Somi: Petite Afrique

Stories of Harlem dance with soul, jazz, and West African rhythms on Somi's Petite Afrique.


Petite Afrique

Label: OKeh
US Release Date: 2017-03-31
UK Release Date: 2017-03-31

"Look what they’ve done to Harlem."

Those words -- annoyed, exhausted -- open "The Gentry", a sizzling duet with Aloe Blacc from Somi’s newest album, Petite Afrique. Gentrification in New York is a central theme of the album, and "The Gentry" stands as Somi’s most passionate critique of it. Jazz piano rushes through the piece as Blacc and Somi mourn for Harlem’s displaced. "I want it black, / I want it back," they sing, in strong and simple chorus. Somi’s voice rises almost to a scream as hand drums enter the frenzy, and the song ends on a powerful beat.

Around this charged track, though, a wide range of music explores the meaning of blackness in America through the eyes of Harlemers, telling stories of African immigrants and African-Americans alike. Some are third-person portraits: "The Wild One" uses woodblocks and highlife-esque guitar to tell the story of a girl who drinks tea with milk, rum, and spices; elegant strings on "Kadiatou the Beautiful" paint an orchestral tale of melancholy. Other songs are intimate first-person narratives -- aching ballad "They’re Like Ghosts" explores nostalgia and lovers of days gone by, while love reigns in quiet triumph on the soulful "Holy Room".

Opening the album after a brief collage of twinkling guitar and ambient found sound is "Alien", which falls into both categories as Somi looks out at New York through immigrant eyes. Her voice throughout the track carries an unfailing pathos, tenderness and sorrow adding depth to the humanity inherent in the subject. The weary narrator bears the weight of a world of change, of having to leave behind home and family to drive a taxi in a foreign land. It’s one moving and relevant story that leads into another when Somi picks up the pace on "Black Enough", a brassy, red-hot look at relations between African and African American groups, decrying the judgments and cultural tensions that sometimes crop up between different groups.

The stories and points of view keep flowing forth, and end on two of the album’s softest tracks. "Like Dakar", a starlit ode to Harlem as it once was, compares the neighborhood to Dakar and Abidjan. It’s an anthem of saudade, that exquisitely painful longing for the unattainable, for that which once was and will only ever be again in memory. At the very end, the downtempo R&B beats of "Midnight Angels" pay a final tribute to the rich cultural diversity of Harlem and the immigrants that have made it the artistic haven that it has been for so long.

What sets Petite Afrique apart from Somi’s earlier albums is its timely subject matter. It isn’t quite a concept album; while some songs could conceivably flow together like stories, others live in separate spheres. Still, a thematic unity binds the whole album together, permeating the lyrics, as well as the music with the kind of expression jazz was built on. Here, that jazz flows freely into soul, R&B, and all kinds of West African sounds, layer upon layer of velvet. As raw as the feelings can be, Somi’s luxurious voice and the virtuosic instrumentation make this a refined album of wondrous technique and real human interest.






Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.