Somi began dreaming of Miriam Makeba at a time of challenge in her life. Just as so many artists have given inspiration, motivation and hope to those who turn to their artistry, so did Makeba inspire Somi.
Somi not only wrote and performs in the acclaimed stage production Dreaming Zenzile, she has also released the album Zenzile: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba, a recording project that finds her breathing transformative life into the music of the woman known as “Mama Africa.”
The Grammy-nominated vocalist, songwriter, playwright and performer joined us to talk more about the project.
I heard you discussing this project as being a result of dreams you had about Miriam Makeba. How did it go from dream to reality?
When she passed away in 2008, somebody called me just before I went on stage. I was reflecting: Who’s going to honour her? Who’s going to celebrate her? That was the beginning. I produced an event in New York that ended up being the only event honouring her in the city. Harry Belafonte spoke, and Paul Simon did a short set, and Randy Weston performed and talked about what it was like to tour with her and Dizzy Gillespie, and there was an array of younger African music communities. There was this magical gathering. I realized that it wasn’t about me — it was this collective longing to celebrate and remember her. The fact that it was the only event made me think of the need for someone to speak her name more loudly into the cultural atmosphere. She has a massive legacy and made such an important contribution to not only “world music,” but also jazz and popular music. I always say that that first night was the beginning of a spiritual dialogue with her legacy. I put that away for a few years, and then around 2014 I had just released my record The Lagos Music Salon about my time in Nigeria, and I received a grant to do a new body of compositions. I wanted to sit down and reimagine [Makema’s] work. When I started reimagining the repertoire, that’s what led me to the story. It helped me understand that even as a lifelong fan, devotee, admirer of her work, there was so much I didn’t know. That’s what inspired this larger, interdisciplinary cultural memory project that has manifested as a play, as an album and as a number of other things. It’s been a journey of nine years.
Miriam Makeba was an activist as well as an artist. How much of that do you take with you in your own artistic life? Do you feel artists bear a certain type of responsibility to reflect their perspective on the world around them the way that she did?
Absolutely. I think it’s up to every artist to decide how they want to use their art — whether they want to speak about social issues or take on the title of “activist.” I try to be very intentional when we talk about what it means to be an activist, because I know there are people on the front lines doing that work every single day. People have spoken about my work and about me as an activist in the sense that I do try to be a witness to all of the things that are happening in society around me as a way of personally deconstructing and figuring out how to move through the many challenges that we all face in the journey of life. Particularly in this time, we’ve been through such a challenging stretch. I’m grateful for how art can disarm hearts to have the conversations that are necessary to hopefully impact change and create a better world around us. I’m so thankful to Miriam Makeba as an example of using her voice to champion issues of the people. She’s in many ways credited with bringing a global consciousness to the anti-Apartheid movement. Really, she’s the original space-maker. She was the first African artist to show up on the global cultural stage. I think what’s so important about honouring her and understanding that I am able to do what I’m doing because of her, it’s one of those things where you have to not only reach within yourself — you have to also ask, What am I doing for the next generation? Because she so generously made room for me, hopefully the work that I’m doing makes room for others as well.
What’s your hope for audiences? Whether they know Miriam Makeba’s music or not, what do you want them to come away with?
A hunger to know more about her. I want people to step away with a deeper appreciation of her music or an interest in knowing more about her. I was actually quite shocked about the number of people who don’t know who she was. I don’t know if it’s generational, if it’s ethnic… it’s across lines, people you think will know, won’t know. I’d love for people to step away feeling inspired, feeling a sense of interest and commitment to celebrating voices like Miriam Makeba, whose legacy has been shrouded by silence. Really, I just want people to feel like they went on a journey and had an opportunity to reflect on one of the greatest voices and the first great lady of African song.