Sophisticated and seductive, Somi‘s new album The Lagos Music Salon developed out of the American singer and songwriter’s repeated visits to Lagos, Nigeria, where, as Teju Cole’s liner notes put it, she “absorbed the city’s truth into her musical imagination.”
From the cloudy, slightly Bacharach-esque lost-love song “Still Your Girl” to the intricate dance-pop of “Lady Revisited” (an answer to Fela Kuti’s “Lady”), and from the sunny horn-and-percussion-fueled Afropop of “Akobi: First Born S(u)n” to the chilling verses of Somi’s transformation of Nina Simone’s “Four Women” into “Four African Women,” these songs encompass Somi’s jazz and world music roots while expressing her deep connection to both the cultural glories and the daily tragedies of West Africa.
“Two-Dollar Day” depicts “a woman on the road / She got mouths to feed / Her man died last year / Now she works to the bone.”
“When Rivers Cry” features rapper Common and laments the fouling of the continent’s waterways: “Feet crushing plastic / Moving windows tossing bottles dry…Waste and dust still choking road and sky / The trees remember days of plenty / Before rivers cried.” (Angélique Kidjo and gospel group In His Image also make guest appearances on the album.)
The spoken-word prose poem “Shine Your Eye” paints a detailed novelistic portrait of the Lagos that Somi experienced.
And even a sensual track like “Ginger Me Slowly” shows Somi’s cerebral side: “Oh, ginger me with candlelight and long walks by the lagoon / Ginger me with intellect and wine.”
Somi spoke to us about her time in Lagos, her development as an artist, and her major label debut, The Lagos Music Salon.
The album sounds (and reads) like a tapestry of everything you learned and observed and felt during your stays in Lagos. How much time have you spent there? And will you be spending more?
I spent 18 months there during the creative process of this album, but I had had two short trips there prior to my decision to move. Since my return to New York City last year, I’ve been back four times for performances.
Have you travelled much to other parts of Africa?
Absolutely. Most of my visits to the continent are to Rwanda and Uganda where I’m from, but I’ve also lived in Zambia, Kenya, and Tanzania and have traveled to a total of about 19 African countries. I would love to make it to all 54 countries in my lifetime.
You pay tribute to Fela Kuti and Nina Simone in your songs, and you have as guest artists on the album the rapper Common, the gospel group In His Image, and the iconic Beninoise singer-songwriter and activist Angélique Kidjo. All these eclectic influences seem to fuse into a distinct and integral whole in your music, which has jazzy complexity as well as pop touches. How did you arrive at this musical synthesis, which you have called “New African Jazz”?
I don’t know that there was a particular moment of musical “arrival.” More than anything, I just decided to stop trying to compartmentalize all of my influences. Instead, I chose to privilege each of them fully when the stories I’m trying to tell asked for it. Having such a layered, multi-culti social and cultural upbringing and identity, music has always been the space that allows me to imagine and create a fixed sense of “home.” That home is meant to be a world of in-betweens, transnationalisms, Africanisms, Midwesternisms – I suppose that’s also where one might hear or evoke musical synthesis. The decision to unapologetically pour all of my influences into this album is something that was a bit scary at times, but ultimately I’m most proud of.
You’ve worked with many of the musicians in your band for a long time. Have they been an integral part of developing your sound and your style?
Absolutely. I’ve learned so much from them and their monstrous musical vocabulary. Each member of my band has challenged me to take bigger risks vocally and creatively. Every time we are on stage, I’m learning from them and I feel so honored to be surrounded by such gifted players. When I started this journey, I never even considered being a “jazz” vocalist. What each of my beautiful band members have taught me is that jazz is about finding and honoring your own voice in the midst of an ensemble while freeing yourself through improvisation and honesty. A beautiful metaphor for the way in which we all move through the world around us and definitely an integral part of developing my own work.
Your music fuses jazz and Afropop in a way that sounds original and also completely natural. Did spending parts of your childhood in both the U.S. and Africa contribute to developing this synthesis?
I would assume so. We are all porous beings and I can only hope that the mash-up of music (traditional African music, opera, 1960s pop, roots reggae, etc.) that often ran through my parents’ home, at the very least, gave me the courage to explore and be open to different styles of music. Although I grew up mostly in Illinois, I always had a keen interest in my cultural heritage and African music. Interestingly, I don’t remember actually really listening to jazz until my college years.
What sorts of music were you exposed to and inspired by growing up, both in the U.S. and in Africa? Was there live music in your home?
I started studying the cello when I was eight years old and, perhaps as a result, I mostly listened to classical music on the local radio station. Being involved in an orchestra from a young age, exposed me to a lot of live music performances, and my parents also took us to hear live music when possible. As far as live music in the home, my family always sings in times of prayer, jubilation, or even grief. With so many voices naturally around you, I think it’s easy for you to take yours for granted. I always wonder if that’s partly why I didn’t begin to take my voice seriously until after university.
You use Yoruba words in lyrics, but you explained that you’re not Yoruba yourself. What is your heritage? And are you especially conscious of this because of the time you’ve spent in Africa?
Yoruba is a language indigenous to Nigeria. I am half Ugandan and half Rwandese. When I explain that I’m not Yoruba, I’m simply trying to be mindful of not seeming as though I’m trying to appropriate another people’s culture to be my own. Besides that, I’m sure there’s a bit of self-consciousness in there too – just in case one of my Yoruba vowels doesn’t quite hit the mark!
Speaking of heritage, your new album is out on Sony’s once-again-revived OKeh Records label. OKeh goes back almost 100 years. How does it feel to be a part of such a long (and crazy) recording history?
I’m not sure what you mean by “crazy”, but I laughed out loud when I read the question.
Mostly, I feel honored to be a part of such a rich and extended legacy of music. In the first weeks after I signed to the label, I would wake up each morning honestly wondering if it had really happened. I would check my email to make sure I really had had the conversations and that the contract had actually been signed. LOL. I still have moments like that from time to time. More than anything, I’ve worked very hard for a very long time and I’m so happy to have the opportunity to foster deeper partnerships, connect with more listening hearts, and try to do my family (and the label) proud.
Lagos has 21 million people. That seems like an almost inconceivably large city to Americans. Obviously you find it an inspiring place, but can it also be overwhelming? What’s life like there?
Life was, as you said, overwhelming at times, but I love big cities! Lagos feels like New York with an African remix. Sure there are some infrastructural issues that can frustrate a Westerner like myself, but mostly I was so inspired by the heat, the push & pull, the traffic, the madness, the raw beauty, the ambition, the cosmopolitanism, the magic! Every day was a day to see something new, write something new, share something new. Lagos healed my heart in more ways that I could have imagined and I’m thankful for that.
In your song “When Rivers Cry” and elsewhere you show a deep consciousness of the environment. Is there an influential environmental movement in Nigeria?
Not to my knowledge. I wrote that song the day Wangari Mathai died. She was Africa’s most internationally recognized environmentalist and she was also the first African female Nobel Prize laureate. Being in Lagos when I heard the news, I couldn’t help but reflect on the environmental past, present, and future of African cities.
You introduced the song “Two Dollar Day” as being inspired by an “Occupy Nigeria” demonstration in 2012. What was the demonstration about, what did it show you, and how did the song come about?
The demonstration was about the Nigerian government’s decision to remove the long-term fuel subsidy that typically allowed Nigerians to enjoy cheap gas prices in the oil-rich nation. The price of fuel went up over 200% overnight which then drove up the cost of transportation and everything else. Angered by the extreme change in their basic cost of living, the whole country went on strike for eight days. At the end of the strike, gas prices all over the world had gone up and the people convinced the government to bring the prices down significantly.
More than anything, it reminded me of the often undervalued political power that lies in African people in general and Nigerians in particular. The average Nigerian supposedly makes less than two dollars a day despite the tremendous wealth that can also be found there. I met a woman who worked in the home of a friend of mine who was devastated by the new transportation costs and heartbroken about her prospects of survival. I wrote the song from her and all of the other people who took to the streets in protest.
Now that the album has been released worldwide, what are your touring plans? And what else is coming up or on the horizon for you?
I’m doing a tour of some major U.S. cities next month before heading over to Europe in October. On the immediate horizon, I’m just happy to finally share this new music as much as I can. Next year, I’m an artist in residence at both UCLA’s Center for Performance Art and at The Robert Rauschenburg Foundation. I’m looking forward to using those residencies to develop a Miriam Makeba project I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I can’t say too much about it yet, but I’m excited to finally commit some energy and time to it.
What message(s) do you want listeners to take home with them when they see you perform live or listen to the album?
For this album, I suppose I’d love for them to feel as though they traveled to Lagos with me. I’d also love for them to have a deeper understanding of one African city’s nuance and inspiration – bursting with stories of humanity, both tragic and magic.