When Sampa the Great walks up to greet me, all available sunlight rushes in to match her beaming smile. Despite her petite frame, Sampa’s posture is that of a powerful matriarch. She speaks with firm conviction and pronounced grace, exuding an aura of wisdom, patience and nurturing instincts.
Since her move from Botswana to Australia a few years ago, Sampa Tembo has crystallized her voice amidst a society that can be far from warm and welcoming. The Melbourne-based polymath weaves together elements of spoken word, traditional chanting and contemporary beats into a tight braid of thought-provoking music that transcends genre and enthralls the senses. Covering trauma and acceptance, the rapper’s work finds her exploring down the ample avenues of selfhood. Her second project, Birds and the BEE9, was awarded the prestigious Australian Music Prize last year, solidifying her status in the global hip-hop landscape. She is beauty, she is courage and she is here to stay.
Sitting on a picnic table across from me, elbows on knees, she talks about the process of growing as an artist and as a woman in her early 20s.
VMP: What are your fondest memories of your childhood in Zambia and Botswana?
Sampa the Great: The actual traveling between both countries by car. There would be elephants on the road on the way to Zambia, so my dad would feel like that was the perfect time to play with the wild animals. My mother would get so nervous sitting on the passenger seat and it happened every year! That exchange made me see them as individuals without us, as best friends, if that makes sense.
You moved to around quite a bit — what effect do you think this had on you, both as an artist and as an individual?
When I was younger, the move from Zambia to Botswana wasn’t too drastic. The cultures are somewhat similar and so it was more of a physical move from one country to a neighboring country. It was when I was a teenager and went to San Francisco for university that I felt a culture shock. I then decided to come back home because I wasn’t quite used to that shift, so I chose to come to a place that I was used to and comfortable in. It was my sister who suggested going to university elsewhere, so that’s when we moved to Australia. That experience showed me how differently people communicate, how far music travels, how far hip-hop travels. In Zambia there was hip-hop, in Botswana there was hip-hop, in Australia there was hip-hop. And I was like, ‘Wow, what is it about this thing that has translated to everyone around the world whom I’ve associated with?’ Humor is also pretty much the same everywhere. Those realizations were what led me to realize that I could communicate this message through my music: We’re all human, we can all be vulnerable, but we can all laugh, too. We all want to be happy.
When did you first notice that you had a musical talent and wanted to pursue this as a career?
I knew I wanted to make music ever since I was a kid but career-wise it wasn’t an option in my family. You could pretty much do anything else, but never music. I did sound engineering so that they could perceive me as an engineer, when in reality I was just working on my own mixtape and using it as a formal leeway into the industry. The music industry wasn’t big at all in Botswana at the time, so my parents just saw music as a pastime for me. But with time, it grew.
How did taking a course in sound engineering shape your approach to making your own music?
It showed me what I was able to create with music and sound. On the flipside, it also showed me that it’s not the area of music that I’m necessarily most interested in. I’d sit and record artists singing but I soon realized that I really needed to be on the other side. Sound engineering also taught me how to communicate how I wanted things to sound. A lot of the time artists want to change a certain instrument or pitch but they don’t have the vocabulary and technical know-how to describe that to their producer or engineer. It’s a privilege to be able to be as closely involved with my own production as I am.
Did the singing come naturally to you?
Not at all! My sister used to sing in the church choir but I didn’t have the courage to join her until she eventually persuaded me… I owe all my singing to that experience. Gospel music taught me melody and church taught me how sounds work together. I find singing so vulnerable compared to rap because with rap it’s just my words and I can deliver them however I want to. But with singing, you can clearly hear the soul… it’s something I’ve always found intimidating but also incredibly special about it.
When it was time for you to build your own sound, how did you decide which direction to go in? How did you know you weren’t interested in going down the mainstream route?
I’ve always just been that kid who knows what she likes. It was something my dad honed in me from a young age, he always said that it didn’t matter whether or not things were cool, “You like what you like,” he’d say. So I wanted my music to sound like me! I wouldn’t be able to stand on stage and present music that doesn’t represent who I am. I try to maintain the sounds I grew up with, the sounds that shaped who I am as a person, in my music as much as possible.
What sounds are those?
My mother used to listen to a lot of traditional sounds and folk songs from Zambia, which were heavy on instrumentals and chanting. I picked those sounds up from her and then we’d sing all together at family functions so I quickly learned about the communal aspects and cultural traditions behind the music. I’m grateful that I had such a vast pool of different ingredients to pull from.
People tend to compare you to the likes of Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar. How do you interpret these comparisons — do you take it as a compliment or would you prefer to just not be compared at all?
At first I was so flattered and honored to be compared to them, because these are the artists that inspired my sound, the confidence in me, everything. But then it gets to a point where I’m Sampa. I don’t wanna be Lauryn. I wanna be inspired by her, but I don’t wanna be another her — I want to be Sampa. So it goes from feeling proud that I’m being compared to the greats, to being like, ‘Now I’m gonna have to start being an individual, please.’
You have a very literary style; you’re a storyteller. How is spoken word different from music to you? What does one allow you to do that the other doesn’t?
I think the difference lies in the additional layer of sound. To me, rap is poetry with rhythm. With slam poetry, the cadence was the music. Spoken word is the foundation of my music; I just added instrumentals to it. Both are equally personal, they both feel like diary work.
How do you draw a balance between being honest and raw in your music, but also keeping certain personal things to yourself?
When I was a child I had a hard time expressing myself because while I had a lot to say, my brain and my mouth didn’t seem to connect! It actually got to the point where I started stuttering, so my mother told me to just sit down and write it all out. And it became therapeutic.
I don’t like limiting my writing; I like to let the writing go where it wants to go, and if it wants to get deep and vulnerable, I’ll let it. It just comes down to deciding whether I want to share certain words with the world or whether to keep them for myself sometimes.
How was the experience touring with Noname last year?
I love her so much. I love it when [we] are able to connect with each other, especially in hip-hop. And with her, she just taught me to be myself. She’s such a character on stage, she’ll talk, she’ll trip, she’ll laugh, it’s almost a theatre performance but she’s always being herself! She taught me so much about being on stage but also off stage.
Where do you see yourself fitting into the Australian landscape, if at all?
Being in Australia as a Black person, I’m forced to pay attention to the landscape. I know it’s growing but I think the pace it’s growing at doesn’t allow young artists like myself to prosper. We really need to jump on the opportunity when we do come out to Europe and the U.S. because the flights are so long and expensive. I got lucky for starting out with a well-known crew, finding a team that works with me and is able to translate my music into what I need, and loving what I do!
What is it like for you to be a Black woman in 2019?
Back home we were surrounded by people who looked like us, representation wasn’t a thing, our parents made us feel perfect. It’s when you step out into a world that tells you you’re not, that’s when the real work begins. That’s when you have to make sense of the different things you’re being told and move forward as an individual in a way that works for you.
In different ways, 2019 is the most independent Black women have been. We’re getting closer to loving ourselves without a care, looking like we want to look. But everything is give and take when it comes to race… I feel like we’re still rebuilding our house and that takes a while. I’m in a good place myself as a Black woman so hopefully I can create a space like that for other Black women — that’s the ultimate goal.