“I don’t take coffee; I take tea, my dear. Some extra rice, please, on the side...”
My tea leaves steep as I wait for Somi in Silvana, a café and live-music venue on 116th Street in Harlem, just off Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The singer-songwriter—who has topped both jazz and world music charts whilst being compared to the inimitable Nina Simone—is running late. Looking about, I’m struck that despite over a decade of our co-existing as up-and-coming chanteuses in New York (with about 100 mutual Facebook friends), our introduction was only about a year before, in this same café. At the time, she was composing songs for her recently released fifth album, Petite Afrique.
But ironically, the first time I saw Somi perform wasn’t in New York. It was in our shared home state, on a blustery March evening at the Promontory in Chicago. I’d been invited by my friend, renowned drummer Otis Brown III, a staple in her band.
“I think she’s amazing,” he’d said.
Amazed I was, as she opened her set with a mesmerizing cover of Sting’s reggae-tinged rumination on being a foreigner in a foreign land. Somi’s reworking is more like an incantation, her voice hypnotically rising and falling as she evokes the senses, struggles and often subversive beauty of “otherness” in America.
“I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien. I’m an African in New York ... ”
On this June afternoon, Somi arrives at Silvana breathless and apologetic. Consistent with the cultural identities she claims equally, she appears every bit as African as she is American: dress bright and billowing, locs swinging, and enviable baubles of brass adorning her brown skin. When she speaks, her cadence somehow magically evokes both the kalimba and the suburban-Illinois idiosyncrasies of my own. She greets me with a hug, already more familiar than foreign.
Born in America to Ugandan and Rwandan parents, Somi readily admits that her first-generation African-American experience was more comfortable than most. Her father was a professor at the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. She and her siblings were primarily raised in the academic enclave surrounding the state’s flagship university.
An academic herself, Somi holds degrees in cultural anthropology and African studies, with a graduate degree in performance studies. But she’s quick to note that even the privileges of academia were no buffer from the reality of being an immigrant family in America:
It doesn’t dismiss that sense of “otherness.” It doesn’t dismiss the sacrifices that [my parents] made. And it doesn’t dismiss what it was to move through the world in the ’80s and ’90s and raise children in a foreign land where there weren’t a lot of people who looked like us, or who came from where we came from.
Somi is still far from her roots. But while she considers many places in the world home, her nine years uptown have convinced her that Harlem will always be one of them.
Well, Harlem is Harlem, right? It’s so storied. As somebody who works in the jazz idiom, there are all sorts of reasons that Harlem is interesting: the legacy of jazz in this neighborhood and community, one of the most celebrated and most important neighborhoods in the Western world for black cultural production and black voices and artists. Those things were all very meaningful to me.
Ultimately, it wasn’t Harlem’s history as a black mecca, but the mecca Somi found there, that cemented its appeal.
I discovered this vibrant African immigrant community. That was kind of the selling point to me, honestly: being able to walk down an area, a block, and see myself, see my family, see my own immigrant narrative. It’s a humbling thing to be reminded of that immigrant journey and struggle, really.
What it means to be an immigrant in America—specifically, in Harlem—is the theme of Petite Afrique, a lush but tightly woven musical meditation on changing demographics and the loss of cultural enclaves, including the 2013 eviction of a neighborhood mosque and the banishment of a 40-year-old drum circle from Marcus Garvey Park in 2008. Somi casts a rare spotlight on a blackness neither romanticized by the Harlem Renaissance nor most visible in its recent gentrification. This is because, as she notes, immigrants historically keep their guards up and their heads down:
But what does that mean, in terms of visibility of that community in this community? Does their story go untold, that other black community that people don’t remember to talk about? Blackness in Harlem has been fluid and international and cosmopolitan for generations. But a lot of those stories aren’t told—definitely not the African ones. So that’s what Petite Afrique was about: remembering and honoring them, and acknowledging their history and their presence.
Armed with both her anthropological skills and immigrant roots, Somi set out to excavate those stories, through interviews and exploration that unearthed perhaps another Harlem renaissance—decades after the Jazz Age, but long before “the Gentry” came uptown to rebrand it “SoHa.”
I would ask when did they come; I would ask about their experiences. And it’s interesting. Some of them feel as though gentrification—or, let’s say, the change in Harlem—is because of their entrepreneurial endeavors. There’s [an interlude] on the album called “Go Back to Your Country,” and at the very end, he’s like, “We changed Harlem. You never saw white people. Never. We came, we opened restaurants, we opened businesses when nobody wanted to.”
They also talked about the tension between [newly arrived] Africans and African Americans: “They would tell me, go back to your country, you African!” And I thought that was really curious because it’s still here now; that disconnect, even though we’re the same people.
That contradiction was the catalyst for the song “Black Enough,” which questions whether Africans and African Americans are truly as different as we are the same. But if there’s a disconnect, Somi recognizes that it isn’t one-sided, particularly in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement:
I was hearing a lot of apathy from the African community—I’m talking about young, first-gens—very well-educated people who were like, “That’s not my struggle; that’s a black American issue.” To me, that was really disheartening. It gets into these gradations of blackness, and how we decide when we’re gonna show up for each other. And that’s why I [ask]: “Am I black enough for you? They could shoot my children, too; Even if I’m not from here, green cards won’t save you … ”
She also believes that while rapidly shifting demographics are undeniably impacting the culture of her adopted home—notably, the chorus of “The Gentry” is, “I want it black, I want it back”—gentrification is less about the appearance of white faces in traditionally black spaces than the disrespect that newcomers show for those spaces.
This is about the integrity of cultural space. If people honored it in a certain way, then it wouldn’t feel like this. People wouldn’t be pissed off, because nobody would think to write on their storefront “Established in SoHa.” It’s like there’s no acknowledgment of what the culture is here.
You can’t show up in another country and dismiss the culture, you know? And it’s the same thing. If you’re showing up in communities of color, people have to acknowledge what the culture is. It doesn’t mean that folks aren’t welcome; let’s just honor where we’re choosing to stand.
But if honor is Somi’s mission with Petite Afrique, this album is equally a declaration of love:
It’s a love letter to my parents, and it’s a love letter to Harlem and the home it’s been to me. I just want people to remember the dignity of immigrants. I mean, this is a country of immigrants; this place, of all places. It’s just to acknowledge that dignity, and to remember Harlem and the home it’s been to so many.