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African American Singer Visits Africa, Returns Renewed

  • Adam Phillips

In a world that often insists on neat entertainment genres, some singer-songwriters will not be boxed in.

Meet Somi, a singer-songwriter born in the Midwestern U.S. to African parents. She is both Harlem jazz singer and Afro-pop diva, and when Somi plays at hip New York venues like Joe’s Pub, it’s joyfully clear that her music has living roots in both worlds.

Somi lives in Harlem, home to one of America’s largest African Diaspora communities and a rich heritage of jazz and African American arts. “I love the fact that I can walk down the street and consider the fact that Billie Holiday was present on these streets, that Duke Ellington was present on these streets,” she said.

In her home just blocks from the famed Apollo Theater, the 34-year-old singer insists that Harlem’s greatness also is about “now.” "It’s about remembering the people who were here but also figuring out how to carve out your own voice.“

Although Somi was born in the U.S., she spent part of her childhood in Zambia, did a post-college stint in East Africa and later toured the African continent with her band. But relatively early in her singing career, she felt somewhat misunderstood on both sides of the Atlantic. “I felt like people wanted me to be an ‘African artist’ or a ‘jazz artist’ or a ‘this artist’ or a ‘that artist," she said. “And I felt like I am really actually all of those things…."

Adventures in the Motherland

Her life changed in 2011 when she was offered a teaching fellowship in Lagos, Nigeria, a city packed with about 20 million people. “… And I got there and the energy was difficult, was challenging, was inspiring, was hard, but beautiful," she recalled, with a sigh. “It was tragic, but magic.”

Somi kept a journal of her impressions and musical ideas inspired by Nigeria's huge cultural and financial capital, and she made sound recordings of her daily life.

Her song “Ginger Me Slowly,” featured on her upcoming CD “The Lagos Music Salon" dates from that time. In Nigerian slang, "to ginger” someone means to “spice them up, to make them happy.”

“I love the colorful language and the play of pidgin [mixed language] in Nigeria and in African culture in general,” she said with a laugh. “It was just meant to be playful and to illustrate the sweetness in the conversation.”

Politics Plays its Part

Somi’s adventure coincided with “Occupy Nigeria,” a highly visible grassroots movement fueled by anger over the government’s cutting of fuel subsidies. A friend’s housekeeper told her she could no longer afford to visit her family in the countryside on her $2-a-day wage, which she says is the Nigerian average.

“She was a widow, she had kids to feed, she had to figure out how she was going to get from the mainland to the island and continue this job, and she was devastated.” The encounter inspired Somi to write a song called “Two Dollar Day.”

Some other new songs also explore difficult, even painful themes - like genocide, sex work, female circumcision and body image. “But I also talk about the beauty and I also talk about the music and what might inspire me and the people around me,“ she adds.

Somi says her time in Lagos feels like a dream to her now. It's a feeling she and her audience might never have known had she not searched out the heart of her Africa and then returned to her Harlem home, deepened and renewed.