News / Arts & Entertainment

African American Singer Visits Africa, Returns Renewed

African American Singer Visits Africa, Returns Renewedi
X
Adam Phillips
May 07, 2014 10:57 PM
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 something more. VOA’s Adam Phillips reports from New York.
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.

You May Like

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

Physically and culturally close to Western Europe, Lviv feels solidarity with compatriots in country’s east but says they need to decide own future More

West African Women Disproportionately Affected by Ebola

Women's roles in families and the community put them at greater risk for contracting the disease, officials say More

Video NASA's MAVEN Spacecraft Arrives at Mars

Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution craft will measure rates at which gases escape Martian atmosphere into space More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbiti
X
September 22, 2014 9:20 PM
NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbit

NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv prides itself on being both physically and culturally close to Western Europe. The Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country are 1,200 kilometers away, and seemingly even farther away in their world view. Still, as VOA’s Al Pessin reports, the war is having an impact in Lviv.
Video

Video Saving Global Fish Stocks Starts in the Kitchen

With an estimated 90 percent of the world’s larger fish populations having already vanished, a growing number of people in the seafood industry are embracing the concept of sustainable fishing and farming practices. One American marine biologist turned restaurateur in Thailand is spreading the word among fellow chefs and customers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Chinese Admiral Key in China’s Promotion of Sea Links

China’s President last week wrapped up landmark visits to India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, part of a broader campaign to promote a new “Maritime Silk Road” in Asia. The Chinese government’s promotion efforts rely heavily on the country’s best-known sailor, a 15th century eunuch named Zheng He. VOA's Bill Ide reports from the sailor’s hometown in Yunnan on the effort to promote China’s future by recalling its past.
Video

Video Experts Fear Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

The Hamilton Live

Trumpeter, percussionist and bandleader Etienne Charles was born in Trinidad and blends island rhythms with modern jazz. He and his stellar band perform a rich gumbo of jazz, calypso, reggae, and rock-steady that Charles calls “Creole Soul” on "The Hamilton Live."