The annual Essence Music Festival held in New Orleans is always a time for great music, great information and great inspiration. And at this year’s Essence Fest, Sosoactive.com had the opportunity to have a one-on-one interview with an up-and-coming artist that embodies all three of those traits. Acclaimed East African vocalist and songwriter Somi was at the 2014 Essence Music Festival to perform and talk about her new album, The Lagos Music Salon being released this summer. Born to immigrants of Rwandan and Ugandan background, Somi was seeking inspiration for her music three years ago and decided to relocate from New York City to Lagos, Nigeria for a year and a half. That inspiration and time in one of Africa’s most well known cities resulted in this new album containing influences from Jazz and R&B to at least a little bit of Afrobeat, yet is a project that stands on its own creative feet. Having been featured in Vogue, Billboard and Jazztimes, Somi continues her musical journey with The Lagos Music Salon and sat down with Sosoactive.com to discuss her new album, her musical influences and what her first Essence Festival experience has been like.
For those that are not yet aware of your music, please give us a glimpse into who Somi is as an artist.
I’m a professional singer with parents originally from east Africa, my parents Rwanda and Uganda, but I grew up in Illinois. I currently live in New York City, in Harlem. I have a new record coming out. It’s my fourth studio record but my first major label record. I feel very excited about it!
Who are some of the artists that have had a direct influence on your music? Are any of the artists performing over the weekend influences on your music?
I’m somebody that loves the classic voices. A lot of Nina Simone, a lot of Sarah Vaughn, a lot of Miriam Makeba, Ella Fitzgerald. More contemporary artists, I love Sade and Bjork. I love all sorts of music! But those are the artists that come to mind that have had a huge influence on my pursuit of freedom and my pursuit of my own sound and voice and approach.
The music of Fela Kuti has begun reaching more fans and generations of fans through the stage musical “Fela!” and the new documentary “Finding Fela”. Has your music been influenced by that of Fela’s at all?
I would say that Fela is one of the greatest African musicians that created his own sound, so in some ways I would say yes. I can appreciate his mash up of musical styles and being authentic with his vision. Am I doing Afrobeat? Not necessarily. But having spent time in Lagos, this record is all about that time and journey there. I had always listened to Fela, but actually being in the place where he is from and where the music is from, I realized that there was a whole other side of his music that I didn’t understand. That particular sound that he created, Lagos is the only place that could have come from. I decided to do one song as a nod to the inspiration and the energy that he gave me. He has a song called “Lady” and so I did a song called “Lady Revisited” and I have Angelique Kidjo on it as well.
What has your first experience with the Essence Festival been like?
It’s been lovely! It’s been great. I’ve only been here for 24 hours but it’s such a beautiful thing to see so many black women in one place for positive energy and experiences. Whether it’s about beauty or self-empowerment or new books or Prince being on stage, it’s such a beautiful and powerful thing. And it’s peaceful! I didn’t expect it to be this huge. But coming here and really seeing the numbers and seeing how people come out and how they come every year with their girlfriend or their man or their family, it’s such a beautiful thing and it’s such an honor to be a part of it and to share my worth in whatever way that I can.
Why was it important to you as an artist to come and perform at the 20th Annual Essence Music Festival in New Orleans?
Well, just what Essence stands for; it’s the preeminent publication for black women. To be a part of that message and voice and platform is a blessing. Also, I just love what it stands for, and I love New Orleans. Mostly I’m just thankful to have a chance for me to reach new audiences and hopefully create a wider community of people that know my music.
Please tell us what music we can expect to hear from The Lagos Music Salon.
Well, I wanted the album to feel like a Salon, a room that gives the listener a sense of travel, a sense of what it is to be in Lagos, Nigeria, to witness the challenges, and also to have a sense of what I was observing as a non-Nigerian, a traveler and an artist. A lot of people talk about my music as if it’s jazz but it’s more than that. There’s the Fela tribute with Angelique Kidjo and the Afrobeat, I have one song with Common. Then there’s some soul stuff, and then there’s stuff that actually is jazz. I just wanted it to feel like a room with conversations between myself with the music, with my fellow artists, with the city, they can expect a lot of different colors and emotions, and really a sense of travel.
On The Lagos Music Salon you have guest performances from the likes of Angelique Kidjo and Common. Can you talk about anyone else on the project and what it was like to work with them?
I’ve also worked with Hugh Masakela, who is one of my dearest mentors. He’s hugely why I went Lagos initially by helping me with my global citizenship. He let me know that If I wanted to go and spend time on the continent that I should do that. He told me that as an artist, I’m a global citizen. So means you can share your art with one part of your audience in one part of this world. I was also a friend with John Legend when he was still John Stephens, who’s still accessible and still supportive.
Who is one artist alive today that would be a dream collaboration for you?
That’s a toss up for me. There are two people in particular. I would love to work with Meshell Ndegeocello; I think she’s a genius. And I would also love to work with B’jork. If I did a record with either or the two of them, it would be awesome.
To find out more about Somi and her upcoming album The Lagos Music Salon, visit www.somimusic.com. She can also be followed on Twitter at @Somimusic.