Above: Watch the video for “Brown Round Things,” from Somi’s latest album The Lagos Music Salon.
When Somi went to Lagos, Nigeria, for an 18-month creative sabbatical, the singer immersed herself in the life of the city, exploring its culture and people and writing about what she experienced – resulting in her major-label debut album The Lagos Music Salon. One of the ballads from this album, the haunting “Brown Round Things,” attempts to imagine and explore the humanity of the city’s prostitutes, who are so stigmatized in society that there is silence around not only their rights or well-being, but who they are. In her recently released video for the song, Somi inhabits the role herself, walking the streets in their shoes. In this Q&A, she tells us about the thoughts and experiences that led her to create the song and video.
What prompted you to write this song?
You see prostitution everywhere around the world, but for some reason, every time I saw these women on the road in Lagos, I realized it always shocked me a little more in the African context.
Why is that?
I think it’s just because of the conservative nature of African values. I am blessed to come from this massive, loving, always-in-your-business but beautiful family. And by that, I mean we’re always accountable to each other. Even when it’s uncomfortable, it’s coming from a place of love. Everybody wants the collective to be thriving, to be well, to be safe. So when I saw these women, my knee-jerk reaction was to judge them, to assume things about them. But then I realized that, like me, each of these women is somebody’s daughter. Each of their stories is the evolution of a girl-child.
I recognize now that within a traditional African values system, a lot of people harbor prejudice towards sex workers and their life choices, without at all understanding the context and the circumstances that brought them to that point.
How is this different from how you’ve seen prostitution treated in other parts of the world?
When I was in Paris last year, there was a sex workers union strike happening. And I just thought, there is no way that could happen in an African city, in an African country. Those women were on live television saying “We’ve chosen this path. We have rights.” And I was thinking, yes, rightly so. If this is the life that they have chosen, why shouldn’t they be protected? Why shouldn’t they have those rights?
But there is a certain kind of privilege that accompanies those perspectives. I am assuming, again, because of strict social stigma, that most African women who find themselves in prostitution are not making the decision out of the most comfortable life circumstances, or making that choice. I think you would be hard pressed to find an African woman that would choose that lightly. But at the moment, it’s not even something that is discussed in the public sphere, much less advocated for.
So the song is also kind of about instigating a conversation. If we can talk more openly about the humanity of those women and the circumstances that led them to prostitution — whether they be social, economical, or political — we might be able to empower women and girls to make safer life decisions. And hopefully we can include all of society in the conversation.
If a woman works as a prostitute in Lagos, is it possible to recover from the cultural stigma?
I can’t speak to that because, again, there isn’t enough of a discourse around it. But I can say that I usually see two types of prostitutes in African cities. There are those on the street, as you see in the video. And then there are the less conspicuous prostitutes that frequent high-end lounges or hotels, generally looking for foreign clients. Some of those women are then able to get into relationships with these men, and end up in a relationship with an older, western guy who is then able to provide a much more comfortable life.
There is a lyric in another song of mine, called, “Four African Women” — inspired by Nina Simone’s song “Four Women” — which talks about the struggles and strengths and difficulties of African women, not only in Nigeria but all over the continent. In one of the lines I sing, “I hope this European trick can get me a visa not get me sick.” A lot of the time, I think prostitution is used as a way to get out of difficult economic and social circumstances. I assume some of these women are looking to struggle less and take better care of their families.
Why did you decide to inhabit the role for the video?
Deciding to “be” the prostitute was about my own personal decision to find the humanity we have in common, about remembering that sameness between us. I was trying to reconcile my own prejudice against them by literally walking in their shoes.
We shot on a street in Victoria Island, a very nice part of Lagos. During the day, the street is a part of a normal unassuming business district near a law school. But at night, it becomes a red light district of sorts. So when I decided to do this video, I called some friends to accompany us because otherwise it was just going to be myself and the filmmaker, Mariona Lloreta, who is a Spanish woman and clearly a foreigner. Some of my friends were quite concerned and mostly came along to offer protection. “Somi are you crazy. You’re going to where and going to do what?”
During the shoot, there were moments of fear, when cars slowed way down and got close to me, for example.
Were the women upset you were there?
No. I had initially hoped some of them would participate, or talk to us, but of course they didn’t want to. They mostly didn’t want their faces to be seen in the video. But if they were upset, I wasn’t told so, or given that impression. With the camera rolling and my friends in tow, it was obvious that I wasn’t there to compete with them. I still think a lot about these women: where are their families, what are their circumstances? I can’t know what the story is, so I just decided to try to imagine and, for a moment, live it. It just seemed like there was no other way to tell the story.