On August 26, 2013 internationally acclaimed soul/jazz singer and songwriter Laura Kabasomi Kakoma, also known as Somi, signed to Sony Music’s newly launched historic jazz imprint Okeh Records, making her the first East African artiste to join the major label’s roster.
The 34-year-old told Women Today’s Doreen Umutesi about her incredible journey to her childhood dream.
WT: Briefly talk about your family and education background.
I was born in Champaign, Illinois. My father, the late Dr. Ibalaimu Kakoma was completing a post doctoral fellowship at the University of Illinois. He was a Rwandan although he grew up in Uganda. My mother, Elizabeth Nyarubona Kakoma, is a Ugandan.
I am the sixth of seven children. We moved to Zambia when I was three years old and when my father began working for World Health Organisation, we returned to Champaign where he worked as a professor of Veterinary Medicine and Immunology and my mother worked as an oncology nurse.
In many ways, Illinois is just as much my home as Africa because I spent the majority of my formative years there.
I completed my undergraduate degree in Cultural Anthropology and African Studies also at the University of Illinois. After college, I spent a year and a half doing research in Kenya and Tanzania with plans of becoming a Medical Anthropologist.
That plan quickly changed when I moved to New York City where I soon began to discover the underground music scene and eventually received a Master’s degree in Performance Studies from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
WT: When was the last time you were in Rwanda and your most memorable moment about it?
I came to Rwanda in October 2012. One of my most memorable moments was probably back in 2005 when I first came to perform in Kigali. My band and I performed one song at Amohoro Stadium for FESPAD. The next day we were invited to do a private full-length concert for President Paul Kagame, members of the cabinet and special guests.
The Minister of Culture at the time, Robert Bayigamba, gave a lovely speech in my honour and I was so moved by the occasion.
WT: When did you realise you were passionate about music? Do you play any instruments?
I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember, but didn’t consider making it a career choice until my early twenties. I studied the cello from the time I was eight years old through college and I write my songs on the piano. My primary instrument is my voice.
WT: Any musicians in the family? If not, how did they react when you decided to make a career in music?
No one in my immediate family is a professional musician, although the love of music is definitely prevalent. My mother has a beautiful singing voice that she shares generously around the house and in church! (I always consider her my first voice teacher.) And my brother Itonde has a lovely voice and plays a bit of piano and violin.
Other than that, there is one other professional musician in my extended family; my first cousin Ruyonga is a super talented young rapper out of Kampala and is making us very proud.
One of the greatest blessings of my journey as a professional artiste has been the unconditional love and support of family. Of course I had to answer a lot of questions when I announced I wanted to be a professional singer, changed my graduate school focus, and initially struggled as a waitress to pay my bills.
What we have to realise is that those questions and occasional resistance to our heart’s pursuits are usually coming from a place of love. Once I realised that, it gave me more room to cultivate and channel positive energy towards accomplishing my goals as a professional musician.
WT: Who is your favourite musician and why? What did you learn from them while building your career?
I don’t have a particular favourite musician. There are so many that have inspired, taught, guided, and grounded me. I will, however, say that one of the main lessons I’ve learned from such artistes who inspire me is this: Know yourself, listen to your heart, and take risks. Individuality is the best thing anyone has to offer.
WT: Are you living your dream?
My childhood dream was definitely to be a singer, but as a little girl I thought it was just that, a dream. In the African culture, as you know, it’s very rare to encourage a child to become an artiste. Since I was always involved in the arts, I simply looked at it as a way to be better rounded.
And since there were no professional artistes in my immediate or extended family, I didn’t know what the path would be. That said, I’m thankful for New York City and the courageous community of dreamers who have helped me understand that my dreams can be lived out loud.
WT: How do you feel while performing in public and how did you react during your first public appearance?
The best word I can use to describe how I feel when performing for an audience is FREE. You are at once vulnerable yet disarming. There is something about performance that both humbles and strengthens you simultaneously. It is where I am happiest and most liberated. My first performance was terrifying but totally thrilling.
WT: How do you react to errors when performing like microphone mishaps?
Well, the hope is that you always have a solid technical staff around you. But on the rare occasion that it does, you have to keep going as though it didn’t happen.
If you become stressed out on stage, your audience becomes stressed with you. It’s important for us to remember that our energy as performers dictates the energy of the room. That said, we can’t take ourselves so seriously.
Mistakes might happen, but honest music supersedes all of that.
WT: How often do you rehearse for a show and what do you mainly focus on?
I try to practice daily at home by myself. If I’m preparing for performances with my band, it would depend on the length of the show, whether the material is brand new or we’ve played it many times in the past, whether it’s for one show or an entire tour, etc. All of those things impact the rehearsal schedule and we focus mostly on making it a tight show.
WT: What else do you do and how are you able to balance it with music?
Professionally, this is all that I do. I am occasionally called up to consult for various cultural projects. In 2008, I founded a non-profit organisation New Africa Live that supports contemporary African cultural production.
I am now in the process of phasing it in to a major African music festival in 2014 alongside some of New York’s premiere cultural institutions.
I also enjoy vegetarian cooking, writing/reading prose, and spending time with family and friends. Honestly, like anyone who works for themselves, it gets difficult to find balance - especially with my international travel schedule.
In recent years I am trying to be more conscientious about work/life balance. It’s a work-in-progress.
WT: How do you feel about signing with Sony Music?
Thankful. Very thankful.
WT: Are you married?
No, I am not married yet.
WT: What advice do you have for women who are scared of nurturing their talent?
Know yourself, listen to your heart, and take risks. Individuality is the best thing anyone has to offer.
If you have followed the music industry in Rwanda closely, what is your say regarding making it a popular and vibrant industry?
I am so happy to see the nascent but tangible developments in the Rwandan music industry and the cultural sector in general. I think this is a very exciting time for the African continent in general, so the more the Government and the private sector is willing to support the development of our creative economy, the more viable, sustainable, and impacting it will be for all of us.
WT: Do you plan on doing music with inspiration from Rwanda like your current album ‘The Lagos Music Salon’?
Absolutely. I’ve already thought it through. Perhaps my next album.