by Sophia Mauro
Activist, songwriter, and artist Somi took part in a residency at SFS from April 10-12, 2019. SFS students had the chance to listen to and learn from her during small group discussions, a public concert in Gaston Hall and a salon style reading of her play Dreaming Zenzile. The Lagos Music Salon and Petite Afrique, Somi’s first two albums, have garnered international attention, topped jazz charts, and won numerous awards, including the 2018 NAACP Image Award. She’s performed at the United Nations’ General Assembly at the invitation of former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in commemoration of the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as well as in Carnegie Hall to celebrate 20 years of South African democracy.
Somi’s three-day residency at Georgetown was part of the inaugural CrossCurrents festival, hosted by the Georgetown Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics. The festival is a citywide celebration in April and May featuring artists and companies from more than 40 countries. During her stay, she exposed students to a variety of mediums and topics.
Somi says her inspiration as an artist and a storyteller came “from a selfish place”; as the child of immigrants in Illinois, “there were not very many opportunities to see my own experience in storytelling and in books and films.”
On April 10, the African Studies Program hosted Somi for a sit-down chat with a small group of students. During the discussion, students heard about Somi’s search to find her identity as an artist, the pressure she faced from record companies to sound a certain way instead of being herself, and the ways in which her childhood and background have shaped her career.
On April 11, Somi performed songs from “Petite Afrique,” her latest album, on the Gaston Hall stage. “Petite Afrique,” she says, “is a meditation, a song cycle about the dignity of immigrants, the dignity specifically of the Harlem community, and the humanity of all immigrants and how their stories have to be told and honored.”
After the show, audience members had the chance to ask Somi questions about her songs and experiences. Her music is part singing, part storytelling, inspired by an 18-month creative sabbatical in Lagos, Nigeria. One audience member asked her about the anthropological elements of her songwriting process. Somi replied, “It was really a natural thing. I just started recording everything. Recording the street, recording the ocean, recording the immigration officers, recording conversations. I just tried to listen.”
Somi is currently working on Dreaming Zenzile, a modern jazz play based on the life of South African singer and political activist Miriam Makeba. On April 12, Somi treated Georgetown students and community members to a salon-style reading of excerpts from the play at the Maria & Alberto de la Cruz Art Gallery. Following the reading, she participated in a discussion with the audience about the creative process and the nature of cultural memory.