Chicago-born chanteuse Somi was raised by parents of Rwandan and Ugandan heritage. Her beginnings were a fascinating mélange of university life, African travel experience and cultural notes which steeped her in a vast knowledge of The Continent and its treasure trove of cultural delights.
Somi holds degrees in anthropology and African studies from the University of Illinois, and a master’s degree in performance studies from New York’s Tisch School of the Arts. But perhaps it’s her lengthy trip to Lagos which most informed her position as a leader in the school of New African Jazz.
Somi’s first major-label album, The Lagos Music Salon, was hatched during a sojourn to Nigeria, and guarantees listeners the opportunity to aurally experience her most intimate truths in creating this pepper soup for the soul. On the eve of her 10-date US city tour, this honey-voiced “fine geh” took a moment to “ginger us slowly” about her fear, risk taking, clarity, and the power of going home.
EBONY: How has this album allowed you to bring your African experience full circle?
Somi: I’d gone to Lagos twice before; the first time to visit friends, the second time with my band. It reminded me a lot of New York—the hustle, the energy! I wanted to return with a longer timeframe. I had a seven-week soft landing as a teacher in a residency program. I hadn’t expected to make an album. But I was inspired to write, and I became clear about what I wanted to say. That seven-week stay ended up being a year and a half.
Africa inspires me and is always going to be the central point of my work, and hopefully what I’m doing empowers Africa. It’s always reciprocal. I would love to believe that the work is creating a bridge.
EBONY: You’ve released three albums since 2003, and now the critically acclaimed The Lagos Music Salon. What’s the breakout point of your career thus far?
Somi: Having the chance to partner with a major label has been huge and given me a wider audience reach, and having a team of people to really support the music and get the music out there. But I feel like there’s so much more I would love to do with my career. There is so much more growth that I’m hoping to experience.
EBONY: What made Sony take notice of your work?
Somi: I think the label recognized the clarity and the risk-taking that went into this new record, and it was also about the timing. OKeh [Records] were launching a new jazz label exploring global jazz, and here I was with this new record.
This is the first record where I’ve stepped away from the traditional structure. I thought to myself, “What do I really have to say? I’m making a living as an artist, but not reaching the audience that I would love to reach in a way that I would love to reach them.” I had to take a risk.
It’s so important to take risks as an artist and as a human being. I gave myself the space to get clear. Before, people would be like, “It’s too jazz, it’s not African enough” or “It’s too African” or “It’s too full.” But those were all of my influences.
Being in Africa, the “Are you African?” part is a given, and you can just speak everything that’s in your heart without having to worry about cultural identity, because everyone is African. When you decide to get clear, when you don’t compartmentalize yourself, you become clear. You can speak everything in your heart without having to question your identity.
Lagos allowed me the sense of freedom to take a huge risk personally, emotionally, spiritually. It also gave me a sense of freedom to explore each compartment of my life. Finishing the work first allowed me to show up with a record that was whole and clear with what was in my heart. I was fortunate to walk in to OKeh at the right moment.
EBONY: Education plays a major role in your life. Your parents are educators. You have degrees in anthropology and African studies. How much has education informed your approach to creating The Lagos Music Salon?
Somi: We always take something away from what we allow ourselves to study closely. All of those things inform my worldview. I don’t think I’m academic in my creative process, but I definitely try to be conscientious of my choices and recognize that there are theoretical or ideological underpinnings. Not just, “Oh, that sounds great,” which is sometimes good enough. But I like to be clear about what I’m trying to put in the world.
If I do make something because it feels good, I need to be clear why it feels good and what it represents. In the context of an album, every artist is clear about their body of work. There’s always a point of inspiration. Africa always inspires me and I’m always curious to know more about where I’m from and the stories of the people of the continent and the lives of the people I cross paths with wherever I am in the world.
EBONY: Angélique Kidjo features on your intuitive interpretation of Fela’s “Lady” with “Lady Revisited,” while Common guests on your Wangari Maati-inspired “When Rivers Cry.” How did these collaborations come about?
Somi: Angélique and I have worked together in the past. I’ve opened for her in Prospect Park and we’ve kept in touch. She generously agreed to be on my album. She is so like my big sister. Common and I have a number of mutual friends. We connected last year for this album. Firstly I wanted an African MC, but I realized the global awareness of these issues on the song. It made sense that his immense talent and awareness of community issues would be featured here.
EBONY: What do you want listeners to take away from The Lagos Music Salon?
Somi: I would want them to know that Africa can and is so much more than what you probably think it is. The average person is probably guided about Africa by the media. But there is so much more there. Come and take a closer look; start with my show. Lagos gave me so much. I went there expecting to be inspired, but didn’t realize it would give me so much. Maybe we should all go home and come back.