Sampa the Great on her new album As Above, So Below, awards controversy and making Obama’s playlist

·6-min read
 (Handout)
(Handout)

Despite being deep into an exhausting promotional tour, Sampa the Great is on a high. Not long before we speak, she found out that former US president Barack Obama has just added one of her tracks to his much sought-after summer playlist. “Finally my mum thinks I have a real job now,” she laughs. “It feels so great. People all over the world listening to [my] music…the former president putting it on a huge platform like that. It’s crazy.”

The musician, real name Sampa Tembo, is speaking from a New York hotel room; she is in the city promoting album As Above, So Below. “It’s all been so hectic,” she says before adding she’s never happier than when she’s busy. “All the hard work is worth it.”

Born in Botswana and raised in Zambia, Sampa travelled to California aged 19 to pursue her dream of becoming a musician before moving to Sydney to study music.

It was there that she performed in jazz and hip hop circles and started creating her own mixtapes. Her breakthrough came with the 2017 mixtape Birds and the BEE9, which won the Australian Music Prize – Australia’s equivalent of the Mercury Prize – for the innovative way it fused hip hop, gospel, jazz and soul.

It caught the attention of Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar too – with both inviting Sampa out on tour with them. She eventually became the only artist in history to win a second Australian Music Prize for follow up album, The Return.

In 2019, Sampa also became the first woman of colour to win an ARIA – Australian Recording Industry Association – award for best hip hop album. But just as she was starting her acceptance speech, the organisers cut to an advert break.

 (Handout)
(Handout)

At the ceremony a year later, she performed her break-out hit Final Form at the ceremony, with a few choice words for the organisers. “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.

“It was a bittersweet moment,” Sampa says quietly. “You have this huge moment, supposedly of change, you’re happy that the industry finally gets to see black talent in this country and then it’s put on an ad break.”

The question was whether it was about change or just supposed to look like change. “Obviously, this opened-up more questions, anger and fury for me… It was about the need to recognise the talent that is truly out there and needs to be on these stages and in the mainstream because they deserve it… It’s not about just putting it on a pedestal.”

Just before the pandemic, she returned to Zambia, feeling emotionally exhausted. As a black woman in hip-hop, she felt continually expected to be a spokesperson for a generation on everything from black Lives Matter to women’s rights and beyond.

While she tried to be that spokesperson, she ended up losing herself in the process. “As black artists, we don’t often have the leeway to just be artists,” she says. “We’re expected to be so much more… We don’t have a choice in it. I felt like I was trying to represent so many people: women, black people in Australia, African people in Australia. I ended up putting a huge weight on myself that took a hold of my artistry.”

For a time she stopped creating, but once home she felt huge relief. Zambia showed me how much armour I’d been putting on.”

She assembled a new band made up of local Zambian musicians – the same band she recently performed with at this year’s Glastonbury. They were the first ever all-Zambian band to play at the festival, something that was a huge moment of pride for the musician. “People are finally seeing Zambia on a global stage,” she smiles. “We’re so proud of what we do, how we perform and how far we’ve come.”

 (Handout)
(Handout)

At home, Sampa started to listen to the music her parents grew up with, Zamrock, which is a blend of psychedelic rock and traditional Zambian music. It ended up forming the backbone of her new album when she found out her dad’s nephew was part of a Zamrock group. “It opened the doors to so many things,” she says. “It showed me that music was in my blood.”

This album is Sampa’s boldest to date. More experimental and poetic than previous outings, it combines Zamrock with modern hip hop, rap and spoken word. It also has a global list of collaborators including the legendary Grammy award winning Angélique Kidjo, London’s Kojey Radical, America’s Denzel Curry and Zambian band W.I.T.C.H.

Setswana is a huge part of the album too – the language of Sampa’s Botswanan roots. “In Australia, I was fighting to make sure people knew I was Zambian but in that fight, Botswana kind of took a back seat,” she says.

“When I got the chance to come home and focus on the story I wanted to tell about myself, there was space to include my Botswanan story. I feel like finally I’m able to add the full range of who I am on my album.”

Sampa says this is the first album where her femininity has been represented fully too. “As women, we’re constantly criticised,” she sighs. “Whether it’s wearing too much or not enough… I just got to a point where I was like, ‘If this is what I want to represent in my art, I can’t let anybody stop me from doing it. This is my truest self and I’m not doing it for anyone else.’ It’s just as women, we’re not allowed to show that range of our [different] selves. I finally decided that I was going to show my music regardless of how people look at me.”

She hopes things will open up more for female artists like her sister Mwanie, who is following in her footsteps. “We do have a way to go, but I’m glad we’re making strides now,” she smiles. “I think any doors or barriers that would have been closed for her as an African woman, I hope they are opening now. I hope that for her, the focus is more on making music and being carefree…we [need] to enjoy more music from women without the weight of how this world sees them on their shoulders.”

Sampa sounds as though she too has had that weight lessened from her shoulders since reconnecting with her identity, and she agrees. “I think it is my freest album, I’ve never had so much fun recording. But more than anything, I’m coming back with the confidence of knowing exactly who I am,” she says contentedly. “And there is so much power in that.”

Sampa the Great plays London’s KOKO on October 15; As Above So Below’is released on September 9