Music by VICE

Somi's New Album Is a Pan-African Love Letter to Harlem

The singer/songwriter's latest effort, 'Petite Afrique,' is a soulful celebration of her black and immigrant identities.

by Janae Price
Apr 24 2017, 4:00am

Photo by Robert Adam Mayer

The first time I heard Somi's music, I was in the car with my mother. She was buzzing with excitement because she'd discovered the artist earlier that day when they played one of her songs on the loudspeaker at Pier 1. My mother's music taste can be hit or miss: One day she's bumping some obscure Bootsy Collin's track, and the next day she's playing lame elevator music. But when she cranked up the volume to Somi's "Kuzunguka," I was stunned.

Somi's sound transported me to that sweet intersection between the sultry vibes of America jazz and the earthy vibrant sounds of East African music. The combination makes perfect sense, given the fact that Somi is a woman who was raised in the United States by parents who hail from Rwanda and Uganda. For more than 15 years, Somi has been mining her global black identity for music that speaks to the vast beauty across the African diaspora. And right now, her voice is more important than ever, considering that every aspect of her person is under siege in America.

As a woman, she faces a president who boasts about sexual assault. As a black person, she faces a legacy of state violence that dates back to chattel slavery. And as a descendant of immigrants, she faces a country that is on the verge of succumbing to xenophobic paranoia. But from the pain of these struggles, she's crafted the perfect salve: her sixth album, Petite Afrique. The album's name is a reference to Harlem, where Somi planted her roots more than a decade ago. Harlem is a source of inspiration because the New York City neighborhood embodies both the links and fractures that exist between African Americans and African immigrants living in America. Unfortunately, Harlem's unique black culture is one that is rapidly disappearing as gentrification takes hold of the city.

On the new album, Somi's voice is powerful and soars like a modern day Nina Simone. But her lyrics also strike a chord. With blunt references to the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality, the project is a perfect illustration of some of the biggest issues impacting black people today. In this frenzied and fearful political and social climate, Petite Afrique lends a breath of fresh air to those feeling under represented or misunderstood.

To get a better understanding of the inspiration and ideas behind her excellent new album, I gave Somi a call. Here's what she had to say. 

VICE: How did this record come together?
Somi: At first, I wasn't going to make this an album. I was just thinking about this quiet kind of erasure of the African immigrant community here in Harlem. There are so many things about that community that have made me who I am.

When you say "erasure," can you give me an example?
Three years ago, there was this mosque on 116th and Frederick Douglas. It was a huge center for the community. It was just such a crucial part of the neighborhood. I would pass it every time I was going to the train. Now, they are turning it into condos.

How does your music address that phenomenon?
The music gives voice to the community in a way that provides some type of agency. We don't always feel that our voice will matter. That is something I was reflecting on prior to deciding Petite Afrique would become an album. And now, for the album to come out in this political climate that is trying to normalize, xenophobia, islamophobia... It just makes me feel more encouraged to share this work. I'm glad to use my voice for those who might be feeling disempowered.

Photo by Robert Adam Mayer

How do you feel as a woman of color who is also the daughter of immigrants in Trump's America?
I definitely didn't vote for him, let me just state that. I consider myself an American, but I feel under attack. I feel under assault with every new policy in this administration.

The song "Black Enough" really stuck out to me on the album.
With that, I wanted to address bidirectional interracial tension [between African immigrants and black Americans]. We are the same people. We are of each other. But we have forgotten that because of time. When I say, "lines erased through blood and water," I'm actually talking about the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We don't know what our relationship is. It's about how we define blackness through our own communities.

In that song, at the very end you sing, "They can shoot my children, too. Green cards don't save you." What are you getting at?
We can sit here and talk within the black community about who is black enough and who is African enough, but really we are all black bodies negotiating the same politics. It's about understanding that we are all in the same fight. It's about African people recognizing that we have a shared history, therefore a shared experience no matter how much time has passed.

What message do you want fans to get from this project?
I need people to have a conversation about xenophobia, islamophobia, and gentrification. I want people to recognize the identity of immigrants and have a meditation on the humanity of immigrant communities. I want people to just recognize communities like [the one] in Harlem, although it's disappearing. 

Buy Somi's album on iTunes

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Tagged:
RACISM
NEW YORK CITY
Harlem
african diaspora
Somi
Petite Afrique