In Conversation with Somi
You are an American by birth but of Rwandan and Ugandan descent. You have also lived in Zambia and Lagos. How have these varied cultural influences impacted on your music?
They’ve mostly given me a keen sense of the fact that as Africans, no matter our geographic and ethnic differences, there are some universal, cultural aspects of who we are as a people. That being said, those experiences gave me the courage to play with, explore and learn from the continent’s rich and varied
traditions. While I am very proud of being an East African, I hope my work is something the whole of Africa and her Diaspora can be proud of.
Have you always been inclined towards music considering that you studied Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Illinois?
Yes, I always loved music. I studied ballet and tap dance from the age of three—often singing and dancing in plays at primary school. I then began studying the cello from the time I was eight years old through university. What I didn’t know was that a professional career in the arts and music was a possibility for me and while I remember daydreaming about being a singer, music was always just extracurricular in my life and meant to make me a well-rounded, cultured human being. My parents definitely didn’t expect me to go off and become an artist, but they also never said ‘no’ when I decided to pursue it. It’s a testament to the fact that parents usually know you before you know yourself. So while my parents definitely expressed their concerns, they’ve been my biggest cheerleaders along the way.
Can you let us in on the convictions that informed your taking up PerformanceStudies in your Masters Degree at the New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts?
Being from a family of academics, making sure I had a graduate degree was important to me as was having the credentials to teach higher education should I ever choose to do so. What I loved about my Master’s programme was that it addressed both creative practice and critical theory; essentially giving me the vocabulary to articulate the deeper social and political meaning of my work as an artist. You have described your music as New African Jazz. What sets it apart from the Afrobeat variant, which artists like Fela and Femi his son, have performed over time, and do they provide essential
You have described your music as New African Jazz. What sets it apart from the Afrobeat variant, which artists like Fela and Femi his son, have performed over time, and do they provide essential references to your genre?
The term New African Jazz is simply meant to identify two things: modernity and improvisation. I’m interested in challenging outdated notions of Africa’s cultural voice. The ‘newness’ is simply about acknowledging the burgeoning cultural economy of the continent today as we are finally seeing record numbers of African artists enter the global cultural stage while helping the Western world to reimagine who Africans might be in today’s world. What I love about jazz is the freedom it gives me as a songwriter, vocalist, and performer. One can always improvise when framed in the jazz idiom – in fact, it’s demanded of you. Freedom is the only way I can get out my story and not compromise any of the layers of who I am as an African and American woman. The musical legacy of the Kutis is definitely informed by the jazz idiom, but I always say that one of the greatest gifts I received during my sabbatical in Nigeria, was a deeper understanding of Fela’s music and the keen awareness that his music could only have originated in Lagos. I’m inspired by Afrobeat just as I am by so many other originators and traditionalists in African music across the continent. If one hears some of that inspiration in my music, I’m grateful.
How important was it for Sanaa House Productions to keep faith with you in your early days, and does this have to do with your relatively unique brand of music?
I own SanaaHouse Productions and have a small group of people who work on my behalf through the company. Being both an artist and an entrepreneur, it is important that one is clear about his or her brand at a very early point in the journey. Obviously, that brand has stronger form and expression with more time. I can finally say I feel clear about my brand as an artist now, but I can’t wait to see it evolves and grows in new dimensions and unexpected terrain. Hopefully, the same can be said of my music as well.
Your music career seems to have taken shape in 2003 with the Eternal Motive record, but it was Red Soil in My Eyes released in 2007, that booked a top 10 position for you with the song Ingele on the US World Music Chart. How easy were the early beginnings for you?
Not easy at all. Honestly, there were many times that I wanted to give up. Every time, I thought it was the last straw, I’d have a breakthrough of some sort. Micro tipping points, I suppose. Enough to keep me going and keep me faithful. Even today, I’ve realized that the challenges don’t disappear when you have more ‘success’, they just take new form. I’m thankful for it all though – the hills and valleys. Since 2007 till date, your music has
Since 2007 till date, your music has gained mass appeal, as well as performed well on several world music charts. Your If the Rain Comes First, 2009 also featured a major jazz music maestro, Hugh Masakela. How instrumental has Masakela, often referred to as your mentor, been to your career?
I can’t begin to tell you how generous and important Hugh Masekela has been to my career. His decision to be present in my life was one of those breakthroughs that keeps me going to this day. In fact, he’s also the person who gave me courage to move to Lagos. When I was contemplating it, he told me to stop thinking about it as a move and just embrace the global citizenship that accompanies the life and role of a musician. A vessel of humility and grace, Uncle Hugh is an invaluable source of inspiration,
wisdom and joy. Your relocation from New York City to Lagos, Nigeria in 2011 culminated in the release of the album The Lagos Music Salon in 2014 under a major label, Sony Music/Okeh, which hit #1 on US jazz charts. The album also featured special guests Angelique Kidjo, Common and Ambrose Akinmusire.
Why not? For decades, Nigeria has always been a cultural giant in music, literature, film, fashion, and the visual arts. The cosmopolitanism and intellectual community of Lagos reminded me of New York. Both cities require hard work to survive, but deep rewards if you persevere.
What are the challenges of remaining at the pinnacle of success in your career?
I’m not sure I’ve reached the pinnacle of my success. I still have a great deal I’d like to accomplish in the years ahead. That being said, I think the most important thing we can do in this life, is hold on to our integrity, our community, and our sense of self.
How well is your music received in Africa; has it garnered as much acclaim as it has enjoyed in the United States, for instance?
I think there are places on the continent that know a lot of my work and places that don’t. I’m always thrilled when I have the opportunity to connect with African audiences. Having moved back to New York, staying ‘visible’ is something I have to work at more conscientiously. My ideal is to have awareness on both sides of the Atlantic while living in Africa.
What is your assessment of the Nigerian music industry and how does it compare with Europe and the United States, for example?
I think because the Nigerian music industry has not been around as long as the American and European counterparts, there is still a lot of infrastructural development that has to take place. That said, it is a powerhouse and continues to dominate popular culture across the continent. Additionally, the digital age of today allows for Nigeria’s industry leaders to think outside of the box and access audiences in ways that the older industry paradigms aren’t set up to consider. That makes the Nigerian and African
scene as a whole very exciting. I can’t wait to see how they continue to grow. I always smile when I’m sitting somewhere in New York, Paris, London and so on, and hear a Naija jam come on that I first
heard in a Lagos night club. As TED Fellow and an inaugural Association
As TED Fellow and an inaugural Association of Performing Arts Presenters Fellow, you are also the founder of the award-winning non-profit organization, New Africa Live. What is the vision of your organization?
The mission of New Africa Live is to create a space for African artists who challenge homogenized notions of modern African cultural production. It started out as a bi-monthly music series I produced in New York, and brought over artists like Asa for their first major New York appearance. Though it became hugely successful, I had to put it down when I moved to Lagos. And while I loved empowering fellow artists, I needed the time away to figure out what I wanted to say next with my own music. Since I got back to New York, I’m often asked if I’ll start producing the shows again. I simply don’t have the time anymore, BUT I am rebranding New Africa Live into an annual modern African arts festival. So stay tuned!
March 25, 2021