I’ve known of Somi, the magnificent singer and songwriter for about ten years, and for much of that time I thought that her music was a great sound in search of a comparable style or at least repertoire. It’s a dilemma faced by lots of vocalists: think Tierney Sutton before she hit on the Joni Mitchell catalog or Cassandra Wilson before she fused Delta Blues into her sound and classic rock into her book.
Somi’s dilemma—or rather my dilemma with Somi’s music–was complicated by the fact that she deftly merged elements or R&B into her hybrid of African music and jazz. In this regard she was a little ahead of her time as Kelly Lee Evans, Jose James and Gregory Porter have integrated rhythm and blues into mainstream jazz with the same elegance if not quite the same monumental sales figures that occurred when Norah Jones brought singer/songwriterdom in to the genre 15 ago. In Somi’s case, it seemed to me that she suffered the vagaries of people not quite knowing what to make of her talent.
In 2014, Somi resolved all my quandaries with her release, “Lagos Music Salon” (Okeh), it was a dynamic song cycle focused on the dynamic, diverse culture of Nigeria’s capital city. Not only was it a fascinating musical portrait of Africa in a way that it is rarely viewed in Western society, that is as contemporary, urbane and wise. Yet the release slipped by me as I was in the midst of leaving one job, discovering that despite my many successes in that field, there were no comparable positions available, and I had only begun to write regularly again after a two-year hiatus. When I caught up to it, I was floored.
Her new recording, Petite Afrique (Okeh) didn’t sneak up on me but it caught me at another moment when writing about it for publication wasn’t in the question. Yet, it’s a stunning recording, the sort of music that starts me thinking about end of the year lists. I could readily imagine certain PR people pitching me that this recording is like an imaginary collaboration between Sade, Ali Farka Toure and Tinariwen but in Harlem with Noname and the Internet as guests. And even that doesn’t quite catch the broad range of stellar music here. Nor does it scratch the surface of the substance. Somi’s recording is a song cycle about a swath of Harlem along west 116th Street, issues of identity (African American in the international sense versus African-American in the domestic sense), gentrification, roots and authenticity. The music is savvy, diverse and sumptuous. In an era that values volume, Somi’s music has found a way to speak impactfully in a gentle croon.
After a collage of ambient sounds that locate Petite Afrique in Harlem near the C train stop, “Alien,” the second track addresses the breadth of themes in the recording. A gentle piano chord asserts itself then retreats then as if suspended in a diffuse space, Somi’s voice enters, “I don’t drink coffee/I take tea, my dear/Some extra rice please on the side/And you can hear it in my accent when I talk/I’m an African in New York.”
The lyrics are a revision of Shinehead’s 1992 underground classic, “Jamaican in New York,” but the tone, subdued and complex is totally different. It’s as if a pair of Rick Owen sneakers had been exchanged for an intricately patterned Jean Paul Gaultier dress. The song delves into the complexity of African identity in a proudly diverse city, and ends—as does the original—with the firmly delivered advice of “be yourself, no matter what they say.” Somi is making such revisions part of her arsenal. On “Lagos Music Salon,” she turned the Cole Porter nugget “Love for Sale” into “Brown Round Things,” a wistful rumination on the objectification of black womanhood.
“Alien” is the opening salvo for an album with songs that circle back to parsing the different meanings of African American, a subject on which Somi is an expert as the American born daughter of parents from Uganda and Rwanda, and her “Lagos Music Salon” came about after a fellowship in Nigeria. It also deals with the similarities, the silence in “Black Enough” after invoking the chant “Hands Up /Don’t Shoot” is a vital reminder that long before the name Michael Brown was charged with meaning, Amadou Diallo was executed in a hail of 41 police bullets probably for reaching for his ID.
Harlem is of course has undergone massive change. Nine years ago, I was on the startup crew for a wine bar on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, and during my months of going up to the neighborhood, it couldn’t escape my attention that while the commercial enterprises still felt Black, a frequent majority of people getting off the train with me at 125th St. were not. Thus in songs like “The Gentry” the class differentials take centerstage, and the recording invites comparisons to others that have chronicled postmillennial change in New York like “Brooklyn Babylon” by Darcy James Argue and Secret Society.
Somi’s road to prominence has been unconventional. Her credits include being a TED Senior Fellow, and stints as Artist-in-Residence at Park Avenue Armory, UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Baryshnikov Arts Center. It’s emblematic of Somi’s unique music but also of how musicians must improvise their careers as much as their music these days.
In an era when albums have given way to tracks and playlists, both “Petite Afrique” and “Lagos Music Salon” offer forceful arguments for the value of longform statement. It’s easy to imagine Somi’s music as the soundtrack for the machinations of Ifemelu and Obinze should Lupia Nyong’o’s film verson of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah get made. It’s also fairly easy to imagine a young Somi listening to concept albums in her youth and thinking deeply about music.