Sampa the Great makes grand return with sophomore album, ‘As Above, So Below’
Read through for Sampa's breakdown of a few songs off the LP
Read through for Sampa's breakdown of a few songs off the LP
Sampa the Great grew into wider renown around the release of her 2019 debut album, ‘The Return’. Preceded by lead single “Energy”, a moving ode to divine femininity alongside spoken word from Nadeem Din-Gabisi, and the incredibly fun, take-no-prisoners, and ultra-funky second single “Final Form”, ‘The Return’ amplified Sampa’s ability to make communally resonant tunes with a transfixing edge and a pro-Black perspective accumulated from being born in Zambia, growing up between her birth country and Botswana, studying for some years in the U.S., and finding her feet as an artist in Australia.
Not only did it raise her profile on a global scale, with its two lead singles going on to become revered hit songs in the Sampa the Great canon, ‘The Return’ was greeted with overwhelming praise, helping her become the first artist to win the Australian Music Prize twice, and receiving three awards the 2020 ARIAs. Nudged by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sampa went back home, even as her star was shining bright in the country where she took her first steps to becoming a rap star. What was initially meant to be a brief hiatus in order to check in with her parents turned into a prolonged spell of introspection on personal purpose, which led to Sampa deciding to reset her base of operation.
“What came with [being back home] is, I’m actually in the place where I dreamt of being an artist,” Sampa recently told The NATIVE. “It’s weird because my career started outside of my home, so it’s always been Sampa the Great but she’s that side. To be back home and be Sampa the Great at home, as weird as it sounds, felt very complete.” The result of that feeling of completeness is on her newly released sophomore LP, ‘As Above, So Below’. Helmed in Zambia with a cohort led by revered Zambian artist and producer Mag44, the new album finds Sampa digging deeper into her roots for sonic inspiration as she rededicates the ideals of her art to her person.
Announced earlier this year, ‘As Above, So Below’ was heralded with the release of three singles, the closest to the album release being “Bona”, a dizzying banger with vivid Kwaito inspiration that was co-produced by Sampa herself. It was preceded by “Never Forget”, a heartfelt ode to Zamrock and a searing proclamation of greatness, which was accompanied by a wondrous set of visuals. Back in late April, “Lane” was released as the lead single, with American rap artist Denzel Curry joining Sampa to disavow boxes on their artistic identity. The release also came with a symbolic and eye-holding short film.
Now out in its entirety, ‘As Above, So Below’ features eleven songs, and it includes contributions from British-Ghanaian rapper Kojey Radical, Zambian soul singer James Sakala, American rapper Joey Bada$$, Beninese icon Angelique Kidjo on the bracing closer “Let Me Be Great”, and more. As part of a lengthy conversation with Sampa the Great, which will form the basis of an upcoming profile on The NATIVE in coming days, the artist was kind enough to give us a breakdown of several of the songs on ‘As Above, So Below’. Following below, she discusses the significance of intro track “Shadows”, the message in the video for “Lane”, and the personal and communal importance of “Never Forget”.
NATIVE: “Shadows” has this cinematic feel to it and also self-affirming lines like, “I can do anything under the stars”. What was your mind-set when you were working on it?
Sampa the Great: I was in the mind-set that I’m restarting something. I’m entering a new chapter is a better way to say it, because, at that point, I’ve left Australia. I don’t know whether I’m going to get back, I’m starting in an industry I’m not acquainted to but is my home and I know a new journey is about to begin. It’s just affirming myself that a new journey is about to begin, just having that tenacity to be like, “this is just a new journey.” I’ve done new journeys before, so this is just another one. Also, being like, even if I’m not there or even if I don’t create a project again or even if you don’t get to hear from me, you will never find another me.
I feel like I’ve been able to express myself in a way that’s unique to me, especially in the hip-hop landscape where there’s pressure to sound like someone else or look like someone else. I’ve still been able to keep me, my culture, the way I talk and the way we express words through our accent and language, because I’ve never been embarrassed about it. The mind frame was, “this is a new chapter I’m about to embark on.” I’ve actually reached home, so this is no longer ‘The Return’; this is “now that you’ve returned, what’s the next step?” A new journey can be scary, you don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the journey, but this song is the preparation for that.
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I know “Lane” is about refusing to be boxed in as an artist, but there’s obviously more to the video than meets the eye.
You’re right, it’s more than just a music video. When I came back home, I started doing virtual performances and some people would comment, “I can’t believe this is coming from Africa.” It was specifically the ARIA Awards performance, and it really made me stop and think. There is a perception of the art that comes from the continent; if it’s good, then there’s a doubt that it could come from here, and that was intriguing because my goal was always to come back home and make art here. I sort of set this unconscious goal for myself to make videos and create short films from here to make people know that it can be just as good as anywhere else.
I remember meeting up with my creative director for this project, Rharha Nembhard, and Imraan Christian, who’s the director for nearly all the videos for this project, and we just connected so much in how we wanted to visually tell the stories of the album. Stories from the continent are often seen in one way and we wanted to expand that. Let’s add sci-fi, let’s add fantasy, why should anything to be limited to one way of making videos? Let’s make this a storytelling experience. When “Lane” came about, we thought that it would be beautiful if it was paired it with origin, which is the beginning of the music video, and just showing people that there’s a growth that has happened in this past three years.
I’ve changed the way I’m telling my stories visually, and you’re going to just be embraced by film more than just the music video performance. We’re bringing you into the story of what is to be an afro-futuristic artist, what it is to see past where you are and tell stories that are more broad. For “Lane”, breaking boxes and the version of us who didn’t care about what people thought of us was our younger selves. The younger version of yourself didn’t really care what people thought of them, they would just express themselves to express themselves. Connecting with that concept is what brought about younger versions of myself and Denzel in the video. Connecting to them through the 3-D glasses we were wearing, breaking through construct and just being like, “What if we went back to those younger selves?”
How big of a deal is “Never Forget” to you?
“Never Forget” is a huge song to us, just culturally, outside of me alone as an artist an individual, especially since the reactions since it was released. People are tagging me and their grandma is watching and saying things like, “I know that nurse in that video,” “I remember when the president said this.” We were just doing this artistically but we’re pulling out memories and feelings of what our country has been through, and even just having a new president now that was voted in by the youth of Zambia after a long dictatorship, and us feeling like a wave of change is happening. “Never Forget” coming out at the time it did is just timely.
It was inspired by Zamrock, and again, these young, crazy kids who loved Psychedelic Rock but also loved traditional music ended up fusing the two together and creating this genre. Also, knowing that people know Zamrock globally more than they know it in our country, and that being the same with me—people knowing me as an artist outside my country more than people in my country. There’s so many similarities in this journey of Zamrock and Sampa the Great, and also finding out my uncle was a part of the founding members of WITCH, one of the legendary Zamrock bands, and that being a huge revelation because I’ve always felt like this music journey was a lonely path.
There were just so many similarities that inspired the song, but also the message, knowing that there were people who paved the way for Zambian artists. It’s showing our love and appreciation for people who wanted to do things differently, who shined a light on the stories of Zambian people through music. We are the current generation of Zambians who want to do the same things, continuing the mission they started.
‘As Above, So Below’ is out now via Loma Vista Recordings. [Featured Image credit: Travys Owens.]