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

Sydney Hostage-taker Failed to Manipulate Social Media

Gunman forced captives to use personal Facebook, YouTube accounts to issue his demands; online community helped flag messages, urged others not to share them More

UN Seeks $8.4 Billion to Help War-Hit Syrians

Effort aimed at helping Syrians displaced within their own country and those who've fled to neighboring ones More

Who Are the Pakistani Taliban?

It's an umbrella group of militant organizations whose objective is enforcement of Sharia in Pakistan 'whether through peace or war' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Putin: Russian Economy to Rebound in 2 Yearsi
X
December 18, 2014 5:13 PM
Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual end-of-the-year news conference Thursday, tackling questions on the Russian economy, the crisis in Ukraine and Russian relations with the west. VOA's Jeff Custer reports.
Video

Video Putin: Russian Economy to Rebound in 2 Years

Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual end-of-the-year news conference Thursday, tackling questions on the Russian economy, the crisis in Ukraine and Russian relations with the west. VOA's Jeff Custer reports.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?

The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video Turkey's Authoritarianism Dismays Western Allies

The Turkish government has been defiant in the face of criticism at home and abroad for its raids targeting opposition media. The European Union on Monday expressed dismay after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Brussels for criticizing his government's action. Turkey's bid to be considered for EU membership has been on hold while critics accuse the NATO ally of increasingly authoritarian rule. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Soul Lounge

"Soul Lounge" host Shawna Renee catches up with soul singer and songwriter Russell Taylor to hear what he’s been up to since winning the VH1 "You Oughta Know" title in 2013. She also convinces him to share a few songs from his album "War of Hearts."