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

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month More

At 91, Marvel Creator Stan Lee Continues to Expand his Universe

Company's chief emeritus hopes to interest new generation of children in superheroes of all shapes and sizes by publishing content across multiple media platforms More

Photogallery New Drug Protects Against Virus in Ebola Family

Study by researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals is first looking at drug's effectiveness after onset of symptoms More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improvingi
X
Carol Pearson
August 19, 2014 11:43 PM
The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.
Video

Video For Obama, Racial Violence is Personal Issue

The racial violence in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson is presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with an issue to which he has a deep personal connection. To many Americans, Obama's election as America's first black president marked a turning point in race relations in the United States, and Obama has made ending the violence a policy priority. On Monday he issued a new call for calm and understanding. Luis Ramirez reports from the White House.
Video

Video Clinton-Obama Relationship Could Impact 2016 Election

President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have a long and complicated relationship. That relationship took another turn recently when Clinton criticized the president’s foreign policy. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports there is renewed attention on the Clinton-Obama relationship as Hillary Clinton considers running for
Video

Video Iran Looks to Maintain Influence in Baghdad With New Shia PM

Washington and Tehran share the goal of stopping Syrian-based militants in Iraq. But experts say it's Iran, not the United States, that will most influence how the new government in Baghdad approaches internal reforms and the war in Syria. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

The Hamilton Live

Paquito D'Rivera, who has won 12 Grammys, is celebrated both for his artistry in Latin jazz and his achievements as a classical composer. D'Rivera's latest project, “Jazz Meets the Classics,” was released this month. He joins us on the latest edition of "The Hamilton Live."