Jamila Woods had been reading Miles Davis’ autobiography in college as an assignment for a course on the jazz legend when she first heard of funk and soul singer Betty Davis, her pick for Rolling Stone‘s Icons & Influences series.
Woods got to the page where the trumpeter describes first meeting Betty — whom he divorced after just one year of marriage — and how she had influenced his fashion and art. That led Woods to put the book down and Google Betty Davis, and that’s how she first discovered her music.
“I loved just looking at her pictures,” the singer recalls. “I had recently cut off my perm around that time, so I was just very inspired by her imagery and also her music. And then from then on, I was just kind of obsessively trying to find whatever I could because, at that time, there weren’t very many interviews, so I was listening and reading whatever I could find.
Woods was also very much inspired by the level of confidence Davis had as a black woman in the music industry during the Seventies. “That was probably one of the most inspiring parts about her story that I really latched onto over the process of creating my last project,” Woods says. “I think I was thinking a lot about the balance of feminine/masculine energy in myself. And how I think the way that I naturally am, being in the industry I am, it asks me to step outside of that a lot, and I was trying to navigate that.”
Woods was midway through creating her last album, Legacy! Legacy!, when she first saw the documentary on Betty Davis, Betty – They Say I’m Different. She had gotten to the part of the film that discusses Davis knowing exactly how she wanted her album to sound. “[Betty Davis] had the whole vision,” she says. Woods notes, however, that it wasn’t just Davis’ music, subject matter, and image being ahead of its time that she found inspiring. “It was also that… [Davis] would talk aggressively and [she knew] what [she wanted] and men don’t like that. They like for women to be submissive,” Woods explains. “Just the way that she wouldn’t compromise on that was really, really inspiring to me.”
The Chicago-based artist also touches on the level of influence that Betty Davis had on Miles Davis, noting that it was Betty who first introduced him to Jimi Hendrix. “It kind of changed his trajectory to go toward the more psychedelic rock area,” Woods notes, referring to Miles crediting Betty in his autobiography with helping him lay the foundation for his future musical explorations.
Woods also credits Betty Davis with helping her grasp the power of vocals in music. “[I remember] instantly being struck by just the sonic quality of her voice,” she says, also referring to the emotiveness of Davis’ singing. “It’s like she makes me want to listen to what she’s saying. And I don’t think I understood the power of just that for a long time, and she really helped me internalize that.”
As for what she hopes people will learn and gain from discovering Betty Davis and her music, Woods says, “I hope [they] can gain those lessons about the commitment to your authentic self and to protecting the parts of yourself that are just for you, and understanding that you’re allowed to have boundaries and respect for humanity as an artist and also as a person in general.”