By Sara Fullerton
If you’ve been wanting to escape to a concert but are lacking funds, transport or time to make it happen, National Public Radio’s (NPR) “Tiny Desk Concerts” supply a next-best experience.
The concept for “Tiny Desk” came one night about 10 years ago when NPR “All Songs Considered” host Bob Boilen lamented his inability to hear the music at a bar show over all the other noises competing in the small venue. His friend commented that he wished the singer could just play at Boilen’s desk, and clearly this idea ended up making a lot of sense to others at NPR too.
New “Tiny Desk Concerts” are released every two or three days, and feature a variety of artists invited by the NPR staff.
In the last four years, “Tiny Desk” has also developed a competition where anyone in the nation can submit a video of themselves performing original music behind a desk. One winner is selected each year by judges such as NPR’s “All Songs Considered” staff, and musicians like Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.
A recent release of NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concerts” featured Jamila Woods as an independent artist, although she is better known for her collaborations on such tracks as Chance the Rapper’s “Blessings,” or Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “White Privilege II.” “Blessings” was the last song on Chance’s album “Coloring Book,” and Woods sung the final lines of “White Privilege II.” Hearing her voice for just a moment, it’s abundantly clear why Woods was given the last word on both of these collaborative occasions.
Woods delivers powerful lyrics in a bell-like voice with a groove that suggests the intersection of experimental jazz with rhythm and blues. Her vocals blend strength with tenderness, and passion with the laidback attitude that she’s not trying too hard to impress you.
Woods and the band accompanying her create a sound that feels collected and spacious. Woods carries brave messages about the daily injustices people of color face, but does so at the tempered pace of the driving drum beat, and at the leisure of electric guitar interludes.
A second voice weaves in to harmonize and echo hers in some lines. To Woods’ declaration, “Look at what they did to my sister,” a second voice answers, “last century, last week.”
Both strong and understated, the musical accompaniment creates a circularity that allows the lyrics to build as the refrain stays steady, and makes room for scatting and improv. The music moves through all the performers’ bodies with cool ease.
Behind the tiny desk, Woods conjures a collective of powerful black women through her lyrics, shouting out Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis and Sojourner Truth. The second song in Woods’ set was inspired by Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Ego Tripping.”
Woods refuses to let the truth’s brutality sharpen her tone or steal the delicate beauty of her music. She wants those who hear her music to experience catharsis — to “Continue into their day or into their path with renewed energy and a renewed sense of self,” as she shared in an interview with NPR. “Through this writing, that’s what I hope to manifest in myself.”
She creates music that both embodies and speaks self love. Her song “Holy” alludes to scripture to deliver these messages. Lyrics like, “Though I walk through the darkest valley I will fear no love,” rather than “evil,” and, “Woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me,” rather than “you,” disrupt your expectation of what is to come, substituting unexpected turns towards self affirmation.
She’s interested in speaking truths, and then focusing on progress. Born and raised in Chicago, she conceptualizes “staying as an act of resistance.” She won’t let it be reduced to the space that is “talked down upon in the media.” Confronting all the forms of “violence enacted on [her] community,” Woods asks, “How can love be made possible in that environment?” and her concept of love encompasses self love and “love of where you come from.”