Grammy-award nominated singer, actress and writer Somi Kakoma debuted on Broadway earlier this month in the highly anticipated musical Jaja’s African Hair Braiding. Produced by Taraji P. Henson, the show takes viewers into a salon in Harlem and introduces them to a “lively and eclectic group of West African immigrant hair braiders,” and it’s a tale that’s close to Kakoma’s heart. The daughter of Rwandan and Ugandan immigrants—and a current resident of Harlem—recently sat down with us to share why this is one story that’s so important for the crossroads of beauty and culture.
This is your Broadway debut. What did it feel like going out on stage the first day? How did you get ready for that?
I think the most important thing for me is centering myself. Really trying to be present in the moment. I have a meditation practice—a daily practice—that helps me do that, and I try to extend that into the moments just before we go on. Once I was on stage it just was…I guess it sounds cliche, but it truly is magical to step onto the Broadway stage and, as a performer, to be able to share the story.
I know the official reviews have been positive, but have you gotten any feedback from the audience that really moved you?
Well, firstly, two things: I identify as a musician, a singer, a songwriter, before an actor; I’ve really been moved by the encouragement and support around seeing me stretch in this way artistically. I’ve been in theater in the past, but in a musical that I wrote, so it’s different to step into a story and be in service of someone else’s vision, and also, in the absence of music. It’s been a real stretch! But I’m so grateful for that.
I will also say it’s amazing to be supported by my castmates. We’ve truly built a culture of family behind the scenes, backstage, and I’m quite moved by that. That sense of camaraderie, that real journeying together, is not just apparent on stage, but also behind the scenes. It’s quite satisfying.
You’re also a real-life Harlem resident. What does this all mean for you personally?
Being able to tell the stories of African immigrants as a daughter of immigrants myself, as a Harlem resident who has always tried to acknowledge and celebrate the immigrant community here in this neighborhood and understand their contribution to New York, it’s been deeply inspiring. Jocelyn Bioh’s work is hugely important.
In the past, for the most part, at least in the American theater, most of the African stories that we do are often burdened by—for lack of a better word—”poverty porn” and war stories and tragedy. So it’s really wonderful for her to disarm audiences with humor, with wit, with beauty. That’s been really wonderful. It’s also wonderful to tell very real stories and show real truths about the immigrant experience in this country.
It’s been a real honor and deeply humbling to constantly be reminded of the sacrifices of immigrants, and also to have Black hair celebrated in the way that it is…to have Black beauty celebrated in the way that it is in this particular production. It’s been satisfying artistically and deeply humbling to constantly reflect on all those who sacrificed so that I might be here living out my dream in New York myself.
I know, obviously, hair is a big focus of the show. Do you have any beauty behind the scenes moments you can share?
One thing I would really love to lift up is the hair and wig team! Nikiya Mathis is an extraordinary actor who became a wig designer, sort of because there weren’t enough wig designers of color who really knew how to deal with her hair or how to represent or replicate our hair.
That has been incredibly empowering. To step into a space where everyone backstage actually understands our hair as Black women and is really intentional about products, about the conditioning, about the protective styles we need to wear under our wigs so that we don’t have a lot of breakage, or we don’t have any damage…that has been incredible. Also, making sure that those protective styles also look good so that when we don’t have the wigs on, we can still walk into the world or do press or whatever it is and feel good about how we look. That’s been incredible and a very rare space. It feels like a very rare cultural space and definitely a very rare experience in theater.
Like I said, I am relatively new to theater, but I hear about past experiences from my castmates, and this experience has been incredibly affirming in that way.
Are there any skin-care moments you can share?
Yes! We talk a lot about taking care of our skin backstage. When you are packing on full face—that full beat makeup look—it can be a lot! In the show, it’s my wedding day, so I’m always supposed to have the full glam of a bride. I love makeup, but it is a lot to put on that kind of face every single day, eight times a week, so I am really being intentional about making sure I clarify and purify my skin, making sure I remove my makeup in a certain way.
I’m obsessed with Japanese cleansing oils; I just got into DHC. I also recently got into Caudalie, they have a great mask that I do twice a week. After the cleansing oil, I do the Lancome Bi Facil Double Action Eye Makeup Remover ($50)—just to make sure it’s all gone. When I’m in the shower, I also go in and do another layer with Kiehl’s Calendula Deep Cleansing Foaming Face Wash ($38).
I also try to be really intentional about moisturizing my skin. I’m into this brand called NOW right now, and they have some great products. Then, I also use the Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream ($38) and a serum by Epicuren on top of that. It sounds like a lot, but I feel like the process of taking all of that off and making sure it all comes off is super helpful. Plus, I’m trying to commit to at least one professional facial a month. Feel free to edit that list down! It sounds like a lot!