NATIVE Exclusive: Sampa the Great came back home and she’s freer than ever
“What you feel and are inside is what you manifest on the outside”
“What you feel and are inside is what you manifest on the outside”
“Thank God for rap, I would say it got me a plaque/but what’s better than that/the fact it brought me back home” – Kendrick Lamar, “Momma”
Sampa Tembo grew up in a home that encouraged her to be expressive. On one occasion, when she was about 7-years old, her parents were discussing politics with some of their friends, and in the middle of that conversation, her mum and dad turned to Sampa and her sister to ask, “What do you think?” In many African societies, deference to older people is sacrosanct and that often means the opinions of young people in wider discuss aren’t sought after and are much less respected.
With far more liberal parents than the archetypal African mum and dad, a young Sampa’s opinions mattered, at least in the four walls of their home, and that sort of autonomy came with its freeing effects. “That just creates this confidence in a kid that, ‘Oh, so my voice actually matters,’” the Zambia-born, Botswana-raised rap artist known as Sampa the Great tells me over a Zoom call. “You so easily feel that you can express yourself and give your thoughts of what the world is.”
Naturally, that translated into boundless curiosity, because that unfettered license to express yourself from a very young age helped her yearning for knowledge. The way Sampa tells it, up till age ten, her curiosity meant that she’d ask “any and every question,” which in turn made her loudly share her thoughts and even tell stories whenever she could. “From age eleven, the world was the world,” she says with a tinge of exasperation in her voice. “You just start learning about the world, the pressures of what people think, it influences you and sort of changes you till you get to the point—that I guess I did—that you look back on that younger self.”
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In September, Sampa the Great released her sophomore album, ‘As Above, So Below’, which she says was created through a process of healing and reconnecting with that younger self that was unapologetically curious and joyfully expressive. Like a lot of music in the last few years, that process was catalysed by the coronavirus pandemic that ground the world to a near halt for over a year, starting from the early weeks of 2020.
Entering that year, Sampa had established her bonafides as an indie rap star with the fall 2019 release of her debut album, ‘The Return’, a sprawling expression of identity from an artist with a complex path towards stardom over the course of that decade. In her late teens, Sampa moved to California for a few years to study Music for Visual Media, then unto Sydney in 2013 to complete a degree in Audio Engineering. It was in these years in Australia that she would start actively taking steps towards being a rap artist, a dream she’d been tentatively nurturing for years.
Oceans away from the countries where she was born and raised, it didn’t take Sampa the Great too much time to get going. In October 2015, she issued her first mixtape, ‘The Great Mixtape’, an encapsulation of her precocious abilities at stringing together engrossing raps, as she loudly figured out her purpose as an artist and exhibited a keenness for processing the world around her. Backed by layered and experimental choices with jazzy textures and soulful flourishes, the music drew attention to Sampa’s lyricism and growing songwriting chops.
With a growing reputation, she kept the momentum going in 2017 with an EP and her second mixtape, ‘HERoes Act 2’ and ‘Birds and the Bee9’. Facilitated by the Red Bull Sound Select program, the EP featured British Soul singer Estelle on all three tracks, and was helmed by Grammy-winning American producer Rakhi. By her second mixtape, it was obvious that the facets of her artistry had coalesced into a more intriguing whole, as she advocated for her individuality while displaying a sharper ability to tap into communally affecting subjects. ‘Birds and the Bee9’ would go on to win the 2017 Australian Music Prize, an achievement that was indicative of the rap artist’s wondrous talent and ascendant star power.
During this period of her ascent, Sampa the Great was mainly viewed as a representative of rap music from Australia. Despite having spent the majority of her life on another continent, taking those early career steps in a country where she initially just went for Uni had become a definitive narrative. Taking a generally pro-Black stance in her music and joining a vanguard of Black artists in Australia gaining wider local prominence and international recognition—alongside acts like Sensible J, Kaiit, REMI and more—Sampa quickly became an avatar for excellence in Black creative expression.
As proud as she was of being adored by and connected to African-Australians, Sampa was deeply uncomfortable with solely being described as an Australian hip-hop act. Being Zambian and growing up in Botswana mattered to her, and the urge to properly reconcile all these moving parts of her life’s experiences and fully assert these complexities, in the midst of growing international stardom, played a huge role in her debut album. For Sampa the Great, ‘The Return’ was a timely declaration of everything she is, with a reverent acknowledgement of her roots and a loud meditation on being better attuned with herself, championing all things pro-Black and even reckoning with the industry where she grew into an emergent star.
In the video for “OMG”, Sampa’s parents make cameo appearances, as well as the school she attended in Botswana. The wonderful set of visuals for career-elevating single, “Final Form”, features Nyau dancers and colourful Afrocentric outfits as Sampa struts and streaks across select locations in Zambia. On one of the record’s punchier cuts, the Krown-assisted “Time’s Up”, she chucks both middle fingers at the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA), as a response to her speech on diversity and inclusion being cut off the televised part of the 2019 ARIA Music Awards, while accepting her win for Best Hip Hop Release for “Final Form”.
“I just feel like my experiences in Australia, as dope as it was to have my first shows there and dropping projects that connected me with the world, it was really a hard journey being a black artist in a country where the industry doesn’t look like you,” Sampa tells me. That she also had to “be an ambassador for my community” also had its wearying effect. “I wasn’t raised in Australia but I had to make sure, whenever I’m expressing myself, it was perfect because we’re ‘the first of,’” she says of that added pressure.
With the responsibility—some of it self-inflicted—of expressing for herself and on behalf of many more people, Sampa explains that the music became very goal-oriented. “That sort of stripped away the joy of creating,” she says with a tone radiating clarity. “Anything that’s too planned or too strict, it stifles a bit of the excitement of being spontaneous, because that’s also what art is about. I feel like once I came back home and released the pressure of representing anyone but myself, I started to reignite that excitement of making music just to create.”
During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sampa the Great didn’t want to make music. In fact, coming back home wasn’t some personal mission to distil soul-searching into bars. “It was definitely a ‘whatever happens, happens’ thing,” she says with a quick laugh. With everything shutting down, the uncertainty of what would happening next and Australia beginning to seal its border to contain the virus, Sampa and her sister decided to head back home to check on their parents and stay in more familiar terrains.
After initially not getting into Zambia on first attempt, their eventual entry into the country after multiple tries put the artist in a contemplative mood, partly fuelled by nostalgia. “What came with being back is, I’m actually in the place where I dreamt of being an artist,” she recalls.
“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.”
Even though there was a plan to eventually move back home further down the line of her career, it became increasingly clear to the rap artist that this situation was actually timely. As she settled back in and started figuring out some personal and artistic stuff, it didn’t take long for her to start connecting with potential collaborators like Mag44, the revered Zambian rap artist and producer—“His career started before mine ever was ever put into fruition,” Sampa says—and singer Tio Nason. In her late August 2020 live set for the Black August series of virtual shows, Mag44 opens proceedings with a quick exhortation and a rap verse, and an unreleased, thumping rap song with Tio Nason is premiered during the course of the set.
With her creative juices flowing, Sampa the Great decided to get to work on her sophomore album. “Relocating back here, this being the place I dreamt of being an artist and even just reflecting on the younger version of myself, was exciting enough to make me want to make a project,” she explains. Away from any external pressures of being an ambassador, Sampa rekindled her fire for creating without any broader agendas.
‘As Above, So Below’ is the most selfish body of work in the rap artist’s catalogue—purposely and purposefully so. Across her career, Sampa the Great has had to consistently make grand declarations, from showcasing her potential in a flattering light at the start of her career, to being brazenly pro-Black in a very white industry, and making sure to establish her identity with her debut album. As apt as all of those were at each point in time, they’ve paved the way for Sampa to express herself in her most self-assured mode yet.
“I can be hard/I can be soft/I can be everything under the stars,” she proclaims on the cinematic opening song, “Shadows”. It’s an encapsulation of the sense of freedom that permeates the album, even as Sampa interrogates the multiple factors that negatively affects artistic autonomy. Even the album’s musical choices, extensively helmed in collaboration with executive producer Mag44 and contributors like Solomon Moyo, Powers Pleasant and Sampa herself, reflects the rap artist’s reinvigorated freedom. Describing the album’s sound as Hybrid Music, it emboldens the Afrocentric shades in the Soul and Funk-indebted palette of her last album, adding parochial Zambian and Southern African sonic elements on more than a few of its songs.
On the contemporary rap lead single, “Lane”, she rails against the idea of artistic boxes in general, with American rap artist Denzel Curry chipping in a fiery guest verse. In its accompanying video, there are scenes of Sampa and a younger version of herself mirroring the other’s movements, but with a palpable tension between them, a symbolic representation of how our younger selves thought very little of external pressures and did things for the sake of sheer curiosity.
“[This album is] for the inner child that is a huge spark in all of us,” Sampa the Great says. “It’s for those people who are going through healing their inner child, because that’s definitely what I was going through with making this project.” That process produces some of the most irreverent and wickedly confident lyricism in her career, from the visceral romp of the Kojey Radical-assisted “IDGAF” and rapping “I was only humble from the stress” on the infectious, Amapiano-tinged “Tilibobo”, to a nuanced denouncement of the baggage that comes with fame on the grungy highlight, “Can I Live”.
The latter track features vocals from Emmanuel “Jagari” Chanda, lead vocalist and co-founder of the iconic Zambian rock band WITCH, known for helping pioneer the Zamrock genre and movement that blended Kalindula and other strains of Zambian folk music with psychedelic rock influences into an ingenious sound and local Phenom in the 1970s. On pre-release single, “Never Forget”, Sampa the Great and her collaborators lean into Zamrock for a resounding statement on ancestral greatness. In addition to the Afrofuturism motifs, there are performance clips of Zamrock bands from the ‘70s and archival footage in the song’s video.
“There was a lot of rediscovering that happened during the process of this album and “Never Forget” is a product of that,” Sampa tells me well over an hour through our chat. “It’s 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.”
Since I spoke to Sampa the Great, “Never Forget” has served as the soundtrack to the trailer for Marvel’s new superhero blockbuster film, ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’, adding significant prestige to a song with already momentous heft. She’s also released the video for ‘As Above, So Below’ final track, “Let Me Be Great” with African music royalty Angelique Kidjo, its afro-futurist bent paying homage to the video for “Agolo”, the 1994 smash hit by Ms. Kidjo. As an emphatic closer, Sampa’s raps ring out like edicts over Mag44’s horn-laced beat—“I’m Sammy, I’m Tembo, I’m Eve, I’m Sampa, I’m Great.”
“What you feel and are inside is what you manifest on the outside,” Sampa says, her voice still radiating that clarity. “If your journey of your love for self is not at its highest, that would reflect and manifest outwardly. For someone who’s felt like they’ve always had to represent someone else and be an ambassador for someone else, I wasn’t really being true to representing and expressing myself.”
Rap made Sampa the Great a star in a country she wasn’t born or raised in, helping to introduce her to the rest of the world and also inadvertently tacking on some unwieldy responsibilities. Coming back home helped refocus her passion and purpose, and now she’s being true to representing and expressing herself.
Stream ‘As Above, As Below’ here.