A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

By Cynthia Nakpodia-Ribeiro

Classy, colorful, and captivating are just a few words one uses when describing Somi, a songstress whose latest release showcases her artistic maturity and the sturdy foundation which she has laid to soar to great heights. Her new full length album entitled RED SOIL IN MY EYES is a testament to her pride in being a daughter of the New African World. Her lyrics draw from her experiences which span from as far as the beautiful landscapes and culture of the Rwandan hills and Tanzanian basin, to the Chicago skyline, and onto the busy streets of the gentrified Harlem neighborhood she now calls home. Without waving a flag, Somi is transparent about who and what she represents, it simply radiates in her manner and actions and thus the magnetism of Somi, the singer-songwriter.

As Red Soil in My Eyes catapults Somi into the spotlight and upper echelons of soul artists worldwide, The AFRican caught up with her a few days before her album release to get her thoughts on this exciting time.

The AFRican: Some know that you are of Ugandan and Rwandan parents . . . where were you born and raised?

Somi: Yes, my mother is Ugandan and my father is Rwandese. I was born in Illinois when my father was completing his graduate work. At about three years old, we moved to Zambia where we lived until I was 7. We then returned to Illinois where I spent the remainder of my childhood. I moved to Kenya and Tanzania for a little over a year just after I finished college, and then I moved to New York City.

The AFRican: How has that background (or diverse background) shaped you as a musician and the woman you are today?

Somi: That background has shaped who I am as a musician, because I'd like to believe that my work implicitly tells stories of trans-nationalism and global exchange. I'd like to believe that one can hear both East and West in my music in a sincere and original way.

As a woman in the entertainment industry, I think we are constantly challenged to know who we are. Every choice we make creatively, stylistically, professionally, and otherwise is at risk of being marked as feminist or anti-feminist. Both of those positions can be good or bad depending on whomever you are talking to. Which ultimately means, they can have good or bad repercussions on the work you are trying to put out there as an artist. As an African woman, I believe I have even more responsibility to not only challenge ideas of who an African woman can be, but to also participate in giving voice to the voiceless. My experience as an African girl coming of age in the West not only granted me the resources and confidence to do that, but it has given me a sense of cultural survival that is a constant source of inspiration for my work.

The AFRican: African parents/families are known to sometimes struggle with accepting their child's dream to pursue a career in the arts, what was your personal experience?

Somi: As long as I can remember, my parents have always encouraged me to work hard and follow my dreams. They also were the first to introduce me to music and they encouraged me to study the cello from age 8. While I don't believe they thought I'd ultimately pursue it professionally, they have been nothing short of absolutely supportive. I think being the parent of a young artist in New York City is always a daunting position, and at times they have asked me to pursue it in addition to other more conventional career paths. While those conversations might be difficult to have at times, I know they are always coming from a place of love- which is indeed the best inspiration of all.

The AFRican: Your latest album Red Soil in My Eyes is getting significant buzz, what do you think draws people to your work?

Somi: Well, I'd like to believe people are drawn to the music for very personal reasons, but on a surface level I think people might connect to it because it's trying to create a space of cultural belonging for anyone who might be from more than one cultural background while (and I've said this before) encouraging everyone to be true to who they are, wherever they are from.

The AFRican: We know how hard it is for black artists outside the box in the U.S. music industry, would you say it is harder or equally as hard for an African artist?

Somi: I would say it's harder as an African artist because there is a one-dimensional view of black cultural expression in the West.

The AFRican: What is your opinion on the state of the music industry today as far as pop culture, and do you have any opinion on the presence of Akon the Senegalese-American Hip Hop and R&B hit maker in that industry?

Somi: I love Akon. I think there is something distinctively African to his sound. It's almost as if he took the vocal technique of West African griots and transposed the approach to R&B. When people talk about how "different" his voice sounds, that's what I think they are hearing.

The AFRican: Tell us about your journey to create Red Soil in My Eyes.

Somi: My journey to create RSIME was really about finding a place of harmony between my American identity and my African identity. It also was about being more aware of who I am in a global context-- thus I found myself wanting to sing less about personal experience and more about the issues around or beyond me. I also wanted the organicism of that journey to be heard and felt through the acoustic aesthetic of the project.

The AFRican: You have been likened to some of the great female legends of jazz. . . like Vaughn, Ella, Makeba how does that make you feel.

Somi: It's really an honor to hear people say things like that. As a huge fan and eternal student of all of their work, I'm not so sure that I'll ever completely believe it either.(laughs) I can only hope and pray to have the careers of longevity and respect that they have garnered over the years.

The AFRican: As a professional jazz musician, what would you say is the reason behind jazz music's diminishing visibility and popularity in the Black community?

Somi: I think one reason might be the fact that often times Black artists and/or people don't own the corporations that are making the larger decisions on what is "commercially viable" and what isn't. Until we take back ownership of our voices, the only music that will be given an internationally accessible sort of platform is going to be limited. I believe the dawn of the digital age has given more power to the artists than ever before and I think we are going to begin to see all types of left-of-center black music rise to commercial success, be it in jazz, hip-hop, or otherwise.

The AFRican: Where do you reside, or call home right now?

Somi: Harlem, USA!! Manhattan's first and only little Africa. (laughs)

The AFRican: Share with our readers a word of wisdom that you live by.

Somi: Deepak Chopra says to repeat this mantra daily: "Every decision I make is a choice between a grievance and a miracle. I choose the miracle."

The AFRican: What's your vision and goals for your music?

Somi: I have many goals for my music like getting more television & film placement, doing more writing for other artists, and I've recently written a multi-media theater piece called "listening to roots & voicing branches" that I'm hoping to stage in the near future which will hopefully open up other opportunities in various creative disciplines. Ultimately, the overarching goal is to have a career of longevity and sustainability.

The AFRican: Describe your fantasy musical project or the craziest musical idea you would like to experiment with.

Somi: Hmmm. . . I don't know. Off the top of my head, I would love to do a project with Bjork, Cesaria Evora, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares with classical string arrangements and traditional African percussion. I'd also like to write a hip-hop/R&B Broadway musical with R. Kelly.

The AFRican: For those that haven't seen your stage performance, what inspires the ensembles you wear?

Somi: I usually try to visualize the evening of the performance and think about the mood I'd like to create in the space. Sometimes I try to dress according to a particular theme of the event or selected repertoire.

The AFRican: With the recent Madonna adoption hoopla of baby David, do you agree that an African child raised in the West ends up detached, confused and not belonging to their African roots and thus shunning their duty to the continent?

Somi: I definitely disagree with the notion that an African child raised in the West ends up with all of that baggage, but I believe that it is definitely a challenge to be raised by someone who doesn't have an implicit cultural understanding of where that child is from and vice versa. I also think that it is possible to be raised by people of different cultural values than your own and still feel compelled to go "home" and not, in this case, shun their duty to the African continent. The difference between the case of Madonna's child and Africans like myself is that no matter where we lived we were still raised in an African home. While I think a mutually shared cultural experience is very important in a home, it's not my place to say who should or should not be able to adopt a child based on cultural differences.

The AFRican: Tell us about your work with the Rwandan Refugee organization.

Somi: It's actually not a refugee organization. It is an organization called the Rwanda Survivors' Fund based in the UK. They work with survivors of the genocide most of their outreach is done in Rwanda. April marks 13 years since the 1994 genocide, so while this month is celebratory for me with my new release, I wanted to maintain a certain type of solidarity with the Rwandese community during this reflective time of memorial and hope. To do so, I decided to donate 10% of my April album sales to two of their projects. One being the women's antiretroviral drugs project -which provides HIV drugs to women survivors who were raped during the genocide and contracted HIV/AIDS. The other project is the children's testimony and memory books which encourages younger survivors to talk about their experiences through writing and other creative media.

The AFRican: Thank you for taking the time, we wish you much success.

Somi: Thank you.

Watch Somi's video and listen to her music here.
Photo credit: Matthew Furman