Somi: of note Artist of the Year 2009
Photo by Terrence Jennings, 2009
By Rich Blint
of note’s Artist of the Year is a visionary, innovative, and boundary pushing artist who reflects a commitment to global citizenship and social change. In tandem with of note’s mission, the Artist of the Year uses his or her work as a means to challenge, celebrate, and engage the complex experiences of people of color around the globe. This year we honor Somi. Born in Illinois to Ugandan and Rwandan parents, Somi’s musicianship is a multi-cultural fete of sounds, organically fusing jazz, classic soul, African folk, and urban grooves.
Rich Blint’s masterly interview reveals that Somi’s personal integrity, commitment to musical excellence, and mission with New Africa Live to “help re-imagine what African cultural production is” (and is not) are all compelling examples of why she is the 2009 of note Artist of the Year.
RB: Somi, can I ask your full name?
Somi: Laura Audrey Kabasomi Akiiki Kakoma.
RB: What does all of that mean?
Somi: Laughing. I can talk about the Italian etymology of the name Laura. It supposedly comes from Laurence. It’s a feminine version of Laurence. And is [associated] with the people of Florence. Laura Audrey is my great aunt. Her name is Eudia, which is Audrey in my language. And Kabasomi means child of the scholar or child of reading…I was born when my dad was doing his post-doc. So it was a kind of circumstantial naming. That’s where the name Somi comes from. Somi in the Bantu languages means to read.
RB: You’re Rwandan and Ugandan, correct? What brought you and your family to the US?
Somi: Well, I was born here. My father was in school, studying in Illinois, finishing his post-doc. I was born in Champaign, Illinois. We lived there for about three and a half years and then moved to Zambia for a few years in my childhood when he was working for the World Health Organization and then the same school, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, asked him to come back so we moved back to Champaign, which is not only my birthplace, but where I grew up.
RB: I want to take a quick turn here. The Rwandan genocide over a decade ago is nightmarish. How does that complicated violence inform your work? I ask because I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. And my dad’s family grew up in a place called Red Berry where the soil is red with bauxite, which was the cause of a particular kind of colonial violence. Your last album is called “Red Soil in My Eyes.” And I’m sure the soil is rich with bauxite, the same mineral source…
Somi: Definitely the soil is red throughout that part of East Africa.
RB: …and so when I’ve seen you perform I’ve thought about the symbolic redness of the earth and I’m wondering, I’m curious about how that history informs your work, if it does at all?
Somi: Well, I don’t know if the genocide informs it consistently. I think that there are moments where I try to acknowledge, perhaps, the suffering, what it is that we’re carrying. I think it’s difficult on a number of levels. I’m a Tutsi woman and to know that Tutsis were persecuted in that sort of way and here I am with all sorts of privilege, of not having had to have been there, having other options, you know, being abroad in Illinois in some comfortable school somewhere and not really having to think about the day-to-day, what it is to survive under those circumstances. So I think that is hard to process. I don’t know that the violence necessarily informs my work. I did a piece on my last record called, “Remembrance.” [In that song] I really tried to capture the spirit, the essence, the mood, where it takes me when I think about it and try to remember those who were lost and also remember those who are trying to heal—whether they were direct victims or they lost people and were victims in that sense.
RB: What got you into music?
Somi: My parents loved music in general. I don’t know if they got me into music or if music was in me.
RB: Was music always around you?
Somi: It was always around me. I grew up listening to a lot of percussive music. My mother is a huge fan of opera. She also is a keeper of all sorts of folk songs so she knows tons of stuff from the village—deep stuff like “this is what the women sing when…” And then my father is really into roots, reggae, feel good music but very earthy…
RB: Foundation music?
Somi: …very black music, too. Whatever that means, I suppose. Obviously, there are all these different layers of what “black music” is and how we construct that but I think he was very clearly drawn to a very specific and explicit black experience and very “roots” oriented. So I listened to a lot of traditional and “world” music.
RB: Where did you go to school?
Somi: I went to the University of Illinois for undergrad and I went to graduate school at Tisch (NYU). [For] my undergraduate work 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. People think it’s such a leap that I’m now in music, but I’ve always been interested in it…from a different perspective. And then my studies at Tisch, in a field called Performance studies, was more theory-based, not a studio program. I was more interested in an anthropological look at performance art. My thesis was actually auto-ethnographic and I looked at my own work as a way of constructing trans-national African identities. I wanted to have a language to talk about what I am doing, what I am participating in—socially, politically, all of that—and feed that side of my interests, my mind, my inspiration, and my writing.
RB: Were you writing all this time? When did the Somi we’ve come to know begin to take shape?
Somi: Well, I studied the cello and I always wrote poetry as a child. I wrote constantly. It was more for healing. It was how I would express myself. And I didn’t really start thinking about structure and song writing until I was here in New York and said, let me try to write a song. I’d written songs kind of playfully, but never seriously. And I’d written pieces of music—but it’s different when you’re approaching a classical instrument and when you talk about constructing a piece. I suppose I was actually practicing at song writing when I was writing all that poetry. I still write poetry. But it was interesting to start to share it. I had never shared it. It was always very private.
RB: How did “Red Soil in My Eyes” come to life? Was it out of that place of contradiction you spoke about before? About not being home?
Somi: Well, sort of. I think it was definitely about an organic discovery of myself and reconciliation, or trying to reconcile this bicultural identity, trying to sort of look home for inspiration, but be grounded here. When something is in your eyes people have a tendency to think it clouds your vision, but actually, for me, it was more about a clarity that it offered me.
RB: And so how would you characterize your overall musical posture? How do you imagine music, your music, and music generally? How do you understand the work that it does in the world?
Somi: 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.
RB: Tell me about the new album, “If the Rains Come First.”
Somi: It’s about a lot of different types of stories. I talk about the classic love story, and I talk about homelessness and faith. I kind of approached it wanting my song writing to shine, [to] kind of showcase it more than I’ve allowed in the past.
RB: So what happens “if the rains come first?” What happens then?
Somi: Well, whatever you would like to happen. (Laughter) The song itself, “If the Rains Comes First,” is actually about going home. Whenever you go home. Knowing that home is always there, right? And I think that is sort of the departure from the last record [Red Soil in My Eyes]. The last record was so much about “let me go home, that’s where I’m going to find my grounding, that’s where I’m going to find myself.”
RB: Healing the rupture and the dislocation?
Somi: Yes. This is more about holding on, knowing that it’s there, knowing that it’s never abandoned me, knowing that you’re always going to be yourself wherever home might be. It’s not about an explicit place. But it’s about dreaming. There is this one part where I talk about [translating from the Kinyarwanda] “I want to sing the songs my grandfather once sang. Let me come home again where I can dream again and dance with my parents once more.” So it’s about returning to a place of innocence in a way, but a grounded innocence. Not like I need to be comforted, but that I need to find myself. To me, what rain is symbolizing and what it always symbolizes at home is that rain is always, rain…
Somi: [Rains] are a challenge, but they are also a blessing, right? So it doesn’t matter if a challenge comes first, or if a blessing comes first. Whatever it is, I know I can still go home. I know that life still has to move forward. I know that I’m still going to be myself and I can still find my way home. And home is however you want to conceptualize it, whether it’s a physical place or a spiritual place.
RB: It’s amazing to hear you say that because both “Red Soil in My Eyes” and “If the Rains Come First” are evocative titles. But they also, I think, easily fold into the category of “world music” where Africa is often figured as natural. But to hear you describe it now, it is so rich and full. Have you gotten similar responses to the titles of the albums?
Somi: I do understand that whole thing about nature. I had this conversation recently with a very dear friend of mine who said, [affecting a Nigerian-British accent] “I just hate when any sort of nature has to be involved with African expression.” And she was so disturbed! But I think once you live with the music you understand that’s not what it’s about. I think, for me, people will hear the music and know where I am. At least that’s what I am hoping.
Photo by Matthew Furman
RB: Tell me about the New Africa Live project.
Somi: Well, I started New Africa Live really as a passion project. I wanted to carve out a cultural space of belonging. People keep telling me it’s such a selfless thing since I’m here and am promoting other artists, but in some ways it’s selfish because by carving out a space for them, I’m carving out a space for myself at the same time. I am so committed to trying to help society re-imagine what African cultural production is. So it frustrates me to no end when the African music that we get to see isn’t necessarily as inspired. Not to dismiss or “dis” traditional African expression, but to not see what’s happening on the contemporary level is to sort of dismiss the possibility and to not acknowledge what’s happening right now is to say that African culture and art does not evolve. And my point is that we too evolve. And we too have stories that come from different lines. And we too are effected by globalization or digital exchange, whatever it is, there is something distinctly African but very modern that we have to say as well. So I am just trying to celebrate this really exciting cultural moment that is [unfolding] on the continent right now.
New Africa Live, like I said, started as a passion project but by doing it once, twice, a third time I realized that people were also looking for that and so that’s the reason I changed the template from where [all the artists] were in one genre. I wanted the line of connection to be about our Africaness and less about we all do jazz or we all do hip-hop, so people can really focus on what is distinctly African about what each of these artists are doing. And it continued to grow and by the end of last year I did this Miriam Makeeba tribute that was huge. Just to have people like Paul Simon and Harry Belafonte involved, I felt this thing was bigger than me, it felt like a spiritual call of some sort. I can’t just lay this thing down because every show got bigger and bigger. It really inspired me in a way. The last few events have been great. In January, I incorporated as a non-profit organization and am now sponsored by the New York Foundation of the Arts. It’s become this other thing. It’s been a challenge trying to balance that and also be the artist, but at the same time it’s something that I think is necessary.
RB: You mentioned that you are choosing artists who work in a range of genres. How do you choose artists? What are you looking for?
Somi: 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.
RB: The pop world, the billboard music charts and the like, are really quite musically thin to my mind and feed into a thick commercial culture. How do you see yourself fitting in with this nexus of commodity capitalism with work that is more serious, that is about originality, about shifting boundaries, and re-conceptualizing what African music is?
Somi: 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.
RB: So, in the US context, what kind of contemporary music tradition do you identify with?
Somi: 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.
RB: What would you like the readers to know before they go out and pick up the new album?
Somi: I hope they hear my heart. And I hope that they hear the sincerity that I am trying to bring to the music and the stories. And we’ll see if the rains come first.
Rich Blint, writer and cultural critic, is a Ph.D. candidate in the American Studies Program at NYU. He is busy completing his dissertation, “Trembling on the Edge of Confession: Racial Figuration and Iconicity in Modern American Culture.”
Somi at Le Poisson Rogue, New York City. Photo by Terrence Jennings, 2009