Somi Kakoma: A Journey of Musical Excellence and Cultural Celebration

In the vibrant tapestry of the music industry, Somi Kakoma, known simply as Somi, has carved a unique niche for herself as a Grammy-nominated American-born artist of Rwandan and Ugandan descent. Beyond her musical prowess, Somi is also a playwright, actor, and a multifaceted creative force. Let’s delve into the fascinating journey of this trailblazer who stands as the first African woman to receive a Grammy nomination in a Jazz category.

Early Life and Education:

Born on June 6, 1981, in Champaign, Illinois, Somi’s early years were marked by a rich cultural blend, with her father’s post-doctoral studies taking the family to Zambia before returning to Illinois. Somi’s educational journey led her to the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, where she earned undergraduate degrees in Anthropology and African Studies. Later, she obtained a Master’s degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in Performance Studies.

Musical Beginnings and Critical Acclaim:

Somi’s musical career gained momentum in 2007 when she licensed her independently recorded album, “Red Soil in My Eyes,” to Harmonia Mundi/World Village label. The record, featuring the hit single “Ingele,” secured a Top 10 position on U.S. World Music Charts, marking the beginning of Somi’s international acclaim.

In 2009, Somi African Singer signed with ObliqSound, releasing her label debut, “If the Rains Come First.” The album soared to no. 2 on Billboard’s World Music Chart and no. 21 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Chart. Notably, it featured South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Somi’s mentor.

Major Label Debut and Recognition:

Somi’s transition to a major label occurred in 2013 when she signed with Sony Music for Okeh Records. Her debut on this platform, “The Lagos Music Salon,” inspired by her sabbatical in Nigeria, debuted at #1 on US Jazz Charts. The album featured Grammy-winning guests Angelique Kidjo and Common, solidifying Somi’s position as a prominent figure in the jazz scene.

In 2017, she released “Petite Afrique,” a poignant exploration of the West African immigrant community in Harlem, earning her a 2018 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Album.

Beyond Music: Dreaming Zenzile and Cultural Contributions:

Somi’s creativity extends beyond music to the theatrical realm. Her first original play, “Dreaming Zenzile,” based on the life of Miriam Makeba, premiered in September 2021. Despite facing challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the production ultimately came to life, showcasing Somi’s resilience and dedication to her craft.

To honor Makeba further, Somi released a tribute album in 2022 titled “Zenzile: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba.” In her roles as a writer and actor, Somi utilizes her full name, Somi Kakoma, showcasing her versatility in the arts.

Awards and Accolades:

Somi’s contributions to music and culture have not gone unnoticed. She is a TED Senior Fellow, a United States Artists Fellow, a Soros Equality Fellow, and a Sundance Theatre Fellow, showcasing the breadth of her impact across various artistic disciplines.


Somi Kakoma’s journey is a testament to the power of cultural diversity and the ability of music to transcend boundaries. As she continues to break new ground and share her unique voice with the world, Somi stands as an inspiration for aspiring artists and a cultural ambassador celebrating the richness of African heritage in the global artistic landscape.

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