Somi sings for uprooted African immigrants in Harlem on ‘Petite Afrique’

Somi’s new album plunges the listener into the inner lives of Africans in New York’s Harlem. CREDIT: Photo courtesy of DL Media and Somi, used with permission

Somi doesn’t force you to confront issues of racism when worlds collide. She guides you inside first, showing you an inner, other world, a home away from home, made even more intoxicating by her balanced, artistic hand.

She did this brilliantly in her previous album, The Lagos Music Salon, her OKeh Records debut Aug. 5, 2014. Through poetry set to music, sampled atmospherics — a languorous immersion into Lagos, Nigeria by way of New York City — and a meeting of jazz with slow-burning soul, the singer/songwriter opened up a world many never experience.

The artist’s parents are from Rwanda and Uganda. She grew up in the Mid-West. When her father passed away in 2009, she was riding high on a hit record, If The Rains Come First (ObliqSound).

With the encouragement of mentor Hugh Masekela, Somi traveled to Nigeria in 2011 to disappear, decompress, find some meaning, maybe get in greater touch with her heritage. She did this and so much more.

Her fourth album, Petite Afrique, comes out March 31 on OKeh Records, featuring her traveling spirit, compassionate touch, and that immersive poetry to art in music. The new album continues her inspiring journey through Africa by way of Harlem.

“This album is, in many ways, a love letter to my parents and the generous community of immigrants that raised me,” Somi said in a press release from DL Media. “Once Harlem started to change, I realized just how much the African community there made the anonymity of New York City feel more like home.”

The album also features 14 exquisitely chosen and executed tracks, and likeminded souls in the recording band. They include special guest vocalist Aloe Blacc (“The Gentry”), trumpeter Etienne Charles, alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland, and her core musicians, pianist Toru Dodo, guitarist Liberty Ellman, bassist Michael Olatuja, and drummer Nate Smith.

The press calls Somi a storyteller. She is that, but so much more. She is a translator of the highest order, guiding the listener into the inner realm of others outside the mainstream. For this new record, she focuses on African immigrants trying to live an American dream in Harlem.

“This album is, in many ways, a love letter to my parents and the generous community of immigrants that raised me.”

Her music pleases the senses, but also educates through total immersion. You don’t so much learn about African immigrants and the African-American experience, as you sit with them and see through their eyes, feel what they feel.

So much more effective than beating someone about the head with protest marches and in-your-face finger-wagging.

Somi has this ability to change the scenery before your very eyes with her voice, her poetry, her hypnotically rhythmic music that is both familiar and exotic. She uses every artistic arsenal at her disposal to transcend the ordinary and give poetic beauty to even the most common, ordinary of daily situations.

“Disappearing Act II” is utter perfection, about an extraordinary ordinary day. “It’s almost winter in Harlem. There’s less time, and more chill,” she states, against a backdrop of an African-sounding EDM beat, lifting at the edges with bell-like chimes. “The large eyes of street lights catch my breath, [she breathes deeply here] and stare plainly at my shadow… I can only see an ebony man in all-white garb across the avenue. He looks at me, looking at him, looking at me. We know each other. But then I blink. First you see him, now you don’t.”

I don’t know about you, but this alone compels me to book a one-way flight to Harlem right now.

Somi changes the meaning of Sting’s “Alien,” considerably, giving it the gravity it deserves. She lowers her cavernous voice even further, a voice at home in the vows of an ancient church, zeroing in on the heart of this song about an “African in New York,” her switch.

When Sting swings through it with his crowbar, the song seems cartoonish, in a foreigner’s distant past. When Somi takes it on, slowly removing the song’s extravagant, British excess, it takes on a life of its own; she slips into the skin, wears its bones, embodies that African in New York for all the Africans living in New York trying to find a new way.

You hear “Alien in New York” for the first time. The racial angle’s a lot deeper than Sting’s version. But then, Somi’s depth is her innate understanding as an African-American in New York experiencing the varying degrees of African immigrants — a far cry from Sting’s safe, wry British observations.

It’d be easy to skip over the “talky” tracks. But don’t. Zero in on “Go Back To Your Country,” the interlude where she interviews an African immigrant about his experience with racism in America. Because conversation is music, too.

Somi sings with a sweet, disarming charm with guest artist Aloe Blacc on “The Gentry,” the most perfect mix of jazz, soul, and her gentle spotlight on the inspiring subject matter. As much as this song swings, the social message isn’t lost in the horns, the vocals, and the snaps of the snazzy, building African beats — from America’s version of funk/soul to the real thing.

She wrote the piece about what happens when a neighborhood becomes gentrified, specifically regarding the legal conflict between a 60-year-old drum circle going on in Marcus Garvey Park and the new Harlem residents with their big money and their delicate sensibilities.

Whether Somi performs her miniature poetry slams outside a travel brochure, or wraps her dulcet tones in a pure melodic trance, she exudes musicality, diversity, and social message with an exuberant, graceful lightness of being that’s simply enchanting.

“They’re Like Ghosts” and “Midnight Angels” are living examples that combine Somi’s expertise in both vocal shape-shifting and lyrical narratives to convey the beauty in the world of the forgotten, beauty which always seems to come with a price.

“They’re Like Ghosts” plays as a love song out of time — for star-crossed lovers and for the land of one’s origins. “It’s a song about the longing for and romanticization of people or things we once loved. The lover, in this case, is really a metaphor for the lands that still haunt us as immigrants and the forgetfulness of why we left that comes with time,” Somi continued.

She melts her voice into this ghostly tone permeating throughout a shapely musical landscape of drums, violins, and guitar, a timely mix of both cultures that shaped her.

“Midnight Angels” could be the most catchy song on the record. Yet, it is also Somi at her most open and vulnerable. She lays her heart out on the line, wanting so much to be the soulful conduit to touch and inspire, to tell the stories of those who cannot spare the time, to shed light on those midnight angels with their “gold and dreams and magic on their necks… sweat and love… blue, black and mystical… Tell my father that I found you. Please tell them that I tried.”

Somi is quietly subversive in all the right places on Petite Afrique. She performs each track as if birthing a child, or smoothing out the edges of a living museum piece.