectable. That’s the interesting thing about this beat too, from Slot-A, mixing more traditional R&B instrumentation like Rhodes piano and canned synth pads with trap snares and horn stabs. He takes advantage of Woods’ thin voice, not only contrasting it with those heavier textures but also giving it space to breathe. Another hook of this song – there are several – is “You don’t know a thing about our story/you tell it wrong all the time,” suggesting that if love alone won’t overcome, telling your own tale will be more than sufficient.
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Will Adams: So many (usually white) musicians handle the topic of racism as deftly as if it were a hot potato slathered in grease. Jamila Woods cuts to the core in a single verse, addressing police brutality, gentrification and purse-clutching casual racism. The arc of the song is balancing that anger with weariness of those who preach civility in the face of hate. If that all sounds a bit too down, Nico Segal’s punctuation in the form of bright horn stabs are there to keep the message alive and resonant.
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Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Not the most transcendent piece on LEGACY! LEGACY! (see “BASQUIAT”), but a close competitor. The jazzy production sets the groove well,  and the stabs of Nico Segal’s horns and Gospel-adjacent choirs fill the space beautifully. But it’s Jamila herself who takes “Baldwin” from something pleasant to something glorious. She bridges romance, protest, and memory like no one else can, melding them with her sweet, pointed voice into the album’s best demonstration of its thesis.
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Joshua Minsoo Kim: “BALDWIN” is a song that finds Jamila Woods detailing the outright, inescapable racism that occurs against Blacks every day. In referencing James Baldwin, she makes clear how such fear and hatred-fueled actions have persisted to the present day. But what makes this so fascinating a song is that Woods muddies the waters; she spends a bit of time wrestling with the positivity that Baldwin espoused throughout his lifetime, finding herself conflicted by the effectiveness of such praxis. In a way, listening to this feels like a legitimate Sermon on the Mount moment, where “lov[ing] your enemy and pray[ing] for those who persecute you” comes as a shocking command instead of a spoonfed Sunday School lesson. Miraculously, “BALDWIN” doesn’t end up feeling knotty and tense, but overwhelmingly triumphant. You can sense it in the gospel choir and Nico Segal’s horns, but it’s Woods’s own silk-smooth vocals and circuitous melodies that announce her impossible serenity. Has she found truth in such ostensible cognitive dissonance, or is she too elated to be bothered by this disagreement? That internal struggle finds no conclusion here, but Woods transcends it all by being an inspiration herself. She embodies something that Baldwin had written to his nephew in 1962–a specific instruction that feels ever necessary today: “You don’t be afraid.
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Iris Xie: With such a clear, gentle series of asks here, you would have to have an adherence to bigotry, or at least avoiding the discomfort of examining your own internalized anti-Black biases, in order to avoid considering what Woods is saying here. I think about this a lot as a queer Asian American, what my responsibility is to the project of helping not contribute and help demolish the project of anti-Blackness as enacted by white supremacist institutions and those who are complicit and facilitate them, especially when I see the amount of pain in both the news and what my friends experience. The line of “All my friends / Been readin’ the books / readin’ the books you ain’t read” cuts deep for me especially, because I have an Bachelor’s degree in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, which is an enormous amount of privilege in itself to receive and is due to countless activist histories that made that possible. It also made me think of the sheer amount of books about queer Black feminism that I genuinely feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding, but am always in awe of the brilliance exuding forth. All of it is already written here for anyone to read, with new scholarship and articles and media produced all the time to help digest and made accessible for the rest of us.  The loveliness of this song is that in its quiet neo-soul tempos, with the subtle snares, synths, and horns, results in a vibe she is secure in itself and asks the listener to move towards Woods. Black activists have put together the work and articulated these for decades, for any of us to read. The least we can do is listen and pay attention, as a complete bare minimum.
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