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Petite Afrique: The Other Black in Harlem

A song cycle reflecting on the social and cultural history of African immigrants on and around 116th Street in Harlem, New York City.

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Countdown to the Studio

Posted on July 31, 2016 by Somi

Heading to the studio in a few weeks to record all of this inspired new music.  This photo is of last week’s rehearsal with two dear friends and long-time collaborators of mine that I’ve invited to be a part of  ‘Petite Afrique’.   Trumpeter Etienne Charles (on piano here) and bassist Keith Witty joined me to run through the form of each new song.  Etienne is a master arranger and I’m thrilled to have his point of you for this new album, especially as I delve into more horn section beauty for this project.  Keith Witty is one of the co-producers of my last album (The Lagos Music Salon), so I’m thrilled to be working with him again as well.  The core rhythm section of the recording will include my regular bandmates Liberty Ellman (guitar), Nate Smith (drums), Toru Dodo (piano) and Michael Olatuja (bass).  I’m so excited and cannot wait to share this music with all of you.  Send us the good, good vibes. 


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116th & Lenox Avenue: An Indispensable Marketplace

Posted on July 31, 2016 by Somi

I try to pass through the open air African Market on 116th and Lenox as often as I can.  Aisles and aisles of tiny storefronts displaying elaborate beaded jewelry, bright colored wax print dresses, vats of pure shea butter, gourd percussion instruments, custom-made embroidered gowns, and so much more.  You step in there and suddenly you are transported to the sights and sounds of Abidjan, Dakar, Conakry, Lagos, Lome….

The official name of the market is Malcolm Shabazz Harlem African Market.  The market was first organized in 1994 as a result of Mayor Giuliani’s attempt to get rid of sidewalk vendors on 125th Street. The effort to remove the vendors sparked protests, and as a compromise the city agreed to arrange a space for them at its current location on 116th Street.  Soon after, the Malcolm Shabazz mosque (also on 116th & Lenox) and the Harlem Business Outreach Center began a business incubator program to help many of the market vendors create sustainable business operations and hopefully graduate to their own storefront. 

Hands down, the market is one of my favorite parts of both Harlem and New York at large.  Rumor has it that the City, which still owns the once vacant lot, is in the process of evicting the market and proposing to move the whole thing much further east.  I’m assuming because of how valuable the real estate has become.  That would be a devastating blow to the vendors livelihoods and the cultural ecosystem of Harlem.  If you haven’t experienced the market yet, I strongly urge you to come uptown.  It might be your first visit, but it certainly won’t be your last. 


Midnight Angels

Posted on July 26, 2016 by Somi

i’m often astounded by the casual elegance i witness in harlem.  here is a shot i took earlier this year.  i believe her name is fatou.  i have since written a song called ‘midnight angels’ that celebrates how the sighting of these sable-skinned beauties inspires me.  i have posted the lyrics below.  often these women unknowingly save me and remind me why i’m doing this work.  i believe it is deeply important for us to understand and champion the nuanced, complicated, every day versions of ourselves, particularly as it relates to the lives of african women and girls. #petiteafrique


they are midnight angels, darker than the night / brighter than any star, no need for street lights / they swirl and sparkle and stand still for a while / their grace and goodness makes old frederick douglass smile

those midnight angels, i pray they come close enough to touch / so i might know myself and god, so i might finally be enough / they’ve got gold and dreams and magic on their necks / they’ve got sweat and love and mirrors in their palms, yes

sweet midnight angels, blue black and mystical / take me home with you, take me to the other side / tell my father that i’ve found you / please tell him that i tried.


not sure if i need to say this here, but ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  this is my first time sharing these lyrics and i’d rather they not be shared beyond the new music USA community. thank you for the support.  more soon…



I moved to Harlem nine years ago; both in celebration of its weighted jazz legacy and to be close to an African immigrant community similar to the one I grew up in.  Petite Afrique: The Other Black in Harlem is a song cycle inspired by the vibrant African immigrant community who has become a vital part of Harlem’s cultural dimension – and to New York City as a whole. The historic uptown neighborhood fondly boasts of West 116th Street as “Little Africa”, where passersby can find ornate traditional fabrics, Francophone bibles, palm oil and shea butter, tribes of fast-fingered hair braiders, or the city’s best Senegalese fare. Over the last decade, I have witnessed gentrification creep deeper into Harlem while pushing the African immigrants out; many of who are accomplished roadside entrepreneurs, highly educated taxi drivers, or blue-collar squatters making homes in previously neglected real estate. When a long-standing mosque on 116th was closed and I saw how much it ruptured the cultural nucleus of many Africans in the neighborhood, I realized I was witnessing an erasure of sorts. Petite Afrique is to ensure that the stories and struggles of New York City’s largest African community do not disappear without having ever been told. It should be noted that the title of this project explicitly uses the word “Other” to represent an immigrant narrative as well as the intra-racial tensions that sadly exist between Africans and African-Americans.

The songs will be based on a myriad of conversations with diverse members of the Harlem community reflecting on themes of transnationalism, cultural difference, assimilation, and/or gentrification. The ideological pursuits of this project are a direct extension of my long-standing commitment to the exploration of bicultural identity formation in an attempt to sound and imagine “home” for Africans in the West. Framed by small ensemble arrangements that blend modern jazz, African musics, and the singer-songwriter tradition, Petite Afrique will be an amalgamation of the musical and cultural worlds that most deeply resonate with who I am as an African and American woman while drawing on my training as a vocalist, jazz musician, songwriter, cultural anthropologist, and proud Harlemite.

While Petite Afrique will have a written score, it will also privilege improvisation; ultimately showcasing the transatlanticisim of the jazz idiom while stretching the traditional harmonic margins of African musics.  While composing, I will ground myself in the sonic detail of the musical traditions of the 3 major ethnic groups in Harlem’s African community (i.e. Wolof, Bambara, and Fula). I will compose 8 mostly English songs for an ensemble that includes voice, guitar, piano, bass, drums, a horn section, and various African percussion (i.e. – talking drum, djembe, and shekere). Ultimately, I hope this project generates meaningful dialogue on both global constructions of Blackness and the importance of cultural memory in spite of gentrification.

Start and End Dates



New York, New York

3 updates
Last update on July 31, 2016

Project Created By

New York, New York
A few years ago, acclaimed East African vocalist & songwriter Somi decided to move from New York City to Lagos, Nigeria for 18 months in search of new inspiration. The result: a new album she calls The Lagos Music Salon that was released in August 2014 as her major label debut on Sony Music/Okeh –…


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