East African vocalist shares Nigerian experience, influence in new album
by Kirsty Groff
Songwriter and vocalist Somi combines her multicultural upbringing and global travels with the influence of several music genres to create a unique and honest listening experience that she hopes is near-impossible to label.
The East African singer, who was raised in Illinois and Zambia, left New York City for an 18-month trip to Lagos, Nigeria, for inspiration; she returned with a clear vision and ideas for the material that formed her first studio album for Sony Music/Okeh coming out in April 2014, “The Lagos Music Salon.” The music reflects her multiple musical influences, including jazz, soul, world and pop, as well as her unique cultural experience.
Following more than a decade in the record business with two studio albums, one independent release and a live recording, Somi began to question what she had to say to listeners and how to become inspired. Around the same time, her father died, resulting in a period of further introspection and a desire for change.
“In reflecting on my father’s legacy and the lessons I learned in both his living and his dying, I started to ask myself what I want my story to be and realized I hadn’t really stepped outside of my comfort zone,” she said. “I was in this plateau creatively and professionally. People weren’t looking at me as an emerging artist or an established artist, either.”
Her decision to uproot and move to Nigeria came out of a desire to grieve while discovering new ways to be creative. Following a “soft landing” teaching at an artist residency in a city five hours north of Lagos several times a week, Somi decided she was ready to commit to a full year and a half in Africa despite any initial reservations.
“The thing that gave me the most anxiety was leaping into the unknown,” she said. “It’s not my home, and the reality is that it’s a developing country; if you don’t have the resources, financial or otherwise, then it can be challenging.”
Fortunately, she had several friends from New York who had moved back to Nigeria, and her circle of support back home welcomed her and were excited to hear about her journey. Returning with a clear idea of everything she wanted her new album to reflect, Somi chose two different producers, one who was mostly self-taught with a deep understanding for traditional African music and another who had been with her band for a long time and has more of a “cerebral” process, in order to capture her diverse sound and aesthetic choices.
“Before, I was always trying to be malleable to other people’s creative processes; if they heard a particular thing they wanted in my voice, then I would try to honor that,” Somi said. “This time, I allowed myself to honor all of the musical influences in my life. My vocal range can be quiet, loud, brash, sweet, dirty, and I wanted to be able to do all of those things. My life is layered, so I think what excites me is I’ve really allowed myself to honor that.”
During her trip to Lagos, Somi reflected on the forms of privilege present in her career and travels. Her independent lifestyle made it easier for her to uproot for a year and a half than someone with a family or deeper obligations, and she thought about how lucky she was to have been born in the United States rather than a foreign country with fewer industry connections. She understood that while many artists come to a point where they feel trapped in a certain brand or sound, having the time, resources and courage to make it happen for herself was a luxury not everyone receives.
“I became more aware of what the difference may have been had I been a young girl living in Kampala,” she said. “I just happened to be born in the states, and I’m keenly aware of the privilege that’s been afforded to me. It’s allowed me to be so much more thankful and respectful of the African artists who have worked so hard and found themselves on the global cultural stage.”
The setting for her upcoming performance, a cabaret-style amphitheater with table seating, harkens back to her jazz roots and could serve to capture the experience of taking Somi’s interactions with the people in Nigeria and making them understood to audience members who have never even set a foot in the country.
“I want the audience to see and hear home inside of the music, to laugh at the slang and have some heartwarming moments when they hear some of the story,” she said. “I’m excited to share this body of work with my band in D.C. for the first time as well as to the large Nigerian population in Maryland, and I hope it reaches some of them and celebrates them in a beautiful way.”