In March, jazz/R&B singer Somi released her sixth album, “Petite Afrique,” a fantastically versatile and wonderfully complex set of songs centered around changes in Harlem as neighborhoods become less and less recognizable due to an outburst of gentrification. Poignant and confident, it amounts to the best effort of the African singer’s career, a tour de force through influence and wisdom that defies any insistence of genre. She’s going to bring songs from that record, as well as other selections from her 15-year career in music, to the Weinberg Center on Thursday. We recently caught up with her by phone to discuss Sting’s contribution to one of her new songs, what it means to be labeled a jazz singer, and why she’s excited to be working on a theater production chronicling Miriam Makeba’s life.
I was on your website earlier and I noticed that the Frederick date is the last date on your tour. Is that true?
It’s not, actually. We haven’t updated it [laughs]. We have a couple more dates right after that, but that’s it.
But the tour is winding down?
How has it been so far?
It’s been great — it’s been really great. I’m always thankful to be on the road and share my heart.
You’ve been touring this new record pretty much all year. Are you tired?
[Laughs.] It’s all relative. Yeah, you get tired sometimes, but then you also get energized onstage and hope that you have a wonderful time onstage and feel connected and free and all those good things that give us all the more strength to keep going. So, yes and no.
I really love the new record. I wanted to ask you, however briefly, about the process of recording it, what went into it, and how it all came together.
Initially, I wasn’t planning on writing an album about Harlem or gentrification or immigrants or anything. I feel like this album is a conversation I’ve been having with myself for a number of years. I’ve lived in Harlem for the last nine or 10 years, so one of the things I really love about Harlem is this African quarter in West Harlem on 116th Street that always comforted me in some way. What I loved about it was that it was full of folks that remind me of the community that I grew up in. It’s a reminder of my own family and my own history. Over the last 10 years, Harlem has been changing dramatically and it’s really kind of sped up in the last two years. The gentrification, the huge shift in prices in the neighborhood … I was just seeing it as this quiet erasure of the African community. There’s a lyric in the song “Alien” — which is a take on the Sting song “Englishman In New York” — it’s a French line which is almost like, “Make yourself at home, but don’t forget this is my home.” I was just thinking a lot about what that is and the dignity of immigrants. They keep quiet and work so hard — there’s not much room for complaining. They’re just thankful for having the opportunities they have. That’s something I take for granted as a first-generation American. The record is sort of a rumination of all that.
I’m glad you brought up the song “Alien.” So, that’s definitely a callback to “Englishman In New York”?
Yeah, for sure. I had to get permission from Sting to record it. I always thought the word “alien” was a curious way of identifying people. Being a child of immigrants, I remember everybody having these Legal Alien cards and I was just like, “Why does it say my mother is an alien?” So, I always appreciated Sting’s song because I think he also was making fun of that. Obviously, his point of view as an Englishman in New York was a very different point. Mine was meant to be a little more brooding just because, frankly, it’s a more difficult, less-privileged experience to show up as a black immigrant in the West.
There’s one other song I wanted to ask you about — “Black Enough.” Can I get the origins of that song and where you were when you wrote those lyrics?
I started writing that song at the same time the Black Lives Matter movement was really picking up steam and really coming into conversation. I was interviewing mostly taxi drivers, just carrying around my digital recorder and recording these conversations. I was having these conversations about what it was like to show up in Harlem in the 1980s as a Capital-O Other Black Person — seeing themselves but not seeing themselves. I was wondering what was the intra-racial dynamic between the African community that was arriving and the African-American community that had been there. With the Black Lives Matter movement, I was thinking about what blackness means in this world and how we define it. I was also reflecting on how I think a lot of people in the African community were not thinking it was their issue to participate in, to protest and to be part of. It was really meant to be about disrupting the monolith of what blackness might mean and how people define blackness. It’s also about seeing each other within the community and honoring the shared heritage.
You are associated largely with two genres of music. There are a lot of jazzy influences in your music, but there’s also a lot of R&B influences in your music. You also get further into world music than other people. Is there a genre you would like to identify with more than the others? Do you worry about being boxed in every now and then?
People refer to me as a jazz vocalist sometimes, and some days I own it and some days, I’m kind of like, no [laughs]. What I love about jazz is that it’s the one genre that explicitly demands improvisation. Every individual voice in an ensemble is heard and I love that. It’s like a wonderful metaphor for my life. I am constantly improvising. What does it mean to be half Ugandan, half Rwandan, born in Illinois, grew up partly in Zambia, partly in the Midwest and now living between New York, Lagos and Johannesburg. The improvisational spirit is always something I’ve had to lean into over the years. I have the good fortune to be surrounded by wonderful musicians, and the freedom within themselves has inspired me to be freer within myself and take bigger chances. I didn’t set out to be a jazz vocalist, per se. I didn’t even grow up really listening to jazz. I grew up listening to African music and I was kind of a classical music nerd. I just wasn’t really listening to jazz. I think I heard it, but I wasn’t really listening. Jazz is the genre where everybody can be themselves, so that means I’m showing up with Ugandan folk energy at times, with some Illinois R&B/soul, and it’s OK to express all those things as long as you’re doing it with an intentionality and integrity. I just want to show up whole. And if whole means I have to reach into all those different pots to create a sound, then that’s just what it has to be.
So what’s next for you? After this tour’s over, are you going to take a break? Are you going to tour again? Are you going to start writing a new record?
I’m so excited. I’ve been working on a theater project about Miriam Makeba for the last two years and it’s an opera, slash, slash, slash … it’s very hybrid [laughs]. I’ve been developing it with different workshops and different institutions over the last year and a half, two years, and it’s really been wonderful to stretch out in a different discipline and to humble myself to the process of theater-making. I’m hoping it will premiere in the fall of 2018. After this tour, I have a writing residency in November and then I’m going to Johannesburg to do some language study and to dig deeper into the cultural energy of South Africa and hopefully get the point of view of her legacy from her homeland, not just from the research. I’m going to spend a month there and then I’ll be back and I’ll be touring again in February.
So you’re going to stay on this album a little longer?
Yeah. One of the other things I should mention is that some of the shows I’m going to be doing this month are part of a national performance and dialogue series that I’m doing a soft launch for this month. When I come back, I’m going to American cities with some of the largest African immigrant communities and use cultural space to use as space to have some of these larger conversations. So, in a way, yes, I will be touring the music, but I just have a lot of new … I’m trying to disrupt [laughs]. I’m trying to disrupt the model.