Sampa The Great: “Music is the one thing that is supposed to be the truth”

After making her mark on Australian music, Sampa Tembo left for her home of Zambia, where she came into herself. She tells NME about new album ‘As Above, So Below’ and its driving force and guiding “mentality”, Eve

Since Australia last saw her, Sampa The Great has undergone a creative and personal rebirth.

It is a rebirth that has been detailed to stunning effect at recent, long-awaited performances which were fittingly billed as ‘Sampa The Great Presents An Afro Future’ – equal parts art and live music performance.

Music – beloved songs and new material – fused seamlessly with meticulous choreography executed by Sampa and a cast of dancers, awash in shifting hues of light: cool blue and green tones one moment, sweltering reds and oranges the next. At the centre of it all, Sampa The Great dominated, matching the strength of each spitfire bar with a noticeable sense of peace and confidence.

Her return to Australian stages, after leaving the country at a career peak, was always going to be weighted with expectation. And as she commanded audiences in both Sydney and Melbourne, Sampa proved that she was worth the wait.

Sampa The Great
Credit: Jacob Webster for NME

“It feels like I’m catching up with where my life stopped two years ago,” Sampa later muses over a cup of tea in a small cafe in Melbourne’s CBD.

“It literally paused here and then I went on and grew [in] this other direction at a speed I didn’t think I was gonna grow at. I’m coming back and it’s like old Sampa and current Sampa are meeting.”

When NME sits down with Sampa, she is in between her two Melbourne shows. The impact of the first show – at the Sydney Opera House – still sinking in.

“I feel like I left some old clothes for a while,” she says.

“It’s familiar because it’s still me, but I’ve grown. Sometimes you can’t see it and people need to tell you for you to see the growth. I can see it this time.”

Sampa The Great
Credit: Jacob Webster for NME

And it has been enthralling to watch Sampa The Great grow. One of the most riveting rappers to have emerged from the Australian landscape in the last decade, Sampa’s discography demonstrates a steady path of undeniable progress – one that hits an apotheosis with her upcoming album ‘As Above, So Below’.

Where previous projects established Sampa’s strengths as an artist, it is with this second studio album that she cements her status as a significant voice within hip hop and music at large.

“Being Sampa The Great in Australia, the hope was just to inspire people and break some walls,” she says, looking back on her time in the country.

“Fight through what is obviously oppression on every level, including creatively. When it starts to affect your expression, then it becomes very dangerous. Music is the one thing that is supposed to be the truth, especially in hip hop. If the artists are too scared to say what needs to be said, then damn! Where do we get the truth from?”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Sampa The Great
Sampa The Great on the cover of NME Australia #31

As Sampa began her ascent in Australia in the mid-2010s, the country’s landscape for hip hop and its related genres was also beginning to change.

The emergence and success of artists like Hiatus Kaiyote, B Wise, Tkay Maidza and REMI as well as the growing prominence of producers like Silentjay and Taka Perry all contributed to a more fluid and collaborative scene. With the 2017 release of the ‘Birds and the BEE9’ mixtape – a gorgeous fusion of hip hop, jazz, soul and gospel – Sampa The Great added more fuel to this fire of change.

When she followed up with her debut studio album ‘The Return’ in 2019, Sampa had a fast-growing fanbase and her place within Australian hip hop had been solidified. Listeners abroad – the album was released by English electronic label Ninja Tune – and the local industry and its institutions were beginning to take notice. Sampa The Great is so far the only artist to win the coveted Australian Music Prize twice. She was named Double J’s Artist of The Year in 2019 and over two years was nominated for eight ARIA Awards in relation to ‘The Return’, winning four.

Sampa The Great
Credit: Jacob Webster for NME

Even as her profile grew and recognition began to flow, Sampa remained acutely aware of the gatekeepers within the very industry she was publicly thriving in. Her historic win at the 2019 ARIAs demonstrated that compliments, no matter how historic, could still be delivered backhanded. Upon becoming the first woman of colour to win in the Best Hip Hop Release category, Sampa delivered an acceptance speech called for more recognition of the diversity of Black art in Australia that was omitted from the national television broadcast.

The ever tenacious Sampa addressed the snub at the ceremony the next year with a breathtaking performance filmed in Botswana, where she was raised. She opened the rendition of ‘Final Form’ with some choice statements: “In a country that pretends not to see Black, to not see its origins and its past / Not only did Black visionaries make you see, but made it known who created human history / And when we win awards, they toss us on the ad breaks, of course / But is that history lost? Can’t remember what you forgot.

“African music is so much about soul and spirit that you can tell when it’s stripped away”

Though she prefers not to dwell on them, Sampa does say now that she endured such tense, exhausting times so her contemporaries and younger artists may take the baton of Black success even further.

“Yes, I had to be in that moment [of pressure] – but that’s only so that Mwanjé doesn’t have to go through it,” Sampa says, referring to her sister, an artist in her own right and her frequent collaborator. “It’s why Sensible J did it before me, why REMI did it before me; everyone did it before so we could feel that freedom. That’s just what I hope that this career has done for other young Black artists: allowed them to take it a step further and feel that weight lifted. No Black artist deserves to have such a weight on them.”

It definitely weighed on Sampa, who was a highly visible non-white artist in Australia, saddled with pressure to succeed not just for herself but for her community – while under the appraising gaze and expectations of the music industry and wider public.

“You and I know that there is such a pressure to be a person of colour in Australia who has a platform, or who is in the public view,” she says.

“You often feel like you have to have this armour or persona. I don’t like using that word, because I don’t feel like I was two different people. I do think I put huge pressure on myself to be perfect in order to be an ambassador.”

Sampa The Great
Credit: Jacob Webster for NME

All of this came to a head for Sampa. Imposter syndrome set in as questions began to swirl. How could Sampa The Great actually be this great Zambian artist and trailblazer if she wasn’t fully immersed in the country’s creative community? Did this compromise her Africanness?

Weighed down by such identity crises, “I wasn’t allowing myself to enjoy life. It all became about the job,” Sampa remembers. The onset of COVID-19, and the way it made the work of a musician impossible, only exacerbated her anxieties. Sampa recalls the question she asked herself: “What do I do now when this thing that I’ve fought for is slipping away from my hands?”

She adds, “That was a depressing time. It was like, “OK, now who am I?” … We had to find out how we identified ourselves outside our music and outside our careers.

“If the artists are too scared to say what needs to be said, then damn! Where do we get the truth from?”

“Until I went home and asked myself questions like ‘Who are you without your music? What do you want to do?’, that was when the armour started to fall off. Things became so much lighter. The peace people see in me is the light.”

Zambia is where Sampa has been based for the better part of the last three years. This relocation was accelerated by the onset of COVID-19, but was ignited by her desire to rediscover herself outside of the title Sampa The Great.

Her return to the country of her birth meant a return to Sampa Tembo: daughter, sister, cousin, friend. A Black woman discovering the strength of loving herself and finding her joy again.

Sampa The Great
Credit: Jacob Webster for NME

Sampa found community in local musicians and began developing what has become her touring band: an all-Zambian group that has travelled with her around the world, making history and burning up stages at festivals like Coachella and Glastonbury.

“We’re side by side and if someone trips, someone [else] can hold them up,” she says of the bond they’ve developed.

“We know we are the underdogs; we know we are walking into spaces where people don’t take us seriously because we are African. We’ve had to have talks with each other like, ‘Yo, if this is the one thing we get to do in our lives and if this is the one privilege we have over our cousins and our relatives, let’s go and do this thing like tomorrow’s the last day’.”

Sampa The Great
Credit: Jacob Webster for NME

Though Sampa headed back to Zambia out of necessity – for her family and for her own mental and spiritual wellbeing – she also recognised that she was making use of an exit strategy.

“There is, one hundred percent, a privilege in being able to leave,” Sampa says candidly.

“I recognise that and I recognise that earlier on, in what I call the Black renaissance of hip hop in Australia… I could talk shit because I knew I could leave. But if [others] talk shit, there’s repercussions to careers, to money, to a lot of stuff that I have the privilege of not caring about. So if that was the case, then let’s talk shit on my platform! I can get in trouble, but at least it creates some sort of mark. Let’s do something so that when we leave here, at least I would have done something to change something in Australia.”

It was from Africa during the pandemic that Sampa started showcasing the artistic leaps she was making through breathtaking online performances for the festival Afropunk, NPR’s Tiny Desk and, yes, the ARIAs. It was in Zambia that Sampa started to come into herself: she finally found Eve, the driving force of ‘As Above, So Below’.

“That’s what I hope that this career has done for other young Black artists: allowed them to take it a step further and feel that weight lifted”

Eve is a “mentality”, Sampa says: “I’m staying far away from ‘persona’.” Listen carefully to her discography to date and you can track Eve’s early forms, but ‘As Above, So Below’ marks her official introduction. Eve’s taken her time, but she couldn’t arrive any other way.

“I feel like I had to grow to get to a point where I could be my truest Eve,” Sampa says. “I could show myself and my vulnerability in a way that felt strong to me. As an African woman, it’s so hard to be in countries where just being an African woman is dangerous… You put on your mask for protection, you’ve got to make sure everyone is good and secure. What that does is limits your growth: it stifles you and the nurturing of your womanhood and femininity.

“Being in Zambia now for three years, in my homeland, I got to nurture myself more and become more comfortable in myself and in my power. There are bits of Eve in ‘Final Form’ (‘Last name Tembo, first name Eve…’) – that’s me being like, ‘Yo, when I get to that point where I’m that woman? Whew!’ That’s me dropping breadcrumbs for my future self and now we’re in Eve Mode. It’s just parts of myself, framed around my womanhood, that needed time to grow and come to. I’m fully in my Eve power now.”

Sampa The Great
Credit: Jacob Webster for NME

But who is Eve? For an answer, you can look at the imagery on Sampa’s social media pages, where high fashion vibrancy meets a futuristic vision. Eve is also in the music. She’s in the swagger of ‘Lane’, Sampa’s collaboration with Denzel Curry and the album’s lead single that spotlights Sampa at a sexually liberated, empowered high.

She flourishes on brand-new album highlight ‘Never Forget’, a powerful ode to the Zambian genre Zamrock that has an all-Zambian guestlist of Chef 187, Tio Nason and Mwanjé. Together, the artists on the record thread together the impact of influential Zambian musicians with the contemporary vision of Sampa The Great in full Eve Mode. They hail African art and history, serving an unapologetic celebration of Black art and excellence.

In conversation with NME, Sampa is more interested in discussing Eve than the finer points of music that is not yet public. She does call the new material “hybrid music”, revealing that where she used to tell her producer “here’s the music I grew up on, let’s try and recreate that”, for ‘As Above, So Below’ she started saying “let’s use the music we grew up on and expand it to a different language.”

Sampa The Great
Credit: Jacob Webster for NME

And she has some impressive collaborators who are helping craft that language. The album’s tracklist, revealed just this morning, shows guests including rappers Joey Bada$$ and Kojey Radical, the iconic Angelique Kidjo (on ‘Let Me Be Great’, which Sampa aired at her ‘An Afro Future’ shows), and influential Zamrock band, W.I.T.C.H.

The forthcoming release of ‘As Above So Below’ adds to the continued strides artists from Africa, like Wizkid, Tems and Burna Boy, have been making on the global stage in recent years. “It’s an exciting time to be able to see something that you grew up on be so mainstream,” Sampa says, noting how the success of Black Panther and collaborations between African artists and the likes of Drake and Beyoncé have pushed art from the continent further onto commercial radars.

Sampa The Great
Credit: Jacob Webster for NME

But she is also quick to note the dark cloud of exploitation, which is never far away.

“We’re so used to being the ghostwriter without the credit,” she adds. “It’s dope that it’s coming to life, but it’s such a precious story that if it’s not told right, it can fall under the same rock that we’re still trying to get out from underneath. African music is so much about soul and spirit that you can tell when it’s stripped away. It would give the wrong narrative of us, that we don’t need, on top of all the narratives that are already on top of us.

“Am I excited? Yes, because it means that we don’t need to explain so much of our music when we’re working with others anymore. You can see that it’s out there, you can see that people are willingly wanting to explore and educate themselves about our music – that’s beautiful. The negatives are that if they go beyond where they are, it could leave us at a point where we’re not in control of our own art.”

If there’s one thing Sampa The Great is now, it’s in control – ready to show the world Eve and artistry that doesn’t bow to any preconceived notions about Black creativity.

Sampa offers a knowing grin as she teases the bright chapter ‘As Above, So Below’ is about to crack open for her, her peers, her fans – and the world.

“We’re not going to spend our time explaining to you why we’re uncomfortable,” she says. “We also have joy, we also have laughter. We also have excitement, passion, fear, love.

“We’re gonna show you everything.”

Sampa The Great’s ‘As Above, So Below’ is out September 9 via Loma Vista

CREDITS

Styling by Ntombi Moyo
Assistant styling by Onkabetse Mfete
Makeup by Chilufya Mulenga
Nails by Tyler Richie