“Open Window,” Bourj El Shemali Camp, Lebanon, Rania Matar 2005

In this issue

winter, 2009


Rwanda | Uganda | US

 Somi: of note Artist of the Year 2009

By Rich Blint
one day
Photo Terrence Jennings.

of note’s Artist of the Year is a visionary, innovative, and boundary pushing artist who reflects a commitment to global citizenship and social change. In tandem with of note’s mission, the Artist of the Year uses his or her work as a means to challenge, celebrate, and engage the complex experiences of people of color around the globe. This year we honor Somi . Born in Illinois to Ugandan and Rwandan parents, Somi’s musicianship is a multi-cultural fete of sounds, organically fusing jazz, classic soul, African folk, and urban grooves.

Rich Blint’s masterly interview reveals that Somi’s personal integrity, commitment to musical excellence, and mission with New Africa Live to “help re-imagine what African cultural production is” (and is not) are all compelling examples of why
she is the 2009 of note Artist of the Year.

RB: The Rwandan genocide over a decade ago is nightmarish. How does that complicated violence inform your work? I ask because I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. And my dad’s family grew up in a place called Red Berry where the soil is red with bauxite, which was the cause of a particular kind of colonial violence. Your last album is called Red Soil in My Eyes. And I’m sure the soil is rich with bauxite, the same mineral source.

Somi: Definitely the soil is red throughout that part of East Africa.

RB: When I’ve seen you perform I’ve thought about the symbolic redness of the earth and I’m wondering, I’m curious about how that history informs your work, if it does at all?

Somi: Well, I don’t know if the genocide informs it consistently. I think that there are moments where I try to acknowledge, perhaps, the suffering, what it is that we’re carrying. I think it’s difficult on a number of levels. I’m a Tutsi woman and to know that Tutsis were persecuted in that sort of way and here I am with all sorts of privilege, of not having had to have been there, having other options, you know, being abroad in Illinois in some comfortable school somewhere and not really having to think about the day-to-day, what it is to survive under those circumstances. So I think that is hard to process. I don’t know that the violence necessarily informs my work. I did a piece on my last record called, “Remembrance.” [In that song] I really tried to capture the spirit, the essence, the mood, where it takes me when I think about it and try to remember those who were lost and also remember those who are trying to heal—whether they were direct victims or they lost people and were victims in that sense.
Continue reading the full interview.

Rich Blint, writer and cultural critic, is a Ph.D. candidate in the American Studies Program at NYU. He is busy completing his dissertation, “Trembling on the Edge of Confession: Racial Figuration and Iconicity in Modern American Culture.”

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Saudi Arabia

 Inside Borders: Tagreed Albagshi


Much has been reported about the status of women in Saudi Arabia. While a lot of what has been said has come from those on the outside looking in, we turned to award-winning Saudi Arabian artist Tagreed Albagshi for insight into public and private lives of the women in her homeland. She shares how she uses the canvas to tell stories about women, in her own words.

Women are important subjects in my work simply because I am a woman. I am a Saudi Arabian woman. I see it as my responsibility to defend our right to live equally under the same sky.

Publicly, men and women in Saudi Arabia rarely share the same space. This particular painting (Untitled, pictured right) represents the intimate mergence of those two different worlds. It reflects a woman’s demand for security, warmth, and love. But it also represents a palpable tension with male authority. The woman in this piece embraces herself because she needs the assurance of security and tenderness. The man stands next to her with closed eyes and an expression of peace. He is content with the state of things. The bird he holds on his hand is a message to her that he is the one who accommodates her universe—and therein lies the conflict. –Tagreed Albagshi
Visit to view Albagshi’s work.

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 Rania Matar: The Forgotten People

By Grace Aneiza Ali
“Girl in the Light,” Bourj El Shemali Camp, Tyre Lebanon, Rania Matar 2005

“This is not a political project,” says Beirut-born photographer Rania Matar ( about her work to document the aftermath of Lebanon’s civil war and the conditions in the country’s Palestinian refugee camps. “It does not try to promote any solution to a complicated and sensitive issue, but is a photographic portrait of a forgotten people in search of a home.” Matar’s work, captured in her stunning debut monograph, Ordinary Lives, (Quantuck Lane Press, 2009) may not be intended as a political project, but at its core, it is a compassion project.

Fatima (pictured) aptly named the “Girl in the Light,” lives in the Bourj El Shamali camp for Palestinian refugees, one of the poorest in Lebanon. Matar was immediately drawn to Fatima because of her “dream-filled eyes.” Fatima lives in a barren corrugated metal house. There is one window. On the ground are futons that serve as beds. You know a family lives here because of the laundry hanging from the walls. Matar’s lens capture a girl living in her own world. Her face and body are unscathed against the harsh concrete wall she leans on. She is unmoved by the rubble, undeniable markers of war and violence, outside those walls. Continue Reading.

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 Fela! Jolts Broadway

By Heather Bent Tamir

Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a mold breaker, a musical innovator, and political firebrand. He didn’t just march to his own beat; he invented it. That beat was Afrobeat, a beguiling blend of jazz, funk, pop, and African rhythms that is now jolting Broadway like a thunderclap. Big, bold, and African but with no cinematic bloodlines (like Lion King), no well-known musical score, and no celebrities on the marquee, ‘Fela!’ on Broadway is proof that there is no pat formula for first-rate entertainment.

The setting is Fela’s last concert at his nightclub, the Shrine, in Lagos in the late 1970s. Although at the height of his career, Fela fears for his life and has decided the fight is no longer worth the cost. Born into Nigeria’s privileged classes, Fela wrote and performed in the pidgin language of the lower classes, reflecting a complicated and often contradictory personality. He had been constantly harassed, jailed, and tortured for his incendiary lyrics attacking corruption and dictatorship, and for seeking to free Nigerians, and Africans more broadly, from the last vestiges of colonialism.
Continue Reading.

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 Roots & Rebellions: Chris Rock’s ‘Good Hair’

By Troy Jeffrey Allen
afgan star

Is it just me or has there been an increased interest in the inner-workings of the African-American community, say since January 21st of 2009? Well, black IS the new black and Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair is at the root of the media’s growing obsession.

Rock’s documentary brings him to the Brooner Brothers annual hair show in Atlanta, Georgia. The fabulous hair-off raises questions about why women substitute their natural mane for extensions and weaves. The documentary supplements the Atlanta competition with Rock pushing forward on the origin of hair extensions. In between, we get revealing interviews with a range of black female celebrities, from video vixen Meagan Good to national treasure Maya Angelou.

By the time the film arrives in India, Rock begins to unravel the wicked web of weaves, describing the religious process that demands Indian women of all ages to crop their hair. The belief is that their shaved locks will begin its ascension on the stairway to heaven. Instead, it ends up in Crenshaw, selling anywhere from $1,000 to $3,500. Continue Reading.

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Deborah Willis on ’Posing Beauty'

Beauty is, among many things, deeply personal. Deborah Willis’ new collection, “Posing Beauty” is a compelling presentation of how African Americans have used this amorphous concept of beauty—whether, real, staged or invented—as a tool of self-empowerment.


Over 200 photographs weave individual expressions of beauty to a subtle yet powerful visual commentary on the American social and political landscape over the past century. "Posing Beauty" adds to the conversation that the personal is indeed political. In a 21st century context where beauty can be taken out of the hands of the subjects’ control, easily manufactured, and digitally mastered, Willis reminds us that beauty is perhaps most powerful when we define it for ourselves.

Deborah Willis is one of the nation’s leading historians of African American photography and curator of African American culture. She is a 2005 Guggenheim Fellow and 2000 MacArthur Fellow.

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