09 Sep The spiritual language of music – an interview with Sampa the Great
Sampa Tembo, aka Sampa The Great, has just released her debut EP, The Great Mixtape, and we’re all pretty damn excited about it. The hip-hop, funk, soul and jazz-infused album is impressive in its diversity of sounds, sharp production, and socially aware lyrics. We spoke with the rising star about her African roots, foray into music, and her personal philosophies that inform not only the way she writes and makes music, but how she lives her life.
Alana Scully: This will likely be the first time a lot of our readers will be introduced to Sampa The Great, so I’m interested in knowing how you were first introduced to music?
Sampa Tembo: Music is almost engineered in me. I think since I was 10 or 11 years old, I’ve always liked the sound of African music, which has a lot of sounds and rhythms. I remember the first time I did actually sit down and write something, my parents had forgotten me at school. I’m the middle child, so I was so mad, I thought, “Argh, they forgot me!” And so I was waiting at school, sitting next to one of the trees, and I pulled out one of my notebooks and just wrote a song. That was probably where it began.
When I looked up your bio, I saw that you were born in Zambia, raised in Botswana and are now based in Sydney. Why the move to Sydney?
Yes, I was raised in Botswana from age two onwards. I’ve stayed in Botswana, but move between Botswana and Zambia to visit my relatives. My grandma, grandpa, and all of my extended family live in Zambia, whereas my immediate family – my mum, my dad, two sisters and brother – all live in Botswana.
I’ve been here in Sydney for two years just studying on a student visa, and have just finished my audio engineering course at SAE.
And making music?
Yeah, engineering music and making music! As part of my classes, but also just as something to do that I was interested in outside my course. The deal was: get the degree, then we’ll see about this music thing. I definitely did the degree, but I was already doing artistry.
How were you first introduced to hip-hop?
I would say I was probably around eight years old. I walked into my cousin’s room – he visited us in Botswana and stayed with us for about three or four years – and he was listening to Tupac‘s ‘Changes‘, and it was just so different! I even forgot why I went into the room! I just walked in, sat on the floor, and asked, “What is this?” And he played it again and I was just transported – it was so beautiful and honest and pure. I didn’t know who this person was, but they were speaking to me like they knew me, and from then on, I was just so interested, you know? “What is this rap?” It got even more concrete when I was in primary school. I think it was Grade 5 or Grade 6; a group of boys were rapping and I said, “Wow, this is amazing. Can I join your group?” And they said, “No, you’re a girl, you can’t rap!” And I just said, “What!?” Like, girls can rap! And so I thought, “No, I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna rap because girls can rap and Tupac is good and he spoke to me in his song, and that means I can rap, too.” I guess it became a personal vendetta: I could rap as well, it wasn’t only boys who can rap. I stumbled onto Lauryn Hill just for the, ‘Ha! See? Girls rap!”
Your influences in The Great Mixtape seem to range from Kendrick Lamar, Lauryn Hil, and even Nicki Minaj as well. How do you navigate the many things that inspire you? Do you pick and choose, or does it naturally flow into your music when you’re writing it?
I guess it naturally flows. If there’s an instrumental where I think, “This just gives me a lot of this person’s vibe,” maybe that can inspire something along those lines. Usually I just think, “This is a cool melody, let me see what I can write to it.” That’s generally the process. I haven’t really sat down and observed how it happens. I guess it just happens.
One of the things that stuck out for me in particular and which I really enjoyed about the album is that it’s very politically charged. Was that your intention going into it? Has growing up in Africa influenced that in any way?
Yeah, definitely. There’s one major influence that I don’t think is in my bio and that’s Bob Marley. He’s a huge influence, and I guess it’s always been a political stance. You never really say, “I’m gonna be political”; you’re just around the environment that sparks it. So that was always in me and not only in rapping or singing or writing – it was always in there because I was surrounded by that. It’s sort of a therapy, these songs, so the politics is always going to be in there. It’s more of a natural thing for me from the environment I grew up in, and am still growing up in!
I was looking up one track specifically, ‘Revolution’, which samples speeches from Malcom X, Leo Muhammed and Dr. Khalid Abdul Muhummad who is also used by artists like D’Angelo and Ice Cube. What inspired you to do that? Do you see music as more than just a platform to entertain but also educate and expand social awareness.
Yeah, it was such a… I don’t know if “risk” is the right word…. but with that track it was just like, “Dude, I just have to put it in.” Because sometimes as an artist you’re on the line with, “I don’t want to offend people, but this is what I think…” I’ve listened to a lot of his speeches and that one in particular just got me riled up, because as an entertainer, I still am an activist. And where do you draw the line between just entertaining and making sure everybody is happy? And being like, wait, guys, I actually am African. I actually am black, and I can’t just show you the happy side I have to show you the others as well. So that was a track I definitely had to put in. I paused a bit, but the interviewer actually asks in the track, “Are you an entertainer, or are you an activist?” And that was just exactly what I was going through. I was just like, I have to give you all, I can’t give you one, because if we’re going through this musical journey I come with political stuff.
Absolutely, I feel like it added such an extra layer of complexity and really reminded me of Kanye West sampling Gil Scott Heron’s poem in ‘Who Will Survive In America’ and reminded me how much I love the tradition of sampling in hip hop. Was it your aim to follow that tradition as well, the sampling and making reference to artists who’ve come before you? Because I noticed in ‘Born To Be Blue’, the track title is also shared with a track by Ella Fitzgerald.
With ‘Born To Be Blue‘ I actually only found out after Godriguez, the producer, told me. But that’s definitely the vibe, to always be able to say, you know, I’m a student of this person, I’m the musical baby of this person. ‘Revolution’, to me, seemed like a sample song – a song to make a statement and I definitely felt like it needed to be sampled.
It’s interesting in ‘Outro’ you kind of mention the fact that you’re talking about very serious issues, and that it should be taken seriously, and that it’s called mixtape because of this. I found that to be a really interesting contrast, was this an attempt to lighten the mood or what was your aim in this technique?
That was an attempt to show the yin and yang of my character. I think if I didn’t joke around and wasn’t very comical, I’d be a very depressed person. Because the way I see the world is very analytical, and if I didn’t have that balance of being able to laugh at it, or to have people around me to help me just laugh at it, or see things in a comical light, like, I wanted to show that balance. And it had to be fun it had to be a creative musical thing. I remember I went back home during Christmastime, and I’d done a couple of recordings before I went home, and there was just this little pressure to just be this “hard” rapper, you know, “hardcore” female battle rapper, and that is just definitely not my character. So I listened to Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap, which a friend had shown me before but at the time I was sort of like, “Ah, whatever.” But I listened to it and it reminded me to be creative, it reminded me to laugh, it reminded me that hip hop is not all about being hard, it’s not all the battle, you know. It’s an art form that you can play with, and so that had to be in the mixtape as well.
I definitely noticed that laughter features quite heavily in a lot of the tracks, and even background talking as well. In fact, in general, you seem to play with your voice a fair bit, like stuttering and even some vocal fry. Were you just experimenting different ways of expressing voice?
Yeah, that’s very Kendrick inspired – “Use you voice as an instrument.” And Andre 3000 as well. But I guess it’s just like talking to the record like you’re talking to your friends, where we’re very comical and we always extend our voices in different ways, and I guess that just reflected onto the mixtape.
In the track “F E M A L E” you seem to be paying homage to the women from home or the women from Africa, so my question is, what is home to you?
It’s a complex question, because even coming here a lot of people are kind of like, “Australian rap, Australian rap!” And it’s kind of like, yeah, I love this place, but I’m also Zambian, so home…. What is home to you… I don’t know how to answer it actually. I guess there’s no exact answer, my mannerism and everything about me screams Africa, but I love to move around the world and see how we are all really not that different. But I don’t know, I guess for me right now it’s where I grew up and where I got to know myself as a person. I’m actually the biggest homesick baby ever. I got on the plane and already crying, and my mum’s like “Oh my gosh, can you just… grow a little” I’m like, I can’t. After just like two weeks I’m like, “I gotta go.” But I think you grow up around those people and that environment, so while it’s a complex question to answer, it’s still Zambia.
I was also interested in the fact that you call yourself Sampa The Great, and was wondering what the thought process was behind adding “The Great,” and also with regard to The Great Mixtape.
Well, with ‘The Great Mixtape,’ I wanted to be bold. It’s egocentric in saying, “This is the great mixtape,” I had a lot of doubts even before putting it out like, can we just maybe call it a mixtape? But I think I had to make a statement, to myself as well. Often people around me believe in me more than I believe in myself, you know they say you’re great, just say it, and that’s how the great mixtape was named.
As for the name Sampa The Great, I think it stems from two main things among many. One is, I asked myself what I think I would be that I could never be, and that was great, so I put that next to my name, Sampa The Great. And the second one was, I was having a history lesson with my friend, Gloria – we have our own history lessons because we find out and learn things in history that we don’t learn in school – and I remember us going through Alexander The Great. I remember my teacher once saying Alexander The Conqueror and I’d say, “No, in the history book it says Alexander The Great,” and he would say, “Why?” and I would say, “Well I don’t know it just says it in the history book.” And so we were arguing over the name Alexander The Great and Alexander The Conquerer and he was like, “How can he be great to you? Whose perspective is he great from?” and it really got me thinking on perspectives in everything, even the world, and just myself and how I see things. I guess The Great is always a reminder to me to keep my perspective open just in everything I do, because my objective is not to be a superstar queen of rap, I’m just trying to be (as cliché as it sounds) the best Sampa I can be. Not the best female rapper, not the best rapper, but just the best Sampa, and I have to keep that perspective open I guess.
Do you have any touring on the cards? Are you going to come to Melbourne any time soon?
I do! I am having a support for Hiatus Kaiyote in Melbourne, and I’m also doing like an in-store show for a record company. We haven’t yet gone as far as saying “tour” but hopefully in the long run that will be there. But I also have to master not turning up too much and to keep my voice a bit soften. But yeah, that’s definitely something in the long run I hope that we can strive for.
To finish up, a bit of a big question, but if there’s a main message or feeling that listeners can take away after hearing ‘The Great Mixtape,’ what would you want that to be?
Things that pop up to me when I think of what happened as we were making the mixtape, and what changed I guess, is more of a belief in myself – that grew tenfold. Definitely people should just take into account how great they can be. That’s what I want this to be about, like, “Oh wait we can all do this, you don’t have to have a special power, like this is human, everybody has this.”
I guess the impression I’d want people to be left with about me as an artist would be like, “This person treats music and hip hop as a language.” I’m an international student, you know, I’ve travelled to the U.S before, and so the two things that everybody speaks is love and music, I think it just goes across borders. And so treating music as a “spiritual language” is what I’d like people to think I do. It can just be to bump and feel good and to just raise your level or whatever, but it has to give you something different. I remember when music used to do that, I didn’t just listen but I’d listen and I’d want to be better, or I’d listen and I wanted to fall in love, or I’d listen and I’d want to be creative. It changed something. This is an artist when you listen to the music is changes something in me, I don’t know. That would be the goal I guess.
For more on Sampa the Great, check out our review of her debut release, ‘The Great Mixtape’, which scored our Album of the Week.
Interview by Alana Scully