Widely known as “Mama Africa,” she made music to directly tackle the plight of Black South Africans. As her political activism grew (she made an impassioned speech before the United Nations in 1963), Makeba continued to use her stardom as a platform to call out injustice against Black people everywhere. This, however, came at a considerable price. Not only was she exiled from South Africa until apartheid’s dissolution, but a year after she married civil rights activist Kwame Ture (nee Stokely Carmichael), she fled the United States and ultimately settled in Guinea.
Makeba died of a heart attack after a concert in Italy in 2008 at the age of 76 but remains an inspiration to musicians, foremost among them the vocalist and songwriter Somi, who has made Makeba’s work central to her creative output in 2022.
“I was constantly looking to her legacy as a blueprint and benchmark,” Somi told The Washington Post. “This is how you want to show up in the world with so much generosity and commitment not only to your art but to your people. That inspired me to look closer.”
Somi pays homage to the late vocalist with her album “Zenzile,” released on March 4, on what would have been Makeba’s 90th birthday, and her musical “Dreaming Zenzile,” which began its off-Broadway run at the New York Theatre Workshop on May 17. Through these works, Somi not only reclaims Makeba’s given name (“Zenzile”) but also deftly gives voice to what’s unspoken, the internal struggle that perhaps Makeba could never express in her public persona.
“I was really curious about this idea of what she was carrying privately,” Somi says. “What was the intimacy of her heart, and how she was offering it to us in some ways, but it’s always presented to us in this way.
“It almost gave us the option of what we were seeing,” she continues. “You could decide to see the tragic side of it, the fact that she wasn’t home, or you could decide to just be at a concert. I always think about the kind of loneliness that she moved through while operating in this kind of upper echelon of society and culture and politics, in this kind of singular, Black female, African immigrant body.”
After spending the first three years of her life in the United States, Somi moved with her family to Zambia, where her father worked for the World Health Organization. Four years later, they returned to her native Illinois, where Somi’s father accepted a university post.
“One of the greatest gifts that my parents gave me wasn’t that they said, ‘Okay, yes, you can be an artist,’ they just never said no,” Somi says. “They just asked a lot of questions. When I chose that [path], they didn’t say no because, in many ways, our parents know us before we know ourselves.”
For Somi, music was ubiquitous, and it became easy to take her voice for granted. “I grew up in a home that, in African tradition and culture, music was how we celebrated, how we grieved, how we moved through the ups and downs of life,” she says. “I just didn’t think that perhaps mine was special enough to pursue something. At some point in my life, I realized it just felt really good.”
She studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, majoring in anthropology and African studies. “In many ways, I was constantly in pursuit of finding a sense of self,” she says. “I think when you grow up as a first-generation American, you’re always sort of looking for home. And I think in many ways, I was just trying to find those answers in my studies.” (Her father was born in Rwanda and her mother in Uganda.)
After graduation, she moved to Tanzania and Kenya. “It wasn’t until I left I was able to put a lot of those questions to rest and realize that I was both African and American,” Somi says. “Once I knew where I was from, I suddenly had all this clarity of where I wanted to go — and that was towards music.”
She was surrounded by many teachers and mentors, one of the greatest for her being another giant of South African music, the late trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Masekela, also exiled from South Africa, and Makeba were instrumental in the fight against apartheid and the freeing of Nelson Mandela in 1990 after 27 years in prison.
“I introduced myself as a singer when he was performing at Celebrate Brooklyn in 2006,” Somi says of meeting him after moving to New York. “I came to the concert with a friend, and we were waiting for almost an hour at the little tent to meet him.”
Somi asked Masekela to listen to her demo.
Six months later, Somi received an email from his office stating that he liked what he heard and wanted to know more about her career. “He would come to NYC and look for me,” Somi says. He first appeared as a featured guest artist on “Enganjyani,” from her 2009 release titled “If the Rains Come First.” The lessons didn’t stop there.
“[Masekela] was an intentional presence in my life and my music,” Somi says. “He talked to me about what it is to lean into global citizenship as an artist and to understand that your audience is always there, and they will find you if you show up in a place.”
Set during what was to be Makeba’s final performance in Italy in 2008, “Dreaming Zenzile” finds Somi imagining that would-be last concert and, in those final moments, Makeba reconciling her storied past life with the present day.
Somi’s vision for “Zenzile” was brought to life with the help of many collaborators, including Lileana Blain-Cruz, the Tony-nominated director of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-prize-winning play “The Skin Of Our Teeth” at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. Blain-Cruz first met Somi during their United States Artists Fellowship in 2018, when Somi introduced her to Makeba’s music.
“We had this session where she played a moment for me of her singing through the show in concert, and that’s when I was like, ‘Oh, wow,’ ” Blain-Cruz says. “Her voice is so incredible, but the urgency of not only the story, but how it was manifesting through her instrument and herself as an artist was so profound.”
Displacement is a theme that Somi also deeply explores throughout “Zenzile.” Not just the banishment that Makeba faced in her lifetime but also the greater detachment Blacks everywhere have endured from their African heritage.
“When you look at the 31 years of exile, the pain and her having to find a home in her voice, that was her means of surviving that extraordinary emotionally and psychically violent event — being exiled from her family, her people and her homeland,” Somi says.
“When I was growing up, I always felt like, ‘What was home?’ I was always kind of searching for it. Then that realization, that idea of standing in the tension, of being okay with being an American and an African, understanding that one can construct a home in the imaginary. One can decide that you can ‘sound’ home. So when you hear her work, she found home because she had to — not because she wanted to.”