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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now another story of bridging the Africa/America divide - this time through culture.

(Soundbite of music)

SOMI (Jazz Singer): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

CHIDEYA: This is Somi. She's a jazz singer with strong East African roots. Somi's mother is Ugandan, her father an academic from Rwanda. But Somi grew up between Zambia and Champaign, Illinois. Today, she's proud to say that her music is as diverse as the five languages she speaks. But living in so many worlds at once hasn't always been easy.

(Soundbite of music)

SOMI (Jazz Singer): (Singing) (foreign language spoken)

SOMI: Coming of age - primarily in the States - at the time, you don't really understand and/or appreciate that greater worldview, right? And at the time, you don't even understand how it's impacting, like, your lifelong kind of experience and how you are going to continue to engage at the world, and how you are going to try to continue as an artist, for example, how that's going to affect your own work, right?

And I think in terms of the textures of that experience there are so many things that I think as a child I tried to repress. And so I think that's one thing that has been credibly liberating about the creative process in my work as an artist is that you finally are able to kind of - I always talked about kind of carving out this cultural space of belonging for a new African experience, right? For this kind of capital O other black experience in the West.

And I'm - yeah, I think it's just wonderful to kind of come in to this place now, where I feel grounded enough and confident enough to kind of articulate that place of belonging and to talk about the African-American experience and the African experience, and how those experiences can be actually very, very similar, right?

I mean, even though there are very stark differences but there are so much that underlies the kind of, quote, unquote, "black experience" that I think we lose sight of, especially, like, even now when we get in to conversations about the president Barack Obama - the presidential candidate Barack Obama and people saying, oh well, is he black? Or what if his - does he really understand the African-American experience? Will he really represent the black people? Will he really be the right first black president in the States? And I think it's really kind of opening up this dialogue that's totally necessary that we can kind of begin to understand the multiple layers, you know, of who we are as people.

(Soundbite of music)

SOMI: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

CHIDEYA: So you've got an African child in America. Did you listen to African music?

SOMI: I did. My parents played a lot of African music in the home. But my parents always had these, you know, African house parties and I would listen to anything from (unintelligible) to folk music, (unintelligible) music and traditional. My father was a huge span of both kind of traditional (unintelligible) music, whether that was from Africa or the Caribbean. And my mother was a huge fan of opera.

CHIDEYA: Wow, that's a diverse musical background. I can just imagine by the way that African house party. I used to go to some, and I just would - it's like - it's really something to see men outdancing women. Those men can dance.

SOMI: Right.

CHIDEYA: I love the expressive moves, but anyway, I (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of song, "Ingele")

SOMI: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

CHIDEYA: Let's talk about your music Ingele. Tell me about that song.

SOMI: Ingele is a love song. I was kind of - you find yourself in one of those relationships where, you know, you started off so much love and the best of intentions, and then it's kind of deteriorated into something else. And that song is really kind of speaking to my lover asking him to kind of come back, return to that place we once were. And, you know, to care for one another and to come back and take care of my heart, really, is what I'm saying.

(Soundbite of song, "Ingele")

SOMI: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

CHIDEYA: Talk to me about the title track, "Red Soil in My Eyes."

SOMI: Sure. "Red Soil in My Eyes" is - well, first of all, the project itself was really about looking home, looking home for grounding, for guidance, for clarity. So the song, that song in particular, is really kind of a conversation I'm having with my ancestors.

(Soundbite of music)

SOMI: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

SOMI: And often times I feel this while I'm on stage, as though I'm kind of having some sort of conversation with my ancestors or the spirits of my history or kind of being channeled or at least I'm trying to.

(Soundbite of music)

SOMI: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

SOMI: Manawanggi(ph) meaning return home my child.

(Soundbite of music)

SOMI: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

CHIDEYA: Have gotten any reaction from Rwandans to your music?

SOMI: Oh, definitely. The Ministry of Culture in Rwanda has been incredibly supportive of my work, which has been interesting because, obviously, if you listen to my work, I'm in no way traditional kind of around these artists, but what they are trying to - the current administration is (unintelligible) for them to - in trying to create a newer kind of global image and identity for Rwanda, because oftentimes when you talk about Rwanda people are like, oh the genocide. Oh, my God, is it okay now?

Or is it - and it's been wonderful actually to participate and that, to be a part of that new image of Rwanda and to say, you know, that we can survive. I wasn't there in 1994, but obviously, because it affects my people, I've considered the positive things that come out of Rwanda whether they are in the Diaspora or on the ground, I consider that - those are kind of markers of survival so.

CHIDEYA: Well, Somi, I've really enjoyed this. Thank you.

SOMI: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: That was Somi. Her debut CD is called "Red Soil in My Eyes."

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