Sampa Tembo’s (better known as Sampa The Great) debut album – out for months now and finding new fans every day – is her soul on a plate and the work truest to her yet. Rightly garnering praise from all corners of the globe, The Return was celebrated as a breath of fresh air for hip hop. A statement of intent from an artist re-establishing her identity which has simultaneously given the genre an Afro-focused kick up the backside, drawn in new listeners, reignited disillusioned ears and launched Sampa into the stratosphere.
Now she’s offering an insight into the making of the album (Bandcamp’s album of 2019 and netting her the Australian Music Prize) with a short film directed by Sanjay De Silva and produced by her close team, documenting the people involved and touching down on Sampa’s home grounds.
YOUNG VETERAN, NEW CLASSIC
The album’s consistent sound belies the many collaborators that worked on it. Widening the net from the community convoy of Birds and the BEE9’s trio of Kwes Darko, Sensible J and Alejandro ‘JJ’ Abapo aka Silentjay – who came together to produce a thrillingly warm and consistent long-player. It knowingly takes it time but hits hard in all the right places (the ‘time’s up motherfuckers’ refrain in Time’s Up, Final Form’s MPC-concerto intro that knows exactly how boisterous it is) – and a hybrid of live musicians who bring to mind samples, married with actual samples which lend the music an old school authenticity whilst simultaneously driving it forward. It’s a piece of work to aspire to, but one unique to her journey.
Sampa’s voice provides a real, thriving narrative throughout. As she searches for home her soul is laid bare and there is real vulnerability in this story.
Portrait: Sampa The Great ( Barun Chatterjee)
Opening track Mwana (‘child’ in Bemba, the language of and name of Sampa’s community in Zambia) welcomes you into Sampa’s metaphorical home, her mother and sister present (Therese Mutale Tembo and Mwanje Tembo, respectively) with fixtures and fittings painted by the Sunburnt Soul Choir. It’s not for a minute a half that Sampa’s vocals entice you in. Would it be fair to say the album’s mission statement is to re-establish who Sampa is?
“100%. My mum’s on there sampled, my sister’s on there, and it’s in our language, it’s in Bemba. At the core, The Return is not about physically going home.
“A lot of the diaspora struggle with exodus, because for some people home is not Africa. But, at the core of it was a spiritual exodus and I wanted to start that journey with my language, telling people: if you’re going to follow me, and we’re going to go back to the Sampa that I was that you all don’t know, then we’re going to start in my language. And so I started it off like that.”
Sunny (even if she is finding the UK a little chilly), welcoming and radiating empathy, Sampa takes a great joy in talking about her music, and is humbled by the amount of work put into launching the album by her own musical tribe, much of which is documented in the new film.
Late 2019 saw billboards and ads blowing up Barun Chatterjee’s stunning photography and album art, and upon release Final Form was doing the same on radio playlists and on TV. “I think everyone on the team knew it was all or nothing,” Sampa says as we reflect on how well the album was pushed and received.
Dedication to pushing Sampa’s music extended to Final Form being filmed in her birthplace: Zambia. “The creative team going to a whole country where they’ve never done a music video before – the music video, the producers, everyone we featured with, even down to the billboards, that’s my manager as well as Ninja Tune, everyone actually sitting down and being like: this is the album, how can we let people know that this music is out there?”
Sampa The Great
Whilst Sampa had certainly made an impact with her previous work, there was something about the timing of this release and the presenting of the LP as a placement of identity that rang true with audiences across the world, perhaps in need of genuine soul and personally-driven passion in hip hop. The crossing over of singles onto television and radio playlisting emphasised the universal appeal of Sampa’s music, recalling for many the heyday of old school brass samples and hooks – Final Form alone seems to have entered the annals of classic hip hop tracks already, sounding decades older than its true age.
“…to find a community to become our family, that’s very Bemba-like.”
Community is at the center of Sampa The Great’s music, and pride in identity is paramount – it’s hard for Bemba people to understand when people don’t show off their roots, she reflects. “Bemba people love where we are from, we love our music, we’re very community-oriented, so we’re everyone’s parents. We’re everyone’s aunties and uncles,” she smiles.
Having lived in Australia for the past few years, the Zambian-born, Botswana-raised artist carries her family’s lineage close to her heart. “That’s sort of recreated in Melbourne, because we’ve found a second home, a second community. My parents are in Botswana. My relatives are in Zambia. Everybody is back at home. The only people in Australia are myself and my little sister, so we’ve managed to create… not even create, to find, a community that’s become our family and that’s very Bemba-like. That’s the kind of characteristic of the tribe that I come from.”
Her extended musical family hail from various backgrounds, “of various places in Africa and Australia, indigenous Australians… we’ve all come to find that this story of home is something that we all resonate with, and we don’t have a full stop to that question. We’ve kind of recreated home for ourselves because we all struggle with that topic.”
I INSPIRED YOUR RHYMES THEN YOU REDUBBED IT
Before Melbourne, Sampa was based in Sydney for two years. “When I first came to Australia, I just noticed off the bat that the scene didn’t look like me, and neither did a lot of the media. So I’m talking from journalists to TV, that was very apparent to me, but not until I became an artist did I notice the differences in what I experienced, as opposed to what my fellow artists experienced who were not black or of colour.
“The music started to gain popularity and then all of a sudden, I’m an ‘Australian artist’. An Australian hip-hops hope. In retrospect, every country would love to do that: ‘Yeah, this is us. We’re proud of it.’ But in Australia it’s a special case – that claim comes with a lot of ownership and they put aside your full story – ‘they’ being the media and the country as a whole.
“It’s really hard to get a young person of colour – who doesn’t see themselves in a lot of things – to fully be the greatest potential of who they are”
“I was starting to feel like now my narrative was being written for me. It wasn’t enough for me to shout from the rooftops: ‘I’m Zambian, I was raised in Botswana!’, because nobody was listening to me. Even the interviews, all of them.
“At the core of it, it’s actually very racist to put aside someone’s identity for your own gain. It just got to a point where Birds and The BEE9 was that outpour (see the genesis of the EP here). I’m navigating this place, I’m seeing all these different things, I’m overwhelmed about being an ambassador.
“But with this one [The Return] I wanted to solidify who I am, without any doubt. Whatever you write after that’s your business, I have sat down and clarified without any doubt where I’m from, how the people from where I’m from look like, how we celebrate, how we express, my parents, I’ve shown you the core of the person behind Sampa The Great, because I don’t think I fully did that, and that allowed people to create their narrative for me.”
THEY WANT OUR IMAGE, WE THE SPARK
A future, and hopefully not too far away, step for Sampa is to begin her own label to nurture new talent. “That is me in the foreseeable future. I definitely need a team and that’s why that’s not solid right now.“
Back to the vitality of community again, and those Bemba support instincts.
“100% community. And I think it needs to be more than me because I need to nurture a person’s individuality. I’m not having any artist under my label come through and we do a blueprint structure – I need to know who you are as a person. What you’re like if you’re able to tour all these shows, how’s your health… I want to know the individual artist and help them nurture who they are rather than put a whole blueprint structure on them.
“And then also navigating not only the country but the world. Yes, it’s bad in Australia because there’s not so much representation, but this is a global thing – as a black artist, you will have to know how to navigate the global audience, so it’s growing that as well.
Portrait – Sampa The Great – By Barun Chatterjee
“I do think because we don’t have our own avenues, our own radio stations, our own people to actually lean on and own things, it’s very hard to fully come out and be like: this is who we are, this is what we want to do, these are the spaces we want to be in without facing friction – which we are.”
Despite an occasionally rough trajectory, it seems that being positive is a trait Sampa carries forth. She pauses, mulling it over. “Passionate. Passion keeps me hungry. If I’m passionate about something, we won’t sleep. We’ll be here in this room talking about it until we actually find a direction to go.
“And I’m just passionate about, especially, young people of colour finding their voice, because my life literally changed in the span of seven years – going from very shy, not knowing if I want to be an artist because no one in my family has done it, to coming out of Africa, going to America and seeing how the world sees me as an African, being like, ‘Yo, this is devastating, and now I have to go back and relearn who I am because the world sees me like this’, and it’s not true, because I know my history and I know where I’m from and we’ve done all these things…
“It’s really hard to get a young person of colour who doesn’t see themselves in a lot of things to fully be the greatest potential of who they are. And I want that realisation to happen as it happened to me.”
AFRICA THE NEW AMERICA
OMG, a single preceding the album, celebrates flexing where you’re from. The Return’s sleeve notes reflect on the xenophobia Africans have encountered over the years, whether it was attitudes to kente cloth or braids and cornrows, ‘before being from Wakanda was cool’.
“(Black Panther) has tilted things. It’s given it a flair. It’s funny because one film alone didn’t make people say, ‘I want to go there for vacations’. It did make people say: this is interesting. The reason I said the whole Wakanda thing is, I was told by a black American to go back to Africa. That knowledge of Africa between people was not there, it was not cool. Recently, Beyonce’s done the whole Lion King, and it’s just like afrobeat is now the in thing? But is it a trend? Is it here for this wave and will it be over, to me, would be one of my many questions.
“I was saying something in Bemba, and I remember, I don’t know if it was a bystander who said, ‘Where you from?’ This is in Zambia! I’m Zambian!”
Zambian Twitter reps heavily on Sampa’s timeline. Does she feel the support of her birthplace right now or more pressure? Does she see herself as an activist in terms of pushing her true identity?
“I have never been so happy to see my Twitter feed with Zambian flags, you don’t even know,” she beams. “That to me is huge, not only because I’m based in Australia, but because I was raised in Botswana. I already was in a position where I felt less Zambian, so I don’t feel any pressure in that aspect. When you put ‘activist’ on it, yeah, that’s pressure. I’ve seen what activists can do.”
She sees herself as more of a messenger. “I’m not an activist. I wouldn’t say that I was. I’d feel like that there is so much more to that.”
INNER PEACE BE THE NEW SUCCESS
Interestingly, The Return in this form wasn’t planned. Songs like Heaven and Any Day were originally intended to make up an EP of five tracks entitled Life After Death, which morphed into the full album. It was supposed to be “a little EP, just to let people know where I am in my journey, having some near-death experiences… any near-death experience makes everything actually real.”
The striking cover of The Return, photography by Barun Chatterjee
“I think for me it wasn’t enough, the story was actually bigger. It turned into a lot of things. These songs are too big to just be an EP. Then I went through this whole, ‘this is my first album!’, nervous situation, I don’t know if I’m able to actually fully express who I am with this. I was like, you’re being so ridiculous, this is not your last project, express where you are on your journey right now, and that will be enough, and continue onwards…”
BEEN SEARCHING FOR WHAT’S INSIDE OF ME
As is the Bemba tradition, Sampa carries her soul/ancestors with her, intrinsically part of her DNA. “I do believe that. There’s definitely experiences where I know that it’s more than just Sampa.” She pauses and laughs: “a lot, a lot! And when I actually step back and reconnect to that… because you can lose your grounding, moving a lot, doing a lot of this and that. Once when I’m home, where it’s strongest connected, I do sit back and I’m like, ‘this is more than me’, and I have to reconnect to what my purpose is.
“Through these guides, I’m able to reconnect and be like, okay, let’s do this. Let’s stop wallowing, do this and push.”
“A lot of people in the diaspora feel like they’re not good enough to come home or reconnect.”
And how do mum and dad feel about the response to The Return? “They’re happy! I just had a call with them today, I was like, I’m in Manchester, it’s cold! Earlier this year, a moment did happen between my parents and I, which was them being in OMG…
“You know, music has always been a Sampa thing. In the beginning it was something they didn’t understand. No one in my family has been in this industry, and for the first time they were like, we want to be a part of what you’re telling, and they were in the music video. Just to have them there to me, I felt so fulfilled. This is something I love with all my heart and those are the people I love with all my heart, and finally that connection happened. That to me was really fulfilling.”
SAID WE MADE IT THROUGH THE FIRE
“I will say that in retrospect, writing the album, I knew that my sense of displacement was nothing compared to people in the diaspora that haven’t been home. But, after I wrote it, I kind of found out that I became the people I was writing about.
“I went home, we did the music video and I was saying something in Bemba, and I remember, I don’t know if it was a bystander who said, ‘Where you from?’ This is in Zambia! I’m Zambian! And he’s like, ‘your Zambian sounds different’.
Portrait: Barun Chatterjee
“I remember being so… cut. So cut and embarrassed that my Bemba had started to sound watered down because of being away from home. To the point of like, ‘oh, this is what it feels like to not be connected to a home ground’. I became the people I was writing about. I never expected to be that, even when I was writing this album, I never expected that.
“That is something that I’m always going to take away, and always know that I need to better the way, and the whole of the continent needs to better the way we connect to the diaspora. A lot of people in the diaspora feel like they’re not good enough to come home or reconnect.
“Regardless of what has happened and who has disrupted our history for us, (we need to) to reconnect to our people and be like: you wanna learn the language? Let me teach you how we do things here. Not shun people, because we can do that in our home countries as well. I never expected to be on the other end and it really hurts. It’s really painful, and now I’ve gained the level of knowledge I’ve gained and it’s not as easy as being, ‘just come back to Africa’, at all.
It’s been a whirlwind creating The Return, something viewers can see first hand in the short film. “I’ve experienced most of my career really speedily actually, I don’t know whether crash course is the word, a year later I could be like… oh, damn! And that’s what this year is about. It’s so funny taking the interviews and explaining what I can, but knowing (it won’t be) until next year I’ll be able to actually fully express to you what I’m going through!
“Music is a language, as cliched as that sounds, but even more importantly a spiritual one. I’ll tell you about this session we had in Melbourne, and it’s the title track, The Return, we were doing in the studio. Whosane was singing, so if you listen to the song, at the end you hear Whosane break down his life story.
“There are about ten or eleven of us in the studio, all people from different races, the studio engineer was a white man, all of my friends, South Sudanese, Eritraen, myself, and my sister… we all broke down. Cried. Cried. I’ve never heard JJ wail like that, he’s never heard me wail lie that.” She shakes her head. “Cried.”
“I remember not even recovering a week after that, I had interviews or whatever, and I was just like, ‘this is actually what music is about’. It’s about knowing that there’s a human soul behind this, and your experiences may not be mine, but for that one moment, even in his language, we all cried because we understand pain.
“That’s been something that I’ve been able to carry into every studio, or every place that I’m able to make music, is to resonate with that one fact that what we’re about to do right now is speak a whole different language. It’s just something that I’ve known and have been taught over and over again, throughout these experiences – that music is a spiritual language.”
The Return is out now on Ninja Tune.
Watch the short film The Return on YouTube.