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US-born singer Somi finds peace in Africa

“I love the love of music that has always been here in South Africa. As someone who is primarily categorised as a jazz artist, knowing that there is such a deep, long and respected legacy of jazz in South Africa is wonderful. I feel understood here,” says soul and jazz singer Somi who recently spoke to the Mail & Guardian during her Africa tour in May that ended in Johannesburg. 

The acclaimed East African vocalist, who met up with me at her record label, Sony’s Jo’burg office, has become more of a global citizen over the years; moving from city to city. 

Her parents are Rwandian and Ugandian, and although born in Illinois, in the US, she has lived in African countries such as Zambia and Kenya and is now based in New York City. 

She recently performed at the Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa) in May – one of Africa’s largest arts festivals and also performed for her South African fans at Jo’burg jazz club, The Orbit. 

Although her music has been boxed into the jazz genre, jazz music is not what she consciously sets out to make. “Jazz is very accidental and honestly when I say Jazz, it should be very clear that I’m not a straight ahead Jazz singer. I am a singer and songwriter,” she says. 

Growing up, she regarded herself as a “classical nerd” that listened to a lot of classical music, which was mainly because she studied the cello as an extra subject for most of childhood. Her parents didn’t listen to jazz, and with her mother listening to opera and her father to “roots” music, jazz only became a part of Somi’s playlist when she was in college. 

‘Jazz is freedom’
However the genre has given her the room to experiment with her skill. “Jazz to me is freedom and that’s why I was drawn to it. Jazz has always privileged improvisation and the individual voice. It feels like this beautiful metaphor of my own life where I had and still have to be socially and culturally malleable to improvise in different settings.” 

Somi grew up in small and predominately white college town in the Midwest, Illinois. “There were black people there but Africans were not very common, except in a university setting,” she says.

Because her father was a professor, her family was a part of an international and diverse university community within Illinois. Being bicultural presented some challenges for the Midwesterner. “I always felt like I couldn’t explain the African side of myself to my friends who grew up in the Midwest.” 

In a social setting she would shy away from talking about her culture, not because she was ashamed of it but because she was under the impression that some of her American peers would not understand that piece of her life. 

“At times there’d be racist comments made, where people would say “oh you are African you are not really black so it’s different and because of that we can hang out.  

“As a young child I didn’t know how to respond to these sorts of comments and ignorance because I was not brought up that way. My parents were always welcoming and loving to others,” she says.

Musical career
Her parents also welcomed her decision to pursue music full-time, even though it wasn’t part of Somi’s initial plan.  Her plan included becoming a medical anthropologist and studying towards a PhD. She graduated with degrees in cultural anthropology and African studies from the University of Illinois, so at least she ticked that off her list. 

She then completed a research fellowship in Kenya and Tanzania with plans of returning to the US to work as a medical anthropologist, but she instead took a gap year to transition from East Africa back to the US, before enrolling into graduate school for a masters degree.  The gap year became the perfect opportunity to fulfill her dream of becoming a singer in New York and Paris.  

“I didn’t think music was really a possibility, mostly because everybody in my family comes from a science or academia background. I always say you’d be hard-pressed to find an African family, particularly immigrants, who’d say ‘yes be an artist’ because they want you to do something that guarantees a certain type of lifestyle and security.”

The “Big apple” was the obvious choice because at the time she wasn’t as fluent in French as she is now and she also had a degree to fall back on incase music didn’t work out. 

Her entry into the music industry happened through a music producer from Illinois who lived in the same New York apartment building as she lived in. He helped her record some demos that eventually landed in the right hands and gave her the break she needed. 

She has since released five albums, namely, Eternal Motive (2003), Red Soil in My Eyes (2007), If The Rain Comes First (2009) and Somi: Live at Jazz Standard (2011). Somi has also collaborated with international musicians such as Mos Def, Baaba Maal, John Legend, Paul Simon and Jennifer Hudson. 

Her latest project is a collaboration with QB smith, who is a UK DJ based in South Africa and it’s titled, The Akobi: First Born S(u)n QB’s Remix Collection. It was released in April 2015 and features songs pay homage to South Africa. Another African country that inspired an entire Somi album is Nigeria. 

Expressing the ‘African woman’
Her 2014 album, The Lagos Music Salon, is a result of her stepping out of her comfort zone and getting physically in touch with a continent that always influenced her music. Thirsty for inspiration, she relocated to Lagos, Nigeria in September 2011, a year after the death of her father.

“I went there hoping to find stillness and to heal my heart.” She also hoped to redefine herself as a musician during her stay in Lagos.

“At the time I felt misunderstood as an artist. I was frustrated by people who wanted to put me in a particular box and I felt people didn’t understand who I was as an African woman and my need to express that. They romanticised who I am as an African woman and wanted me to express that in a particular stereotypical way.” 

In search of a fresh start, she I left everything in New York, including her record label and management to set up a temporary home in Lagos. Her move was also motivated by a job offer she received, that entailed teaching vocal performance at a school in Nigeria for seven weeks. Lagos made such an impression on her that she ended up staying in the city for a year and a half. 

With a number of impressive projects under her belt, Somi still believes she truly found her voice in the industry once she fully embraced being bicultural and fully embracing Africa’s influence in her music. 

“I think we are in a position of privilege at this particular cultural moment as African artists because there are so many stories that have yet to be told and they have to be told by ourselves,” she says.

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