Review: With HEAVN HERE, Jamila Woods Heralds the New Black Renaissance

Jamila Woods performs at HEAVN HERE, part of Red Bull Music Festival, in Chicago, IL on November 30th, 2018. // Shahrnaz Javid

Sing to me of Bronzeville, the Black Metropolis. A Northern tree whose Southern roots, having suckled at the Mississippi, were weaned on Eerie waters. Whose branches bear ice and Christmas lights and strange fruit. Sing to me of autumn leaves fallen in the summertime. Of snare drum fire on the sidewalk, and bucketboys, and footwork. Of flamin’ hots, hiplet dancers, and a Kiwi Mystic. Sing to me the song of police lights, and prosecutors, and slain panthers. Of poets, prophets, profits, and propaganda.

Sing to me of people. Paint me a song.

I first heard the siren song six years ago. It lured me, the St. Louis boy, to Chicago by way of Texas. A personal Great Migration. Last Friday night, at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, Jamila Woods, the Southside singer/songwriter and Pushcart-Prize-winning poet, made Bronzeville sing to me once more.

HEAVN HERE, Woods’ entry in the Red Bull Music Festival, was a presentation of the new Chicago Black Renaissance. A fresh swell of Black Chicagoan artistry marked by just as much beauty and complexity as the first. If not more.

The “About” section of the booklet, handed out before the event, explained that the production “showcases the broad spectrum of incredible art emanating from Chicago, prompting us to imagine and create our own version of heaven in our community.” It was also, “an ode to Black girlhood, a complicated love letter to Chicago, an homage to lost loved ones, and a reclamation of the notion of ‘Heaven.’” At the center of it all, was Woods’ 13-track album, HEAVN, a melodic, haunting, uplifting, and—above all else—intimate journey down Lake Shore Drive, off the deep end, and headfirst into the waters of her world. The album features other prominent Chicago artists. Namely, Noname, Chance, Saba, and Nico Segal (formerly known as Donnie Trumpet).

Like an album, for HEAVN HERE, Woods worked with an incredible cast of Chicagoan collaborators to offer a multimedia performance consisting of poetry, hiplet dancers, footworkers, a kids’ choir, and visuals. It was less “concert” and more “theater.” As Woods sang, donning more than one outfit that brought ’90s Badu to mind, there were usually dancers at her back. At various points, to transition between songs, a lone poet took the stage under a spotlight, and sang a song. Not a literal song, but a poem—the song of their soul. Eve Ewing, author, poet, and writer of the wonderful new Marvel comic Ironheart was one such singer. The same for Tasha—who recently dropped a beautiful album, Alone at Last—Patricia Frazier, E’mon Lauren (Chicago’s first Youth Poet Laureate), and Kara Jackson (the 2018 Chicago Youth Poet Laureate). These are but a few of the many, many names that deserve recognition.

Woods could have decided to leave it there and HEAVN HERE would’ve easily met the mark it set for itself. But she didn’t. Outside the theater was a wall of local Black vendors. The significance of which is that she didn’t just sing about the community, or invite the community to attend the show, she partnered with it. And I think that’s incredibly dope.

Some members of the audience, however, couldn’t—or wouldn’t—quite catch the beat. But then, perhaps, and this may come as a shock, it wasn’t for them. I’m speaking, of course, about certain members of the Southside’s most recent class of residents. Surfers—beneficiaries—of the wave of gentrification threatening to wash over the Black Belt and beyond.

A pair of the abovementioned manifest destiny seekers, sitting beside me at the show, snickered at two moments. Once, during a poetry reading, they scoffed and remarked, annoyed, that they “didn’t understand anything that girl just said.” Strike one. Then, once more, during the footwork performance, they expressed the same sentiments. Saying, with bent arms, and tight lips, that they “didn’t get it.” That alone was one strike too many.

Most everyone at the show Friday night was visibly in awe of the scope and production of HEAVN HERE. he lTobby afterwards buzzed with excitement and adoration. So, I do not mention the pair above to suggest that they represent a majority of those who were in the attendance, or even a sizeable faction—though they were not the only ones. I mention them because their discordance, in the crowd, represents something larger. Something systematic. Something like chiseling off the beautiful, charactered faces of Southside architecture and plastering pale, “modern,” masks over them. Something like rent increases, land grabs, and zoning. Something like erasure and terraforming. Something like moving to a storied community and demanding that it serve you instead of the other way around. Something like the opposite of everything HEAVN HERE, a celebration, was about.

As Jamila said,

“I won’t let you criticize
My city like my skin, its so pretty
If you don’t like it, just leave it alone” – Jamila Woods, “LSD (Lake Shore Drive)”


Arthur Haynes
Arthur Haynes
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