Somi is a Billboard-charting American jazz and pop singer and songwriter; her original music is directly influenced by her Ugandan and Rwandan heritage. She resides in New York City and Lagos, Nigeria. Somi was born in Champaign, Illinois as her dad was finishing his postdoctoral studies. When he joined the World Health Organization and moved the family to Zambia, Somi was just three. Upon her father's appointment to the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana, they returned to the United States and Champaign; Somi was not yet ten. Her formal education included two high schools, as well as bachelor's degrees in anthropology and African studies from the University of Illinois. She attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where she received her master's in performance studies.
She began performing jazz standards and developing her own sound, which she calls "New African Jazz." Her debut album, Eternal Motive, appeared in 2003 from SanaaHouse Productions. Her vocals are both full and smoky, a natural alto with a wide range; stylistically, she walks a line between the traditions of Dianne Reeves, Nina Simone, Letta Mbulu, and the later work of Dee Dee Bridgewater. In 2007, her label licensed her next album, Red Soil in My Eyes, to Harmonia Mundi's World Village imprint. The single "Ingele" had a longstanding run on Billboard's world music chart and peaked in the Top Ten. Some of the musicians on the date included trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and bassist Vashon Johnson.
After touring in the U.S. and Europe as well as Africa, she returned to the U.S. and signed with ObliqSound. Her third album, If the Rains Come First, was released in 2009 and hit the number two spot on the world music chart. The set was notable for its display of her vocal overdubbing techniques and use of Swahili and Ugandan dialects. Some of her sidemen included keyboardist Toru Dodo and New York guitarist David Gilmore. In 2011, she delivered the acclaimed Live at the Jazz Standard on Palmetto and was honored as a TED Fellow in the Arts.
Two years later, she signed with Sony's revived OKeh imprint. Given that she had been living in Nigeria, and influenced by its rich musical heritage, Somi kept a diary and played some of the material she wanted to record in small salon-style concerts before entering the studio. Co-produced with Keith Witty and Cobhams Asuquo, Lagos Music Salon included guest performances from Common and Angélique Kidjo, and was released in the summer of 2014. Its first video, "Last Song," was added to the rotation on VH1 Soul.
In 2017, Somi returned with her fifth studio album, Petite Afrique, which found her celebrating the immigrant experience in the United States and specifically drawing inspiration from Harlem's role in that creative and cultural legacy. Produced by Keith Witty, the album also featured contributions from guitarist Liberty Ellman, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland, alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, and trumpeter/associate producer Etienne Charles. ~ Thom Jurek