Somi, a jazz musician who was born and raised right here in Champaign, IL, set out to change the definition of what jazz and African music entailed, frequently combining the two.
Written by Willa Wu
Somi performed her music in the Colwell Playhouse of the Krannert Center for Performing Arts on February 14, 2020. The singer and her group of talented musicians, who have won countless awards, delivered an awe inspiring performance, where each individual in the band had their own time to shine.
When Somi first came out dancing, I was initially slightly confused. Is this a play? Or a concert? Or both? After her first song, she explained that she was of East African but whose hometown was right here in Champaign. The audience cheered, and the atmosphere immediately felt very comfortable. Her humble and genuine personality won over the crowd since the start. Most of the songs performed that night were from her latest album, Petite Afrique, which is a community in Harlem where she lived.
The Event as a Performance
Somi seemed to engage with just about everyone in the room. Audience wise, although she did oftentimes speak to her mother and extended family, the stories that she told us in between songs were directed towards the general audience. Coming in, I was unaware of her background, but by the end I felt like a close friend. In addition, many of the stories were very relatable, coming from immigrant parents myself. The supportive crowd cheered her on not only after every song, but during as well. One of the aspects that I had never seen before in a concert is the way Somi made sure every individual in her band had their own time to shine. Both in between and during songs, Somi would oftentimes extend her arms to showcase a different individual and their musical capabilities. It was refreshing to hear and see the supportive dynamics of the band, and Somi certainly made sure to let everyone know how appreciative she was for her fellow bandmates. Oftentimes in a band, the singer is the one who receives the most exposure, but instead I saw the different unique talents in the band having their own solo performances.
Her music of the evening ranged from activist to love songs, and went from upbeat songs to slower ones as well. In the beginning, when she was explaining her background and how she currently lives in Harlem to be close to the culture and community, I expected for all of her songs to be tied to one topic. However, she surprised me by then playing two love songs, just in time for Valentines day. I then realized that Somi doesn’t tie herself to anything, she sings about the values she holds in her life, whether that be social injustice or love.
Somi sang a variety of songs that covered many topics, but my favorite was the song titled, Two Dollar Day. I respect the activism approach she takes to her career, and using her voice on a topic that little people are aware of is an excellent way to spread awareness. Not only did it have a catchy tune, but it also spoke mounds of the unfair situation in Africa. My favorite lyrics, “There’s a woman on the road, She got dreams to live, Her days are numbered, And sometimes it’s better to sleep.” Before Somi’s performance, I was also not aware of the oil price increasing by 250% last year in Africa, but was educated through her music.
My favorite moment of the night was watching the piano player perform his own solo performance. Having played 8-9 years of piano myself, I was struck by both his talent and his positivity throughout. He looked genuinely happy and the music that he played helped form a crucial foundation of Somi’s music.
The songs and storytelling Somi put together created an extremely cohesive performance. Every aspect felt like it belonged, whether it be the song choices or backup musicians. In the end, she received a standing ovation, which was well deserved