“I guess in a few years, when I talk to you again, it’ll probably be a different story of starting over again in a new place,” says Sampa The Great, her voice ringing out of my laptop speakers. She's in Barcelona when we speak, but ever on the go, she’s been hard to pin down. Sampa is one of the most nomadic rappers you’ll ever meet; no bio can quite capture her journey. In short, she was born in Zambia and raised in Botswana, after a stint in the States she launched her career in Australia, then boomeranged back to Africa – “I think that my journey came to a completion.”
For Sampa Tembo’s journey is more than a physical movement between different environments. It’s a transformation. Residing everywhere and nowhere at once, Sampa found her place when she finally stayed still, when she had nowhere to go but back to herself.
“When the pandemic hit, it was like, ‘Okay, now I can’t be an artist anymore,’” she says, pausing sharply. “I can’t perform this stuff. I can’t share this stuff. The music industry, as we know it, seems to be dying. So what do I do?”
Yet Sampa’s been fighting for her art ever since the unruly desire to become a rapper first gripped her. “In Zambia, in our household, music as a career is just not a thing,” she says. “It was not at all in line with what my parents thought would be a job that would sustain me. There were a lot of disagreements, in the beginning, a lot of confusion over my choice, a lot of, ‘I thought this was a hobby. How can this be a career?’” Sampa’s reluctance to stick to the beaten path wasn’t a bout of rebellion, in fact, it wasn’t much of a choice. “It was one of those dreams that you can’t get rid of. Even though you've never seen it in your family before, or you don't see how it's actually going to happen, you don’t dream about anything else, and you have no choice but to work on it until it actually happens.”
Over the years, she fleshed out her dream – unconventionally. The formula for artists on the come-up is usually to dominate your home country and then take it global. Sampa flipped the script, launching her rap career as an international student in Australia. “The plan was to come back,” she explains. “The plan was to just do the degree in Australia, say I have the degree, and try to make another plan. But around the last year of uni, I created The Great Mixtape and it was like, now or never. You either release this here or you release it at home. Either way, it's going to be released, but since you are here and since you have the opportunity and the privilege, you might as well do it. It was impulsive, but luckily it got noticed.”
The Great Mixtape was an astonishing debut because it lived up to its name. Even as a newcomer, she already demonstrated a striking voice that could adapt to any instrumental or beat switch, a vocal dexterity that is matched by her storytelling. An avid student of life, Sampa’s work is almost anthropological in how it documents the common struggles of being an African woman outside of the motherland. Since her early days as a rap agitator in the Australian hip-hop scene, she’s created ruminations on identity, belonging, race, and spirituality so emotionally gutting they force the listener to also look within. Early breakout songs like “Rhymes to the East” and “Black Girl Magik” revealed a talented writer using her art to speak on behalf of her community. Tours with Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar followed – the hard work seemed to be quickly paying off for her.
“It was really hard,” she recalls. “And I don't know if the perception is that I made it look easy, but it was really, really tough. Especially in Australia, in a landscape where there were not a lot of Black women doing hip-hop, or just Black women in general making a statement with their music and showing that they're there to change something in the industry. You're looking at an industry that I wasn't even raised in, an industry I was visiting. And the plan was never to even release music. But I had a lot to say.”
It would have been a lot easier to keep her head down and appease gatekeepers to get ahead. Making noise, being “too political” can quickly get you black-balled, but that’s a tradeoff she was willing to make. She continues: “I felt like I did have the privilege to speak about how Black artists were being treated and leave, versus those who had to stay there and deal with the ramifications of what they said in very unjust ways, whether that's people not putting you on their concert bills anymore because they think you're too radical, whatever have you. I was willing to take that risk because I knew that Australia wasn't my final stop.”
Sampa was finetuning something greater than herself. In her lyrics, she was putting an African renaissance on record. “Africa the new America, I hope our run is permanent,” she rapped on her hit song “Final Form.” Sampa’s profoundness earned her accolades in the same breath as backhanded omissions. In 2019, she made history as being the first-ever woman to win in a hip-hop category at the ARIA Awards – the annual awards nights celebrating the Australian music industry. Sampa marked the occasion with an impassioned acceptance speech that called for the recognition of Black artists in Australia. Her speech was cut out of the telecast.
When she returned to the ARIA stage a year later to perform, she updated “Final Form”'s lyrics with choice words for organizers: “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”, she rapped.
But being a pioneer and spokesperson for your community, making art in service of this mission, isn’t a cross you can bear forever. “I feel like that had to shrink under the weight of being this ambassador in Australia for all the African people – whether they ask me or not – because of the position I found myself in and the platform that I had,” she confesses. “A lot of heaviness that I had to cover in past projects, a lot of defending of self and culture takes its toll. It’s very heavy to have to constantly do [it].” She opted out of that narrative. “It got tiring, having to prove over and over again that I'm here, I’m African but I’m here.” When the pandemic set in and forced everyone into their homes, she realized it was time to go back home.
In 2020, Sampa The Great moved back to Zambia where another challenge awaited: “Starting a career as Sampa the Great in my own country and having to prove again that I'm here for the long run.” Still, being back on African soil is liberating. Here, she “feels whole.” “Zambia has always been a part of my story. I feel like I had done everything I set out to do in Australia. I had broken doors that needed to be broken, not only for me, but for everyone who was like me, who was ambitious, had a dream, was a Black female artist trying to do their thing. It's that thing where you feel that you've grown and it's time to move on to new things,” she explains. “[Not having] to prove my Africanness, my Blackness, in the way that I had to do in Australia made me feel lighter. And I got a lot of that joy back.”
The African music industry may be at its zenith, but the world’s still failing to catch up with its dynamism. “The notion of being different, even the word ‘alternative’ itself is just” – she scoffs – “Like this is normal. There's nothing off or weird about it. This is just the normal state of Black music. It’s variation. Black music is limitless. And to think of that as ‘alternative’ is super funny. [African music] is so vast, you can't pinpoint one sound, so why are y’all limited to just Afrobeats?” It’s this cool indifference to sonic boundaries and expectations that makes Sampa a particularly appealing prospect of the continent’s bubbling music scene.
It would be easy for an artist with her range and creative agility to slip into autopilot and simply hedge her bets; but Sampa isn’t wasteful — she wants to shatter her own imagination with her art. Her new project, As Above So Below, is a 360-degree sensory and nostalgic experience — one that invites you to view the horizons of its hybrid musical inspirations, into the embrace of ancestral connection and the future of African hip-hop.
With this project comes newfound confidence in herself and her creative community. As Above, So Below is brought to life with the help of South African creatives Rochelle Nembhard and Imraan Christian. The project’s lead single, “Lane,” is a testimony to the trio’s collaboration. “A lot of independent artists, especially on the continent, feel unnoticed or underappreciated, which is extremely funny because they are the ones artists from outside take huge inspiration from. We aligned on that because [Imraan and Rochelle] felt the same way in their industries. And for me, it was just like, let's bring that music world and that visual world together and express that in one cohesive thought. How can we show the world that there's no boxes and we're thinking limitlessly?”
The visuals is just as versatile and contemplative. She calls it “hybrid music,” blending everything from Zamrock and Kwaito to elements of R&B and hip-hop. The album’s tracklist hosts features form Joey Bada$$, Denzel Curry, Kojey Radical, and the iconic Angelique Kidjo. Even with these international heavy-hitters, Sampa chooses to anchor much of the album in her native tongue, Bemba. “Language is a connection that's ancestral. It's not just about doing it because it feels fly [...] One of the things I always wanted when my grandma was alive to connect with her and talk about stories that we both love in our native language, and we couldn't really do that because of that disconnect. And I just never wanted that to be a thing in any of my music, let alone in real life. And so as the journey continues and I slowly get stronger and stronger, that's definitely going to be something that will always be embedded in my music: being able to connect ancestry through language.”
On her magnum opus, Sampa The Great contemplates her past as much as she conquers her future, despite fears that her dreams of making music could have ended with the pandemic. “You always have to make music as if that's the only way you know how to survive or think, or process life. What are you without the music? Because if this music industry goes, then what is left behind? And there's a lot of spiritual answers to that. And a lot of legacy answers that have seeped into the project.”
The album is a beautiful testament to where she is now, a journey completed. “There’s no separation between Sampa Tembo and Sampa the Great, the artist,” she tells me. She speaks with the self-confidence of someone closer than ever to working out who she’s meant to be. “What’s within me is now what you see on the outside. It’s full transparency, and it’s a testament to feeling wholly yourself now that the journey has come full circle.”