celebrating people of color in the arts

Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

Fela! Jolts Broadway

In dance, music, notable, theater on December 2, 2009 at 8:05 pm

By Heather Bent Tamir

Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a mold breaker, a musical innovator, and political firebrand. He didn’t just march to his own beat; he invented it. That beat was Afrobeat, a beguiling blend of jazz, funk, pop, and African rhythms that is now jolting Broadway like a thunderclap. Big, bold, and African but with no cinematic bloodlines (like Lion King), no well-known musical score, and no celebrities on the marquee, ‘Fela!’ on Broadway is proof that there is no pat formula for first-rate entertainment.

The setting is Fela’s last concert at his nightclub, the Shrine, in Lagos in the late 1970s. Although at the height of his career, Fela fears for his life and has decided the fight is no longer worth the cost. Born into Nigeria’s privileged classes, Fela wrote and performed in the pidgin language of the lower classes, reflecting a complicated and often contradictory personality. He had been constantly harassed, jailed, and tortured for his incendiary lyrics attacking corruption and dictatorship, and for seeking to free Nigerians, and Africans more broadly, from the last vestiges of colonialism.

The Broadway production at the Eugene O’Neill Theater transports the audience to another time and place with the help of an evocative set and Sahr Ngaujah as Fela (alternating in the physically demanding role with Kevin Mambo) who commands the stage with swagger, wit, and charm.  Early on, Fela sends the message loud and clear that Afrobeat is, first and foremost, dance music as he gets everyone involved in the art of telling time with the hips—a hip-swiveling number known as the “Clock.” Dance numbers continue to explode with a bevy of colorfully and scantily clad women who play Fela’s “queens” (his entourage of women, many of whom were his wives) and backed up by Antibalas, a Brooklyn-based Afrobeat group who expertly perform songs from the Fela hit parade.

The show builds toward a key flashback, told vividly through multimedia technology, as soldiers storm Fela’s compound and perform all kinds of brutal acts on Fela’s women and fatally injure his mother, Funmilayo (played with dignified and defiant grace by Lillias White). In a supernatural turn, the story achieves its arc as Fela crosses into the next world and communes with his mother. Lighting effects and stagecraft create a surreal and spectacular other world.  Fela comes to understand that he must stay and continue the fight, using music as his weapon.

Fela’s crisis of confidence is a work of fiction.  No one knows whether he had personal moments of doubt. By adding such an aspect the creators have linked Fela to the shared human experience.  What is known is that Fela Anikulapo Kuti, an international star who became revered around the world, could have left Nigeria, but never did.

Director and Choreographer Bill T. Jones; Producers Stephen Hendel, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.  At the Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49th Street, Manhattan, New York City.

Heather Bent Tamir lives in the New York area and writes about the arts.


Somi: of note Artist of the Year 2009

In music, of note artist of the year on December 1, 2009 at 8:31 pm
Photo by Terrence Jennings, 2009

By Rich Blint

of note’s Artist of the Year is a visionary, innovative, and boundary pushing artist who reflects a commitment to global citizenship and social change. In tandem with of note’s mission, the Artist of the Year uses his or her work as a means to challenge, celebrate, and engage the complex experiences of people of color around the globe.  This year we honor Somi. Born in Illinois to Ugandan and Rwandan parents, Somi’s musicianship is a multi-cultural fete of sounds, organically fusing jazz, classic soul, African folk, and urban grooves.

Rich Blint’s masterly interview reveals that Somi’s personal integrity, commitment to musical excellence, and mission with New Africa Live to “help re-imagine what African cultural production is” (and is not) are all compelling examples of why she is the 2009 of note Artist of the Year.


RB: Somi, can I ask your full name?

Somi: Laura Audrey Kabasomi Akiiki Kakoma.

RB: What does all of that mean?

Somi: Laughing. I can talk about the Italian etymology of the name Laura. It supposedly comes from Laurence. It’s a feminine version of Laurence. And is [associated] with the people of Florence. Laura Audrey is my great aunt. Her name is Eudia, which is Audrey in my language. And Kabasomi means child of the scholar or child of reading…I was born when my dad was doing his post-doc. So it was a kind of circumstantial naming.  That’s where the name Somi comes from. Somi in the Bantu languages means to read.

RB: You’re Rwandan and Ugandan, correct? What brought you and your family to the US?

Somi: Well, I was born here. My father was in school, studying in Illinois, finishing his post-doc. I was born in Champaign, Illinois. We lived there for about three and a half years and then moved to Zambia for a few years in my childhood when he was working for the World Health Organization and then the same school, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, asked him to come back so we moved back to Champaign, which is not only my birthplace, but where I grew up.

RB: I want to take a quick turn here. The Rwandan genocide over a decade ago is nightmarish. How does that complicated violence inform your work? I ask because I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. And my dad’s family grew up in a place called Red Berry where the soil is red with bauxite, which was the cause of a particular kind of colonial violence. Your last album is called “Red Soil in My Eyes.”  And I’m sure the soil is rich with bauxite, the same mineral source…

Somi: Definitely the soil is red throughout that part of East Africa.

RB: and so when I’ve seen you perform I’ve thought about the symbolic redness of the earth and I’m wondering, I’m curious about how that history informs your work, if it does at all?

Somi: Well, I don’t know if the genocide informs it consistently. I think that there are moments where I try to acknowledge, perhaps, the suffering, what it is that we’re carrying. I think it’s difficult on a number of levels. I’m a Tutsi woman and to know that Tutsis were persecuted in that sort of way and here I am with all sorts of privilege, of not having had to have been there, having other options, you know, being abroad in Illinois in some comfortable school somewhere and not really having to think about the day-to-day, what it is to survive under those circumstances. So I think that is hard to process. I don’t know that the violence necessarily informs my work. I did a piece on my last record called, “Remembrance.” [In that song] I really tried to capture the spirit, the essence, the mood, where it takes me when I think about it and try to remember those who were lost and also remember those who are trying to heal—whether they were direct victims or they lost people and were victims in that sense.

RB: What got you into music?

Somi: My parents loved music in general. I don’t know if they got me into music or if music was in me.

RB: Was music always around you?

Somi: It was always around me. I grew up listening to a lot of percussive music. My mother is a huge fan of opera. She also is a keeper of all sorts of folk songs so she knows tons of stuff from the village—deep stuff like “this is what the women sing when…” And then my father is really into roots, reggae, feel good music but very earthy…

RB: Foundation music?

Somi: …very black music, too. Whatever that means, I suppose. Obviously, there are all these different layers of what “black music” is and how we construct that but I think he was very clearly drawn to a very specific and explicit black experience and very “roots” oriented. So I listened to a lot of traditional and “world” music.

RB: Where did you go to school?

Somi: I went to the University of Illinois for undergrad and I went to graduate school at Tisch (NYU). [For] my undergraduate work I did Cultural Anthropology and African studies and I thought I was going to be a medical anthropologist and look at how art and culture can heal. People think it’s such a leap that I’m now in music, but I’ve always been interested in it…from a different perspective. And then my studies at Tisch, in a field called Performance studies, was more theory-based, not a studio program. I was more interested in an anthropological look at performance art. My thesis was actually auto-ethnographic and I looked at my own work as a way of constructing trans-national African identities. I wanted to have a language to talk about what I am doing, what I am participating in—socially, politically, all of that—and feed that side of my interests, my mind, my inspiration, and my writing.

RB: Were you writing all this time? When did the Somi we’ve come to know begin to take shape?

Somi:  Well, I studied the cello and I always wrote poetry as a child. I wrote constantly. It was more for healing. It was how I would express myself. And I didn’t really start thinking about structure and song writing until I was here in New York and said, let me try to write a song. I’d written songs kind of playfully, but never seriously. And I’d written pieces of music—but it’s different when you’re approaching a classical instrument and when you talk about constructing a piece. I suppose I was actually practicing at song writing when I was writing all that poetry. I still write poetry. But it was interesting to start to share it. I had never shared it. It was always very private.

RB: How did “Red Soil in My Eyes” come to life? Was it out of that place of contradiction you spoke about before? About not being home?

Somi: Well, sort of. I think it was definitely about an organic discovery of myself and reconciliation, or trying to reconcile this bicultural identity, trying to sort of look home for inspiration, but be grounded here. When something is in your eyes people have a tendency to think it clouds your vision, but actually, for me, it was more about a clarity that it offered me.

RB: And so how would you characterize your overall musical posture? How do you imagine music, your music, and music generally? How do you understand the work that it does in the world?

Somi: I am interested in telling stories. That’s one aspect of what I’m trying to do as an artist. And even if I’m telling stories about love, I’m trying to tell it in a new way, in an original way. Musically, I would like to think that I am open to exploring different things and pushing myself in different directions. In terms of my musical posture, I don’t know if I’m trying to necessarily be one thing. But I would like people to hear the influences and the global perspective. I would like people to hear where I am from.

RB: Tell me about the new album, “If the Rains Come First.”

Somi: It’s about a lot of different types of stories. I talk about the classic love story, and I talk about homelessness and faith. I kind of approached it wanting my song writing to shine, [to] kind of showcase it more than I’ve allowed in the past.

RB: So what happens “if the rains come first?” What happens then?

Somi: Well, whatever you would like to happen. (Laughter) The song itself, “If the Rains Comes First,” is actually about going home. Whenever you go home. Knowing that home is always there, right? And I think that is sort of the departure from the last record [Red Soil in My Eyes]. The last record was so much about “let me go home, that’s where I’m going to find my grounding, that’s where I’m going to find myself.”

RB: Healing the rupture and the dislocation?

Somi: Yes. This is more about holding on, knowing that it’s there, knowing that it’s never abandoned me, knowing that you’re always going to be yourself wherever home might be. It’s not about an explicit place. But it’s about dreaming. There is this one part where I talk about [translating from the Kinyarwanda] “I want to sing the songs my grandfather once sang. Let me come home again where I can dream again and dance with my parents once more.” So it’s about returning to a place of innocence in a way, but a grounded innocence. Not like I need to be comforted, but that I need to find myself. To me, what rain is symbolizing and what it always symbolizes at home is that rain is always, rain…

RB: Sustains?

Somi: [Rains] are a challenge, but they are also a blessing, right? So it doesn’t matter if a challenge comes first, or if a blessing comes first. Whatever it is, I know I can still go home. I know that life still has to move forward. I know that I’m still going to be myself and I can still find my way home. And home is however you want to conceptualize it, whether it’s a physical place or a spiritual place.

RB: It’s amazing to hear you say that because both “Red Soil in My Eyes” and “If the Rains Come First” are evocative titles. But they also, I think, easily fold into the category of “world music” where Africa is often figured as natural. But to hear you describe it now, it is so rich and full. Have you gotten similar responses to the titles of the albums?

Somi: I do understand that whole thing about nature. I had this conversation recently with a very dear friend of mine who said, [affecting a Nigerian-British accent] “I just hate when any sort of nature has to be involved with African expression.” And she was so disturbed! But I think once you live with the music you understand that’s not what it’s about. I think, for me, people will hear the music and know where I am. At least that’s what I am hoping.

Photo by Matthew Furman

RB: Tell me about the New Africa Live project.

Somi: Well, I started New Africa Live really as a passion project. I wanted to carve out a cultural space of belonging. People keep telling me it’s such a selfless thing since I’m here and am promoting other artists, but in some ways it’s selfish because by carving out a space for them, I’m carving out a space for myself at the same time. I am so committed to trying to help society re-imagine what African cultural production is. So it frustrates me to no end when the African music that we get to see isn’t necessarily as inspired. Not to dismiss or “dis” traditional African expression, but to not see what’s happening on the contemporary level is to sort of dismiss the possibility and to not acknowledge what’s happening right now is to say that African culture and art does not evolve. And my point is that we too evolve. And we too have stories that come from different lines. And we too are effected by globalization or digital exchange, whatever it is, there is something distinctly African but very modern that we have to say as well. So I am just trying to celebrate this really exciting cultural moment that is [unfolding] on the continent right now.

New Africa Live, like I said, started as a passion project but by doing it once, twice, a third time I realized that people were also looking for that and so that’s the reason I changed the template from where [all the artists] were in one genre. I wanted the line of connection to be about our Africaness and less about we all do jazz or we all do hip-hop, so people can really focus on what is distinctly African about what each of these artists are doing. And it continued to grow and by the end of last year I did this Miriam Makeeba tribute that was huge. Just to have people like Paul Simon and Harry Belafonte involved, I felt this thing was bigger than me, it felt like a spiritual call of some sort. I can’t just lay this thing down because every show got bigger and bigger. It really inspired me in a way. The last few events have been great. In January, I incorporated as a non-profit organization and am now sponsored by the New York Foundation of the Arts. It’s become this other thing. It’s been a challenge trying to balance that and also be the artist, but at the same time it’s something that I think is necessary.

RB: You mentioned that you are choosing artists who work in a range of genres. How do you choose artists? What are you looking for?

Somi: I am looking for people who are pushing boundaries, who are challenging homogenized notions of what African expression is. And also I like to see that they have something very original to say. It can’t just be that, “I do hip-hop and I’m from Burkina Faso.” It has to actually be interesting, sonically engaging, and smart.

RB: The pop world, the billboard music charts and the like, are really quite musically thin to my mind and feed into a thick commercial culture. How do you see yourself fitting in with this nexus of commodity capitalism with work that is more serious, that is about originality, about shifting boundaries, and re-conceptualizing what African music is?

Somi: I would like to think that I don’t get too preoccupied with those images that are pushed on us, mass market, media, and all that. I would like to think that there are enough people out there who are looking for other things as well to support what it is I that I do, who it is that I am, what I embody just by being a black woman.

RB: So, in the US context, what kind of contemporary music tradition do you identify with?

Somi: Oftentimes, people refer to me as a jazz singer. That is not something that I set out to be and I don’t necessarily carry with me. And I don’t really come from that tradition. That’s the one music I never heard in the house. My parents don’t listen to jazz. I didn’t hear Ella Fitzgerald until I was in college and remember thinking that is lovely. I like the chord progressions in jazz and the melodic contours it affords the writer or whomever. Because of that people have tended to call [my music] jazz since that’s the chord progressions I tend to reach for, but it was never intentional.

The beauty of jazz, the reason I embrace jazz and why that community, I think, has embraced me in so many ways, is that it’s  the one genre that really let’s you be whomever you want to be. It actually demands individuality, it demands improvisation, it demands risks—stepping outside of the box, that’s where they are interested. And I think that’s why jazz is the world that I’ve lived within although I am not a straight-ahead jazz singer. I rarely sing standards. [My music] is definitely soul music. And I only say “soul” not to say I am reaching for Aretha. I think soul is about spirit. I think it’s about truth. I think you should do what feels right for you, where you’re inspired to go, and then people will feel that, they will feel that spirit, they will feel that soul.

RB: What would you like the readers to know before they go out and pick up the new album?

Somi: I hope they hear my heart. And I hope that they hear the sincerity that I am trying to bring to the music and the stories. And we’ll see if the rains come first.


Rich Blint, writer and cultural critic, is a Ph.D. candidate in the American Studies Program at NYU. He is busy completing his dissertation, “Trembling on the Edge of Confession: Racial Figuration and Iconicity in Modern American Culture.”

Somi at Le Poisson Rogue, New York City. Photo by Terrence Jennings, 2009

Roots & Rebellions: Chris Rock’s ‘Good Hair’

In documentary, film on December 1, 2009 at 8:29 pm

By Troy Jeffrey Allen

Is it just me or has there been an increased interest in the inner-workings of the African-American community…say since January 21st of 2009? Well, black IS the new black and Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair is at the root of the media’s growing obsession.

Rock’s documentary brings him to the Brooner Brothers annual hair show in Atlanta, Georgia. The fabulous hair-off raises questions about why women substitute their natural mane for extensions and weaves. The documentary supplements the Atlanta competition with Rock pushing forward on the origin of hair extensions. In between, we get revealing interviews with a range of black female celebrities, from video vixen Meagan Good to national treasure Maya Angelou.

By the time the film arrives in India, Rock begins to unravel the wicked web of weaves, describing the religious process that demands Indian women of all ages to crop their hair. The belief is that their shaved locks will begin its’ ascension on the stairway to heaven. Instead, it ends up in Crenshaw, selling anywhere from $1,000 to $3,500.

Since the wide release of Good Hair, there has been a collective teeth-sucking, a swell of disapproval, specifically, from women in the black community. From online message boards to daytime television, Good Hair has been labeled an attack on the black female, and has been accused of exposing aspects of the culture that should remain secret. But is there really any secret? Of course not. For anyone who has walked into a CVS and seen hair extensions for a $1.99 there is no secret, just passive-aggressive mockery.  The unfortunate truth of the matter is that the controversy the film has elicited has raised a greater issue in the black community, and that is the issue of cultural denial.

The very notion that Good Hair is revealing trade secrets proves that Chris Rock’s joke is on us. It reminds me of a similar situation with Dr. Bill Cosby. In 2004, at a commemoration for Brown v. Board of Education, Cosby criticized the black community for not valuing education, their disinterest in black history, and their abuse of the English language (among other things). Heathcliff came under fire for putting the black culture’s shortcomings into the public eye. While, Cosby’s rant (and it was a rant) was more entertaining than helpful, the attitude that these things cannot be said in public is troubling. It also shows that we as a culture still assume the role of the silenced slave, even when it isn’t coming from the outside.

It would have been easy for the documentary to state flat out that natural hair is the best way to be; instead, Chris Rock lets women speak on the subject. The film’s opinions come from an array of black women and, not surprisingly, they all seem to know something is wrong with it.  Yes, beauty is only skin deep. However, a documentary like Good Hair tackles at a 21st century reality: augmenting your features to appear more acceptable (surgically or with hair extensions) has become the norm.

Directed by Jeff Stilson; Written by Chris Rock, Paul Marchand, Chuck Sklar, Lance Crouther, and Jeff Stilson.

Rania Matar: The Forgotten People

In photography on December 1, 2009 at 7:46 pm

“Girl in the Light,” Rania Matar, 2005

By Grace Aneiza Ali

“This is not a political project,” says Beirut-born photographer Rania Matar (www.raniamatar.com) about her work to document the aftermath of Lebanon’s civil war and the conditions in the country’s Palestinian refugee camps. “It does not try to promote any solution to a complicated and sensitive issue, but is a photographic portrait of a forgotten people in search of a home.” Matar’s work, captured in her stunning debut monograph, Ordinary Lives, (Quantuck Lane Press, 2009) may not be intended as a political project, but at its core, it is a compassion project.

Fatima (pictured) aptly named the “Girl in the Light,” lives in the Bourj El Shamali camp for Palestinian refugees, one of the poorest in Lebanon. Matar was immediately drawn to Fatima because of her “dream-filled eyes.” Fatima lives in a barren corrugated metal house. There is one window. On the ground are futons that serve as beds. You know a family lives here because of the laundry hanging from the walls. Matar’s lens capture a girl living in her own world. Her face and body are unscathed against the harsh concrete wall she leans on. She is unmoved by the rubble, undeniable markers of war and violence, outside those walls.

Matar, who grew up in Lebanon during the civil war, is drawn to the Palestinian refugee camps around Lebanon because she sees a universal message of resilience and hope there. “I find inspiration in people struggling to keep their roots, spirit, and culture alive,” she says. “And in their incredible capacity to adapt and make the best of their circumstances so they can preserve their dignity, their hope, and their humanity.”

Her point of view, one in which the physical circumstances, at times dire, are treated as secondary, is a running thread through Matar’s work. Her lens instead gravitate towards symbolic points of light—like that of a mother’s joy as she watches her toddler at play. In “Barbie Girl, (Haret Hreik Beirut 2006), one does not miss that the backdrop of the toddler’s playground is outlined by hollowed-out bombed buildings to the left and right. But the remnants of war and the presence of mass destruction are supporting characters in a narrative where, for Matar, mother and child are the leading actors.

Despite the title of Matar’s monograph, there is nothing ordinary about the lives she captures on film. Instead, Matar’s images poignantly remind us that we are not our circumstances—a feat that speaks to the extraordinary spirit of her subjects and to her values as a photographer.

Rania Matar’s series “The Forgotten People” was featured in the Spring 2009 edition of Nueva Luz Photographic Journal, published by En Foco, a non-profit organization that nurtures and supports photographers of diverse cultures.