Sampa the Great on Coachella, working with Denzel Curry and returning to Zambia
Born and raised between Zambia and Botswana, it took living abroad in the United States and Australia for singer-songwriter, poet and MC Sampa Tembo to feel comfortable embracing her cultural identity. The 28-year-old, who launched her career as Sampa the Great while living in Australia, returned to her family in Zambia just as the pandemic began. She just performed at the Coachella music festival in California and came out with a new song, wayfeaturing American rapper Denzel Curry.
Tembo won an ARIA award for his debut album, The return, in 2020 and became the first woman to win the Australian Music Prize twice. Having lived in the United States as a teenager and moved to Australia when she was 20, she continues to tell her story through songs about displacement, identity politics and what it means to be a modern African woman in the world. music.
You are the first Zambian to have played at Coachella. How did you feel participating this year?
It was a crazy experience. Being able to perform at Coachella, knowing how huge it is, and having people connect to the music and sing it was a highlight. I never come hoping that everyone will know my music, but getting them to sing the songs back is really great.
How did your parents react to your decision to pursue a career in music?
At first they were very scared, but now my mother says to me, “OK, where are you going now? And be sure to do this and that, Sampa. She also says: “Oh, I saw you with Angélique Kidjo, it’s so cool.” Now my parents are invested in my career!
Dad said it well when he said, “Never do anything that doesn’t make you happy.” I know they love me and don’t always understand what I’m doing. They want me to grow as much as possible, but that means my audience will expand and opinions will also expand. They remind me to know who I am so opinions don’t affect me.
Dad said it well when he said, “Never do anything that doesn’t make you happy.”
How have the Black Lives Matter protests impacted you as an African artist living in Melbourne?
It brought to life a lot of what was hidden from the general public. It was not hidden from us as black people, it is what we experience every day. But I think BLM has engaged people to learn about information in a way they haven’t before. It was a wake up call.
I hope it didn’t wear off because we don’t see that imagery right now, but it definitely opened a door of connection throughout the Diaspora. I think a lot of African descendants have always supported each other, but BLM has opened a door to be together. I felt like I could go back to my own country and feel connected again.
Do you consider yourself an inspiration to other women, especially African women?
As an African woman, above all, I want to express myself. My mother always encouraged me to keep that mindset and growth, because that’s what the modern African woman is today.
You use your mother’s language, Bemba, in your music. Why?
I cannot express in words how important it is to kiss the tongue. When I was younger I sang hip-hop as I heard it and expressed it in a certain way, but now using language is so much more powerful for me. I didn’t want to go home to Zambia and speak in Bemba and then do my songs in another language.
My career started in Australia, yes, but I had never been Sampa the Great in Zambia until now. I never understood how my separation from her affected my identity and how I showed myself to the world. It was a conscious decision to include my language, my home, and every aspect of me in how I express myself through song.
How did your experience in the United States at 19 shape your identity?
I was raised in Africa and never interacted with anything outside of that. Going to the United States meant that I saw myself in a new way. When you see how people see you as an African, you think “whoa! – it was a tough reality check for me.
When I returned to Zambia, I promised myself that if I went back anywhere else, I would go with confidence and be proud of where I come from, no matter what people think. This is the Sampa you see now. It happened in America. I cannot appear to the world as anything other than me, and this birth happened in the United States.
Who are the women who inspired you to start rapping and singing?
American singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill was a huge inspiration to me growing up. She was stepping into a male dominated space and doing it better. I remember guys who rapped in high school and knew I could do it better than them, but I took a step back. I was like, why do we have to minimize or reduce ourselves? Lauryn was doing none of that. She was my first example in the hip-hop world of how to be a woman and rap without having to be tough or adopt a masculine form to justify yourself.
Angélique Kidjo is another big influence. Seeing her sing in an all-African language and clothing and looking like me was the confirmation I needed as a young African woman.
You are one of four siblings. How do you fit into your family?
The middle children are the most independent of the group. They challenge each other. There’s a lot of pressure on the older ones and more attention on the younger ones, but the middle child is like a wandering spirit and often gives off a feeling of “I don’t care”. Sometimes the middle children take on parental roles. I certainly did. There’s a huge gap between the youngest in my family and the oldest, so the middle child is the communicator. I’m often the family mediator and it’s a special place.
What did your grandmothers teach you in life?
Their houses have always housed many people. When you go to their house, that’s where all the cousins and aunts are. I love that aspect because they were family matriarchs. I always take it with me wherever I go. I earn a musical family in their honor and try to replicate that busy family home when I’m not in Africa. This is largely thanks to my grandmothers.
your new song way, starring Denzel Curry, is all about holding on and defying being typecast. Do you feel empowered because of it?
I’ve always struggled with the idea of being stuck in a box with my music. When you think of Sampa the Great, you think of hip-hop, but if you look at all my projects, most of my music isn’t. When I met Denzel at Listen Out a few years ago, I didn’t think of it, another rapper – cool! But when he did a cover of Rage Against the Machine bulls on parade for Triple J’s Like a Version, I thought this artist had rage!
That’s what I appreciate, an artist who can stray from what he’s known for, and the song way is all about it. We are both in the same situation as the artists, so the connection to express this feeling was inevitable.
Sampa the Great: An Afro Future is at Vivid Live, Sydney Opera House,
May 27-28; and at Rising, Forum Melbourne, June 1-2.
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