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VOICE OF THE BLACK ATLANTIC

 

By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

Thursday, November 4, 2010.

 

The world is changing. There is danger everywhere but there is also possibility. Some of us are taking the diversity of our backgrounds and we are creating new beings of ourselves and new world(s) within which we live, work, struggle and love. And for those of us of African heritage, as clichéd or naïve as it may sound, these changing times are also times of audacious hope. Audacious: we must dare to make real our hopes and dreams.

 

There are individuals amongst us who are making clear choices not out of convenience or out of a desire to assimilate into the dominant society, but rather there are those of us who are making a much more daring and much more demanding choice. These are those who choose to consciously work at developing a way forward for African people.

Somi is one of those people. Her birth name is Laura Audrey Kabasomi Akiiki Kakoma. Kabasomi, which means “child of the scholar or child of reading.”

She was born in Champaign, Illinois when her father was doing post-doctoral studies. When she was three or so, the family moved to Zambia (her parents are Rwandan and Ugandan). For a handful of years in Zambia, her father worked for the World Health Organization. Eventually, her father was offered a professorship back at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which is where she finished growing up.

She did undergrad work at the University of Illinois and graduate school at Tisch-NYU.

 

“I did Cultural Anthropology and African studies and I thought I was going to be a medical anthropologist and look at how art and culture can heal.”

 

She did field work in East Africa and started seriously performing when she returned to the states.

Somi has three albums, the first album, Eternal Motive (2003), was a do-it-yourself project that is in the neo-soul vein. Her second release, Red Soil In My Eyes is a quantum leap forward and reflects her identity and consciousness.

 

“I am interested in telling stories. That’s one aspect of what I’m trying to do as an artist. And even if I’m telling stories about love, I’m trying to tell it in a new way, in an original way. Musically, I would like to think that I am open to exploring different things and pushing myself in different directions. In terms of my musical posture, I don’t know if I’m trying to necessarily be one thing. But I would like people to hear the influences and the global perspective. I would like people to hear where I am from.”
—Somi

 

She is a first-generation daughter of the African diaspora at home on two continents, comfortable in both places, feeling no need to be “mono” anything. She sings in three languages. She produces cultural projects such as “New Africa Live.”

 

 “I am looking for people who are pushing boundaries, who are challenging homogenized notions of what African expression is. And also I like to see that they have something very original to say. It can’t just be that, “I do hip-hop and I’m from Burkina Faso.” It has to actually be interesting, sonically engaging, and smart.
—Somi

 

Her latest album, If the Rains Come First (2009) is an engaging synthesis of the two worlds, a synthesis that is a regular trademark of modern Black music. So many of us are trying to put together something that reflects and projects the totality of who we are, a totality that is both rooted in tradition and simultaneously striving to create new worlds.

Describing the contradictions of his day, W.E.B. DuBois called the condition “double consciousness.” Perhaps, rather than hinder us, maybe this doubleness enriches us. Could it be that this constant struggle is the seed of our music’s potency?

 

Certainly, listening to Somi is a peek-a-boo experience. Sometimes we hear and recognize familiar strains, rhythms, melodies and other times we do not understand, and yet, whether or not we “know” the language, we always “feel” the vibes and thus can respond at a visceral level even if we lack specific cultural literacy.

Somi is no dummy. She is a culturally complex but emotionally direct individual who is consciously working to both shape/define herself and to share/express herself within a larger community, an African-rooted but world-wide-reaching community

 

“I would like to think that I don’t get too preoccupied with those images that are pushed on us, mass market, media, and all that. I would like to think that there are enough people out there who are looking for other things as well to support what it is I that I do, who it is that I am, what I embody just by being a black woman.”
—Somi

Thankfully, her music does not sound like an academic treatise. Some have called her work “Afro jazz.”

 

“Oftentimes, people refer to me as a jazz singer. That is not something that I set out to be and I don’t necessarily carry with me. And I don’t really come from that tradition. That’s the one music I never heard in the house. My parents don’t listen to jazz. I didn’t hear Ella Fitzgerald until I was in college and remember thinking that is lovely. I like the chord progressions in jazz and the melodic contours it affords the writer or whomever. Because of that people have tended to call [my music] jazz since that’s the chord progressions I tend to reach for, but it was never intentional.

The beauty of jazz, the reason I embrace jazz and why that community, I think, has embraced me in so many ways, is that it’s  the one genre that really let’s you be whomever you want to be. It actually demands individuality, it demands improvisation, it demands risks—stepping outside of the box, that’s where they are interested. And I think that’s why jazz is the world that I’ve lived within although I am not a straight-ahead jazz singer. I rarely sing standards. [My music] is definitely soul music. And I only say “soul” not to say I am reaching for Aretha. I think soul is about spirit. I think it’s about truth. I think you should do what feels right for you, where you’re inspired to go, and then people will feel that, they will feel that spirit, they will feel that soul.
—Somi

I feel Somi’s music. I respond emotionally to the long tones and the deft rhythms. The beauty of her voice encourages me to smile. Often, I amen the specific statements she offers. Mostly, I deeply appreciate that Somi is a sankofa — carrying the past as she moves forward into the future.

This music is beautifully bi-polar. Somi realizes that we have come from histories we should never forget, and are also headed into futures we should never stop striving to reach.

Asante sana, dada Somi. Asante!

Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.



 

 

 

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