Somi pays tribute to Miriam Makeba, on album and on stage

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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.

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