Early in the pandemic, Jacoti Sommes spent a lot of time isolated in buildings where he worked to install and repair plumbing. But even in the midst of these earthbound moments, the musician traversed far-off galaxies, venturing light years from his physical location by virtue of the mutating soundtrack that looped in his head as he worked.
Sommes has traced his infatuation with the stars to a late-night drive undertaken by his family when he was still a child, when his father pulled the car over on the side of a deserted road near a cornfield. “It was pitch-black, and me, my brother and my sister were afraid to get out of the car,” . “It felt like we were on the edge of the planet, which was why we were so scared, like if we got out of the car, we’d all of a sudden be floating in space.”
These intergalactic ideas have long fueled Sommes’ albums, including Travel Time, from 2020, and a forthcoming, still-to-be-titled LP set to land on Orange Milk Records. “On this next one, we go from Earth into space, and then we come back and see how things are,” Sommes said, seated in a King-Lincoln bar one afternoon in mid-February.
But unlike past albums, which often felt to Sommes like vivid alien fantasies, he couldn’t fully shake earthly realities on his next record, which he said reverberates with a tension he attributed almost wholly to the pandemic and the greater sense of uncertainty it bred within him.
“I didn’t realize it until after I was done, but a lot of it is pretty angst-y, pretty intense,” said Sommes, who performs at Cafe Bourbon Street on Saturday, Feb. 25, as part of The Secret History of Black Punk show. (The concert shares a name with , who will be on hand selling copies, and also features performances from Minority Threat, Being Hvman, Honeychild Coleman and Marvin the Robot.) “When I’m working on an album, I’m only thinking of the technical part – making sure I’m getting things right, that things fit, that they go together. The feel is just in there. It’s inherent, so I don’t even think about it. But when I finished this one and went back to listen, it was like, this is a lot.”
Sommes has always been drawn toward ideas and sounds that felt just out of his grasp, his music often existing in a space he compared with that brief moment when you're awaking from a deep sleep and reality blurs with the dreamworld. “And you don’t know if what you’re seeing is a dream or if it’s real,” he said. “It’s a perfect combination where, once you realize what’s happening, you have a little control and you can kind of stay in that zone. And that’s what I love to do with my music.”
More recently though, the real world has increasingly intruded on this space, first in the uneasy vibes haunting his forthcoming release, but even more explicitly in the songs Sommes is currently writing, many of which have a genesis in the reinvigorated Black lives matter movement that took root after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd in May 2020.
In the weeks following Floyd’s murder, Sommes attended the protests in downtown Columbus, but he said he took a restrained attitude toward the larger movement, cautious of getting his hopes up only to have this new social justice push crest and then again recede from view, as he had seen it do in the past. “But at the same time, that moment, when everything was going down, it felt different,” Sommes said. “And it felt like this time the whole world could see it, and it was undeniable, and there was no going back. It was like we woke up, even if we didn’t quite get out of bed yet. But waking up is part of it.”
A similar awakening took place concurrently within Sommes, and he has since immersed himself in the history of the Civil Rights movement, devouring books about Malcolm X and Jim Crow laws, listening to crackling recordings of historic speeches and watching archival footage of marches and uprisings in the Deep South and beyond.
“And so all of these things started to come together for me, and it started coming out in my music,” Sommes said. “I’ve never had much of what you might call a political message, but to me it’s beyond political. It’s human rights. None of us are free until we’re all free, and I truly believe that. And so, now that my eyes are open to that, I can’t go back to sleep.”
Sommes is no stranger to these types of immersive, self-driven studies. At one point, the musician said he spent more than two months throwing himself headlong into every conspiracy theory he could unearth, going down the deepest possible internet wormholes and losing himself to the point that when he finally emerged squinting in the sunlight, he expected the sky to be on fire. “But I also have a resilient mind, and I’m logical,” Sommes said. “So, at the end of the day, I’m taking everything I’ve learned and weighing it against logic. And if it don’t line up, fuck it. But if it starts to line up, then it’s like this thing now, and I’m all in.”
In the past, Sommes said he has generally approached making music like a fisherman casting their line, latching onto whatever idea happened by and then riding it out to its necessary conclusion. But recently he has leaned into these newer songs, which center heavily on Black empowerment and human rights, with a level of intention that he’s never before applied to his craft.
“I’m very aware of a message that I want to present,” Sommes said. “As I get older, I realize more it’s not about me. It’s not about me surviving or getting through life just coasting and being okay. The situation at-large is not okay, and that’s enough for me. I have nephews, I have young Black men in my life who are as lost as I was at one point, if not more. And I feel like I owe it to them to give them a better chance. And I’m willing to make those sacrifices now."