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

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

Country-pop singer, Lizzie Sider sits down with "Border Crossings" host Larry London to perform songs from her new album, “Butterfly,” and to talk about her anti-bullying tour.

Blogs