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Somi Sings Stories of Harlem’s “Little Africa”

Somi’s forthcoming album Petite Afrique is poetry, both musically and lyrically. It is one of those albums where you can listen intently to the words from start to finish and become immediately immersed in so many different personalities of “Little Africa” in Harlem. Or you can hear the music pulsing in the background and feel the essence of the Senegalese woman in front of the hair salon asking a passerby with slightly fuzzy twists if she needs her hair braided, or inhale a bit deeper from the persistent wafting of incense at the shea butter stand. This album moves with the ease of a skilled storyteller reminding you of the humanity and importance of those West Africans immigrants whose culture is threatened to slowly disappear due to the rapid gentrification of Harlem. Somi celebrates their cultural contributions to the neighborhood she calls home without forcing the listener to take a side. As a first generation immigrant raised by Rwandan and Ugandan parents in Illinois, Somi approached this project with a profound sense of  community and compassion. Through her colorful vocals, impeccable arrangements and snippets of recorded conversations, you are left imbued with the richness of cultural experiences made up of francophone, predominately Muslim, West Africans. Intentionally written as song cycles, Petite Afrique is grounded by a singular theme, yet shows all the complicated facets of the African immigrant experience in the historic uptown neighborhood.

Afropop’s Akornefa Akyea spoke to Somi about her discovery of jazz, inspiration for the album, and the anthropological process that brought Petite Afrique to life.

Akornefa Akyea: Congratulations on the upcoming album Petite Afrique!

Somi: Thank you!

I don’t think we’ve interviewed you here on Afropop so I was hoping you could explain your genre New African Jazz” for us?

So that’s a term or a title that I think I decided to call it some very long time ago. But I think my intention then, many years ago, was when I say “New African,” I’m really talking about perhaps a more cosmopolitan modern perception of what it is to be an African woman in identity. And so “New African” only meant it challenges old archetypes and stereotypes and perceptions of who Africans might be. And then jazz, not because I consider myself a straight-ahead jazz vocalist or purist in any way but only in that jazz seems to be the room that explicitly demands a certain type of freedom. I think I lean into that freedom as somebody who is influenced by so many different genres. So jazz seems to be that genre that makes room for that kind of expression.

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I see. How did you land on jazz as the mode by which you express your experiences in Lagos in your last album, The Lagos Music Salon, or even in Dreaming Zenzile, the musical tribute to Miriam Makeba?

It was kind of an accident. It’s the one genre that I think explicitly asks for a certain type of freedom from the artist. Not to say that another genre doesn’t want artists to be free but just to say that jazz privileges improvisation which is about in the moment, in this room, on this stage and on this take. What is it that you have to say? And that’s something that’s always been explicitly privileged and championed and celebrated in the jazz idiom. I didn’t really listen to jazz as a child only because my parents didn’t listen to that much jazz and so I kind of came to jazz much later. I grew up listening to a lot of Western classical music and a lot of African pop as a child which would now be throw-back vintage African music that my parents listened to.  And also whatever was of the day in the ’80s playing in small-town Midwest Illinois. I didn’t really hear so much jazz.

The first time I remember hearing jazz–and I’m sure I’d hear it before–but really listening to a jazz vocal performance was Ella Fitzgerald singing “Moonlight in Vermont.” I was in college and I was driving somewhere and it just really hit me. The beauty of it. Even at the time I wasn’t considering myself an aspiring singer. Being a singer was always such a distant fantasy for me so I wasn’t listening like “Oh! That’s what I should do” but more like “Oh! that’s stunning!” I do know that as a young girl when I would hear older voices as in, you know, the older generation I always felt like perhaps my voice was from a different time. That maybe I could’ve been a singer if my voice was from a different era or something. I remember having that thought as a child just in terms of what I was drawn to but just think that it’s a fantasy. But I think that’s really is about being a first-generation immigrant, especially as an American and child of immigrants, it’s hard to be like, “Yes I’m going to be an artist.” It’s not necessarily even a thing that you think is possible or tangible. So anyway, the jazz thing was much later. Then after college once I got to New York, I started really listening even deeper. And I think that’s when I started listening to Nina [Simone], and more Ella [Fitzgerald] and Sarah [Vaughn] and all these other singers or even listening to Miriam Makeba and listening to what she did in the jazz context.

So cool. Full disclosure: my parents are originally from Ghana and I grew up in Madison, WI. I completely get it.

Yay Midwest!

Yay! [Laughs] Exactly! I’m so fascinated with your focus on experiencing different cultures and reflecting those in your albums. You moved to Lagos to record an album with that experience and now you’re in Harlem reflecting on your current experience in this album. I get a sense of where that comes from but can you talk more about that?

Sure. Whether you’re an artist or as a human being in the world, there’s always that conversation of where do I stand? What’s the space that I either belong to or can I create or where can I go to be understood. And what I realized is there is no black and white kind of place for that and there is no very specific geographic location. So for me, I realized that I can kind of create that space through sound and word. And that’s why I’m always kind of reaching through both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of my own personal musical influences to try to get that story out of myself and try to get that belonging into myself.

And do you ever feel any anxiety telling the stories of other people? I know in this album there are stories of Wolof, Bambara and Fula ethnic groups in Harlem. As a witness to those people’s experiences , do you feel any anxiety taking on that responsibility to tell their stories?

Absolutely. I’ll speak specifically about this project. The fact that it is predominantly West African, predominately Muslim, predominately francophone community of people– those three things alone which I am not–makes me feel like who am I to try to tell the story? What I came to is that I can’t concern myself with being overly literal about their experiences because it’s something that’s always going to be out of reach for me. But what I can do is just try to celebrate them. One thing I did also have a bit of anxiety about or freak out about was not wanting to in any way is put some kind of colonial lens on the community and feel like Africans need saving. So as much as I want to talk about the struggle of an immigrant’s experience, I also wanted to privilege what their aspirations are and their feelings of individuality and humanity and, you know, have a moment where the record feels balanced. I did feel like initially when I was writing it I was talking a lot more about the struggles and probably leaning more into the political difficulties of things but it was also really important for me to be aware of that. And I’m not sure that I achieved that but I did try to keep that in mind.

So those were some of the worries that I had. I never want to cast a narrative into the world that makes people feel like we’re not capable of saving ourselves as African people and immigrants. So there was that. There was also the keen awareness that it is a working-class community. I didn’t grow up in a working-class community environment. So I came to Harlem because I love being in proximity to a community that felt very much like my family but in looking closer when I began doing the research for this project, I began to realize that there were a lot of spaces that I unknowingly, in some kind of subconscious way, decided not to engage with. I was like, how come I haven’t supported all of these places? Not that I should put this burden on myself that I have to support every African business but I just found it so interesting that there were a number of places that I just liked that they were there. Their presence represented a certain thing for me. In considering the threat of their disappearance and considering what they might mean to myself or the neighborhood I realized there was so much that I still didn’t know. So I got into, like, who is the gentry anyway? Am I part of that? It was kind of deep at one point. [Laughs]

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When you mentioned research, what kinds of research did you do in preparation for this album?

Well, I did a lot of back-seat field audio. I was getting in a lot of taxis with these African cab drivers because there are so many of them who live in Harlem. I mean there are a lot of these older cab services and a lot of them are going out of business because of the dawn of Uber, Lyft and all these other things but I jumped into the taxi and sometimes just Yellow cabs and I would just strike up conversations. You would see their name on the back of the partition and it says Muhammed Njai or something and you’re like, oh! All of a sudden you’re having this whole conversation with this wonderful Senegalese man who has all this history in him and all these stories about the neighborhood and many of whom are very generous.

You mentioned a number of ethnicities that are Senegalese, Ivorian and Guinean but there are some people from Ghana and Nigeria as well. Not as many but they are around and I would even say a few other countries that I’m sure I’m overlooking. But in terms of the taxi drivers, those are the people that I met. So I would just have these conversations with them and I would always have a digital voice recorder, my phone or some sort of pocket device to record conversations. And I would ask “where are you from?” That part always happens all the time anyway. Then I would ask “do you live in Harlem?” especially if they picked me up from Harlem. Some of the do but some of them say “I used to but I moved to the Bronx now.” They had so many stories and I recorded so many of those of those kind of conversations. Sometimes if the conversation was going really well, I would be like “could we just drive around for a little while?” I think they really appreciated the conversation. I was pretty forthcoming. At some point I would say look this is what I’m doing. I’m an artist and I’m really curious about the African experience in Harlem and so a number of them appreciated having the chance to tell their story and I think that’s why I decided to do this record because there are a lot of headlines around the last few years that say “The End of Black Harlem” but nobody is really talking about this community. And everything else is equally important but I just wanted them to be a part of the conversation and not disappear quietly.

Another thing is I read this book by scholar Ousmane Oumar Kane who is Senegalese. He wrote a book called The Homeland Is the Arena. He was at Columbia but I think he’s at Harvard now and it’s basically the first kind of comprehensive and academic research on the community here in Harlem–particularly the Senegalese here in Harlem. It’s about religion, transnationalism, integration of Senegalese immigrants into America. That was a starting point to have a sense of how they perceived themselves. I will also say I read the book Homegoing which has nothing to do with that project but I happened to be reading it while writing. So I will just say that it lent itself to the conversation, particularly my song “Black Enough.” As a Ghanaian, I’m assuming you’ve read it.

Yes. That book changed my life. And also the history that it provided about Harlem was very useful.

Absolutely. I keep saying this but it was the first time for me that an African literary voice had really taken ownership of the tragedy of slavery in a really clear way that it wasn’t so “us and them.” It wasn’t about that’s so horrible that that happened to you, rather that actually that happened to us. And I thought that was so profound. To be reading that while having conversations with a number of people in Harlem and hearing about their own perceptions of when they got here and there was a lot of ignorance that plagued that African community, you know, on both sides. It was really interesting to consider what our own construction or definition of blackness is and how we relate to or engage with each other. And so that’s what “Black Enough” is really about. And it’s also happening at the same time as the Black Lives Matter movement which I felt like a lot of Africans were sort of picking a sideline like “yeah that’s really horrible” but they weren’t really feeling like it was our communities, but as we saw, there were people of the African community that were impacted.

What a time to have an album like this and these kinds of messages. It feels like it’s coming at a pivotal time.

Which is unfortunately in many ways.

Yes it is. Would you consider this album to be in the format of a song cycle?

I would say so. I would say so more than my other works. I think The Lagos Music Salon was a song cycle because it’s all around the theme of my time there. Definitely this is a song cycle as well. I’m clearer. As I continue to make work, I’m clearer about the choices I’m making and what they are. It wasn’t until after The Lagos Music Salon had been out in the world that I thought it was a song cycle. So with this album, I knew this was going to be a song cycle. This is the first time I’ve approached an album and the process in that way. I’ve tried to be even more abstract and arty. For example at one point I said I was going to name all of the songs before they’re even born. [Laughs] I came up with a list of nouns that described the neighborhood or evoked a certain feeling about the neighborhood and then I was like, this is crazy [Laughs].

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I’m loving the resurgence of song cycles and artists thinking of an album as a whole and full concept. Of course, last year we had Lemonade by Beyoncé. I’m really loving that full concept that songs in an album flow into one another and should be all heard together.

And I think for me I find that it helps me express all of who I am because of everything I talked about in the beginning. Even till this day, when people ask me if I were to listen to one song on the last record what would it be? I never know what to tell them because to me it doesn’t tell the full story about who I am. It doesn’t tell the full story about what that experience was and I would say the same thing about this record. I can point you to a song like “Dakar,” which in many ways kind of feels like the soul of the album, but it happens to be the second-to-last track of the record. You hear that and it’s more jazz leaning and more West African leaning. So if you heard that you would ask, is that what the whole record sounds like? But there’s no way you could hear that and think now I know what the whole album sounds like. So maybe this is just a cheap trick to get people to listen to the whole think. I don’t know! [Laughs]

I also think understanding the entire community of Harlem is so nuanced. There’s so many different parts that you can’t just go to one part and think you understand all of what Harlem is. That’s kind of what I like about it too. I don’t know if that resonates?

No, absolutely it does. I’m interested in nuance and there’s no way you can get to nuance through one statement. The statement has to be the whole statement. It can’t be a piece of that statement. And to me that’s what these songs are. They are pieces of a larger statement. And there’s no way that I’ll be able to tell you the stories I’m trying to share whether I’m talking about immigration or gentrification or xenophobia or IIslamophobia or gender politics or any of the things that are meant to be in this body of work. There’s no way to get to all of these things or even just one part. There’s no way it’s all about one song. So yeah, I’m all about the body of work and I’m also still that person who buys the whole album when I hear a song I like.

Is there a certain audience that you want this album to reach, and then on the other side is there an audience you are most anxious about hearing this body of work?

I don’t know that there’s one audience in particular. Obviously, I’m happy when there are communities that I come from that can see themselves or hear themselves in the music and appreciate it. So if there are immigrant communities or African immigrant communities or first-generation African-Americans or… black people of the world. If there’s a way that they can see themselves or hear themselves, great. But this project is not explicitly, even though I do talk about the racial construct and politics of what race means in many ways in this music, is not meant to be about race. To me it’s about culture. So obviously I would love for the conversation to be had amongst ourselves in a way that empowers or questions or validates people who have had similar experiences or who can relate to those experience. But to me, I put music out in the world in hopes of reaching as many people as possible. You just hope that somebody understands or hears what you’re trying to say.

I know a big theme is gentrification: What kinds of conversations do you hope this fosters?

Well, this isn’t meant to be about us and them in anyway. Whether it’s us and them amongst ourselves or beyond ourselves. Ourselves is subject to whoever is saying that word so the conversation I’m hoping it raises is just how do we value the cultural integrity of a place. In terms of gentrification, that’s the main issue. Obviously, when the cultural integrity of a place feels devalued or displaced or erased, then it raises questions about why? How is that possible? And then obviously, that’s when I began to unpack who was it that’s being erased and all of the kind of underpinnings at least of this particular community. So it opened up this larger conversation about xenophobia, Islamophobia, intraracial tensions and all these other things but the fundamental question for me is about how do we value cultural integrity of where we stand?

I love that: ”How do we value the cultural integrity?” Especially in a place like New York. Thank you so much for speaking with me!

Thank you!

Petite Afrique will be available on March 31 on Okeh Records. Click here to pre-order the album.

Somi will perform at the Highline Ballroom on March 29. Find out how you can win a pair of tickets to the show here.

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