The dynamic leap of Sampa the Great

While studying at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, Sampa the Great experienced “intense culture shock” – shock that nearly halted a journey of self-exploration and expression of her African culture.

“Being visited with the real reality of how the world works and how the world sees me as a young African girl, that experience was important enough for me to stop expressing myself,” she says of this period, which contributed to a two-year lull in writing.

But that time in America was eye-opening for the 29-year-old, helping her become one of the most beloved voices in contemporary rap, thanks to her fearlessness and unparalleled ability to describe the world around her.

Growing up in a family of artists, Sampa Tembo, born in Zambia and raised in Botswana, began taking piano and voice lessons at the age of nine. During this time, she took up journaling and poetry, sparking an affinity for songwriting. The young Sampa found the ‘catharsis’ of ‘being heard’ in the midst of five children and later writing gave her the ability to ‘document [her] existence.”

“[My ‘why’ as a writer] is to exist and to feel,” she says SPIN on Zoom, brushing her coppery red side bangs out of her eye with a smile. Although it is almost 8 p.m. when she calls from Lusaka, Zambia, she speaks vividly of her writing process: “It’s a very therapeutic experience that also allows you to see yourself through a bird’s eye view rather than [through] tunnel vision, which is generally how we go through life as humans.

Sampa’s early appreciation for hip-hop, especially bands like 2Pac and Lauryn Hill, helped her realize the connection between poetry and music. Around 2013, after his studies in California, Sampa moved to Australia to pursue studies in audio engineering and start working on his music career, unbeknownst to his parents. His first project, 2015 The great mixtapepresented his sharp fusion of political, social and spiritual themes, amplified by sounds inspired by Africa, hip-hop and neo-soul.

As his fanbase grew, so did his music, from 2017’s reflective approach The birds and the bee9 mixtape from his eclectic debut album, 2019 The return. She won four ARIA Awards between 2019 and 2020 for both her album, her single “Final Form” and her overall artistry. She also, crucially, opened for musicians like Hiatus Kaiyote, Little Simz and Kendrick Lamar when she came.

“I remember doing the sound check [for Kendrick’s Auckland City Limits show in 2016] and his setlist was on the floor,” Sampa says. “It made me think [that] I should really take this thing seriously, because I’m here at a point where I have the opportunity to express myself musically and be an artist for an artist who inspires me. That’s when I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be an artist.’ “

Sampa’s second album The Great, As above, so below, represents her power as an African woman. Born after returning to Zambia at the start of the pandemic, the project explores Sampa’s inner thoughts (“I can be tough, I can be soft, I can be anything under the stars,” she claims in the confidence-boosting intro “Shadows”) and his proudest moments yet (“I Think [giving a fuck] is below me now, I don’t even trip anymore, anymore, anymore,” she raps and sings with conviction on the energetic “IDGAF,” which features British-Ghanaian artist Kojey Radical.)

“It was a very important return trip,” says Sampa of his time in Zambia. “The simple fact of being able to return to the place that inspired me, [journeying] why I started being an artist in the first place, connecting with my younger self that wanted to express itself.

Sampa says As above, so below offers a “lighter air” than her previous projects, the result of “shedding” the need to prove who she is: “[The album is] focus more on why I make music and why I love expressing myself through music, rather than defending [why I’m] making music and standing up for who I am.

(Credit: Travys Owens)

Her poise on the wax takes the form of an alter-ego, Eve, which allows her to be “the woman who [she’s] always wanted to be,” remaining steadfast in a field she feared to enter as an African woman. “A woman who raps isn’t even in the conversation when it comes to what people expect from African women,” she notes. “I feel like I’m breaking a stereotype and changing the direction of what we define as what an African woman ‘does’ – and I relate that to the first woman, scientifically, being Eve.”

Throughout the album, Sampa pays homage to the music and cultural influence of the African diaspora – a “loop moment”. Zamrock, a Zambian fusion of African music with psychedelic rock and funk, seeps throughout the “Can I Live” claim. World icon The evocative voice of Angelique Kidjo, who “paved the way for African artists”, punctuates the introspective finale “Let Me Be Great”. Zambian musicians Mag44, Sam Nyambe, Sammy Masta and Solomon Plate are credited alongside Sampa as producers. “These are artists that I have seen growing up, who [expressed] musically and inspired me to move our culture and our country forward,” she continues.

This quest for personal liberation has not been easy for Sampa – her stage name, she notes, serves more as a life goal than a swaggering nickname. But all of these examples have shaped his style, his sound and his spirit.

“For me, [being ‘the great’] is that goal to achieve, to be the greatest version of myself,” she says. “It was more about ‘I’m going to be the greatest version of myself, and it’s going to be the sum of the greats against me’, especially at that time. I felt the opposite when ‘Sampa the Great’ was created.

“The thing I don’t give myself a pat on the back for is the courage it took to create these projects,” she adds. “They represent something bigger than me, and I was strong and bold in that representation. I enjoyed the process of the journey instead of focusing on the destination.”

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