Even before Jamila Woods stepped on stage, you could tell it was going to be an incredible night. At first, the Risley dining hall seemed too stiff of a venue for a show that celebrated black artists as healers and protesters (after all, the room is modeled after the Christ Church Refractory at Oxford), but openers Paulitics and SadoSan brought energetic and fun tracks that made the somber portrait of A.D. White peering over their shoulders appear ridiculously irrelevant.
Paulitics — Cornell’s own Paul Russell ’19 — blended hip hop and indie rhythms for the perfect intersection of jumping and chill. Dancing without restrain across the stage, Paulitics basked in the fun absurdity of his songs and got the crowd moving. From “college is exploration with ecstasy in between” on his opening song “Hotels” to “I’m falling sideways / I guess that’s all I ever do” on the aptly-titled “Youth,” his lyrics embrace and surrender to the emotional precarity of young-adult lives. Paul, who is also an opinion columnist for The Sun, set a light-hearted tone that was easy to enjoy and dance to.
SadoSan followed with a grittier, more intense sound. A slow drawl of “We are not friends / So you gotta go / I swear you’re doing the most” morphed into a trippy, in-your-face rejection of social pretense. What followed was a set that was both unpretentious and theatrical as he interspersed streams of rap with sips from a red Solo cup. SadoSan was joined by two other members of the hip hop collective 99SUBLIME: Devulio, who engineered a continuous stream of expansive beats, and Jak Lizard, whose brown overalls seemed an incongruous fit for his flawless cover of Missy Elliott. Their performance brimmed with the excitement of three close friends riffing off each other and picked up on the loose happiness from Paulitics’ set.
This fun intimacy set the perfect stage for Jamila Woods and her captivatingly lush music that accomplishes the near-impossible feat of sounding youthful, vulnerable, soulful and defiant all at the same time. It is, as she describes in her own words, protest music that you can “rest and refuel to.” As I waited for her to take stage, I looked around the crowd that was not only much smaller than I expected, but also whiter. Here was an artist whose 2016 album HEAVN forefronts the bitter truth of being black and female in contemporary America and does so with seemingly effortless quality, whose lyrics celebrating black girl magic are so refreshing and much needed in the predominantly white Ithaca music scene. That Fanclub Collective and the Multicultural Funding Advisory Board of ALANA Intercultural Board put together a show of nearly all black artists and that one of those artists was Jamila Woods is incredible. So it was disappointing to see the low turnout — maybe everyone was prepping for Gucci Mane on Sunday? — but perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised given where we live, and at least it didn’t take away from the vibrancy of Jamila Woods’ music.
Dressed in all black, Jamila Woods and her band brought a more restrained yet also more intense set. They added guitar shredding and intense instrumentals that weren’t on the original productions and gave the songs a chaotically spiritual veneer. And though the acoustics in the room weren’t great, Jamila’s voice was undeniably piercing as she opened with “VRY BLK.” She hit the chorus — “I’m very black, black, black / Can’t send me back, back, back / You take my brother, brother, brother / I fight back, back, back, back” — with a sweet defiance that was impossible not to smile and dance to. After “Emerald St.” and “LSD,” Jamila brought back a classic, Destiny Child’s “Say My Name,” that she blended with her own “In My Name.” Throughout it all, Jamila and the band seemed to play with effortless ease.
She then launched into one of the best songs of the night, “Thirst Behavior,” a musical rendition of her poem that turns Drake’s “Worst Behavior” on its head and tears him down for using his sad-boy aesthetic as an excuse to mistreat women. “You hate feeling invisible / Well, I hate feeling edible,” she pointedly sang. “If this poem ain’t about you, it’s about you. If you’re scared it’s about you, it’s about you. If this can’t be about you, it’s about you.”
Throughout her music, Jamila balances her measured, introverted nature with unflinching resistance, and it becomes apparent that her music is free to be what she wants it to be, that she alone chooses what she will or will not say. On “Lonely Lonely,” she crooned, “I could be crazy / But my crazy is my own / My own, my own” and “I don’t wanna wait for our lives to be over / To love myself however I feel.” This is where her music shines: Jamila reminds us that black women should be free to be who they want to be, as complex, as sweet, as angry, as caring, as strong, as vulnerable as they are, and it becomes a damning critique of society that it continually denies them this human complexity that it so eagerly gives to other groups, namely white men. Jamila closed out with “Sunday Candy,” the Chance the Rapper song that brought her to national prominence, and “Blk Girl Soldier.” Her voice filled the room as she sang, “Call it blk girl magic / Yea she scares the gov’ment,” and it crystallized a space of healing and power.
Jamila dedicated her last song to black women, saying, “I hope that this campus is a campus where black girls feel safe.” It was a reminder that her music — despite its wide-reaching appeal and infectious charm — is most importantly for black women. It is for the femmes of color, for the black and brown people in the crowd who cried as Woods put into song what they know intimately, for the people whose self-care and self-love has become a politically radical act in the face of racial oppression.
Sofia Hu is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org