Etienne Charles shares NAACP Image Award

Music faculty member recognized for his work on Somi's Petite Afrique.

Associate Professor Etienne Charles co-produced, co-wrote five songs, arranged all string and horn parts, and performed as both percussionist and trumpeter on Somi's award-winning Petite Afrique release.
Charles in the studio with Somi and co-producer Keith Witty (left).
Somi's Petite Afrique was recognized as Outstanding Jazz Album at the 49th NAACP Image Awards in 2018. Charles' major contributions to the recording show MSU Music students how using all of one's skills can be possible professionally.

Renowned trumpeter and Michigan State University Associate Professor Etienne Charles has won a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Award for his work on acclaimed vocalist and songwriter Somi’s Petite Afrique. The recording, which was recognized as Outstanding Jazz Album at the 49th NAACP Image Awards earlier this year, featured the Trinidad-born Charles who worked as co-producer, trumpeter, composer, percussionist and arranger on the recording.

Given annually, the NAACP Image Awards celebrate the accomplishments of people of color in the fields of television, music, literature and film, and also honors individuals or groups who promote social justice through creative endeavors. As an American singer of Rwandan and Ugandan descent, Petite Afrique (Sony Music/OKeh) is Somi’s homage to her New York City upper Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem, one of the Meccas of the African diaspora and a vital part of New York City’s culture. Populated predominantly by a Francophone, West African, and Muslim community, this strip of Harlem is referred to as “Little Africa” or “Petite Afrique” by the local community.

Charles co-wrote five songs on Petite Afrique – The Gentry, Black Enough, Let Me, Midnight Angels, and They're like Ghosts. He arranged all string and horn parts in addition to performing as both percussionist and trumpeter.

“I first worked with Somi on her album Lagos Music Salon on a horn arrangement for a piece titled Akobi,” Charles said. “She then reached out to me about writing and producing for Petite Afrique just following the release of that album. Petite Afrique is important because of its depth in the message, and I am honored to be a part of this creative team and ecstatic that the album has received this award.”

With the albums focus on the African immigrant community of Harlem, Somi wanted the legacy of jazz represented in the music and enlisted Charles. “Etienne has a more straight-ahead approach to jazz but he also really privileges Afro Caribbean heritage and has a deep understanding of the diasporic expression of ourselves and black people of the world,” she said.

In addition to his professorship at MSU, Charles has produced seven solo albums and tours with his band Creole Soul. He learned of Petite Afrique's NAACP success following his sold-out concert, “Carnival: the Sound of a People 2.0,” which took place at Queen’s Hall in Trinidad on the night the NAACP awards were presented.

“Etienne is a great collaborator,” said Rodney Whitaker, MSU University Distinguished Professor of Jazz Bass and director of the MSU Jazz Studies program. “His work with Somi is a great example to our students, showing them how they can find projects they’re passionate about and have a great effect on them by using all the skills we’re helping them to develop.”

Charles has received numerous awards including a 2015 John Simon Guggenheim Fellow in the Creative Arts, a 2016 Jazz at Lincoln Center Millennial Swing Award, and the 2013 Caribbean Heritage Trailblazer Award by the Institute of Caribbean Studies in Washington, DC. He was featured as a panelist and performer at the White House Briefing on Caribbean American Heritage in Washington D.C., and in 2012 he was written into the US Congressional Record for his musical contributions to Trinidad and Tobago and the World.

Hear more about the contributions of Etienne Charles to Petite Afrique in The Making of Petite Afrique.

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