“Down here in the bottom, there ain’t no room for me. I don’t wanna make no babies, I don’t need a man to save me,” begins “SULA (Paperback)”, the latest single from Chicago singer, songwriter, rapper, poet, educator, and activist Jamila Woods, released on August 6 via Jagjaguwar. Those lyrics, “[a] reject[ion of] confining ideas about my identity designed to shrink my spirit,” as noted by Woods in a recent press release, comprise both an affirmation of independence and an assured sense of self — and self-love — that once upon a time, and even by some camps today, would be considered “radical”. “SULA (Paperback)” asserts that if self-love is a most radical act, then it is also a most necessary balm.
In the tradition of her latest studio album, 2019’s LEGACY! LEGACY!, “SULA (Paperback)” pays tribute to one of the artist’s role models, author Toni Morrison, whose 1973 novel Sula “inspired the first chapbook of poems I ever wrote,” Woods notes.
A graduate of St. Ignatius College Prep and Brown University, Woods’ work explores myriad intersections of Black identity, thought, and experience, reflecting her own positionality as a Black woman while simultaneously dismantling the notion that Black womanhood, or Black identity at large, be easily compartmentalized or co-opted — by broader movements, by the white, capital-intensive restraints of mainstream media, or even by time. Here, Woods reckons with a literary work published nearly 50 years ago while reminding us of the relevance of Morrison’s work today, and how Woods’ own experiences dialogue with her creative ancestry.
In a recent press release, Woods points to Morrison’s writing on Sula — that “living totally by the law and surrendering totally to it without questioning anything sometimes makes it impossible to know anything about yourself”. She notes, “Returning to the story several years later… it reminded me to embrace my tenderness, my sensitivities, my ways of being in my body. This song is a mantra to allow myself space to experience my gender, love, intimacy, and sexuality on my own terms.” Woods’ self-embrace is evidenced by her self-assured poeticism, which hears the artist tell us that she is “runnin’ outta time for waiting… [she’s] got all this space to fill / somethin’ only bodies heal”, between choruses that cry out: “I’m better / I’m better / I’m better.”
These distinctly personal affirmations are embellished by the gentle evocation of Justin Canavan’s accompanying guitar. Still, the real power is in Woods’ lyricism, and the identity politics involved in her career. Her acute self-portraiture is confident and all-encompassing, with a focus on Black femininity that never posits Black femininity as a single “thing”, as the end-all-be-all to her art, or as something easily defined or packaged.
In essence, Woods’ identity exists only according to herself — as everyone’s personhood must exist only according to themselves. Like Woods, Morrison’s protagonist Sula Peace is autonomous over her identity and life choices in ways that often diverge from convention. Thus, in “SULA (Paperback)”, one witnesses perhaps the clearest example of how the art and ancestors that came before oneself resonate in spiritual, corporeal, and deeply personal ways. Morrison and her novel are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.
I can’t help but think that “SULA (Paperback)”, then, is perhaps the most radical and essential artwork to emerge in a time of social media platforms (in light of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others) awash with fleeting lists and infographics, icons and images rife with Black films and Black texts and Black artists and Black influencers “to watch”, “to read”, “to follow”. While noble, reducing creators and their works to checkmark boxes on laundry lists (something I have done in the past) scarcely takes the time to sit with the art, and artists, put forth. It also overlooks how creators and their work have impacted individual lives in intimate and personal ways, beyond a mere social or historical implication.
There is the dilemma, too, of for whom these specific lists are created. Racquel Gates writes brilliantly of the dilemmas of “list” activism in the New York Times op-ed “The Problem With Anti-Racist Movie Lists”. Gates’ essay examines the dissemination of Black films for white “enlightenment” via rudimentary bullet-points embedded in those aforementioned infographics, commonly found on Instagram stories and Twitter feeds. The op-ed reads: “The idea that a singular film, or even a collection of films, can serve as a guide to the history of Black oppression is simplistic… Indeed, the very idea that Black film’s greatest purpose is to be an educational primer on race in America is a notion that we need to lay to rest.” Gates’ focus here is on films, though her analysis can be applied to lists concerning books by Black authors that have floated around, too — the works of Toni Morrison often included in them.
In “SULA (Paperback)”, Woods frees Morrison’s bibliography (presented as mere educational tool-meets-literary artifact in those aforementioned lists) from that confinement. In the same way, Woods frees herself from confining ideas about her own identity and artistry. We see a contemporary ode to a literary work by a Black author that does not employ said work to essentialize notions of Blackness nor to teach white communities about race.
As a tribute and a nod to Morrison’s novel, distilled in Woods’ own present experiences of gender expression, intimacy, and identity, “SULA (Paperback)” ultimately liberates the author’s work from being “in service” to another. Morrison’s novel operates as an inspiration to Woods, and its significance in Woods’ own unique personal experience is channeled here through a sonic conduit that transcends relegation to hashtags, infographics, and social media lists. “SULA (Paperback)” sees Woods’ work dialoguing with Morrison’s, and in effect, each body of work (and each artist) inspires, fulfills, propels the other. Thus, in citing Sula as a thematic inspiration for her song, Woods steers Morrison’s novel away from a passive “listed” stasis and renders it compellingly active through her music.
In the age of 120 characters or less — of innovative platforms that nonetheless, by nature, whittle art and literature and communities and experiences and people into fleeting soundbites — “SULA (Paperback)” prevails as an extraordinary and necessary expression of intimacy, human relationships, and self-love. It is, too, a compelling coalescence of past, present, and future art, rooted in Woods’ creative and cultural ancestry, bereft of bounds.