Sampa the Great: on giving in to her greatness

As a follower of Sampa the Great, I know her for her unique rap style and poetic tone. Hearing her voice through the phone for the first time solidified this uniqueness for me.

Her Southern African accent flows smoothly with a distinctive American twang, reflective of a worldly character. Born in Zambia and raised in neighbouring country Botswana, Sampa Tembo is no stranger to change and greatly encourages it both in her music and lifestyle.

“As soon as I finished high school I was like, where do I go next?” Taking on a whole new continent at the age of 17, she enrolled herself into San-Francisco’s Academy of the Arts. “It’s so scary, because even though doing what I am doing now wasn’t planned, it had to orchestrated somewhere. My friend Judith and I went to The States, followed by my sister as we’ve always been drawn to the arts.” After 2 years, Sampa took on her next venture; Australia. “It was so unplanned, it’s so scary how unplanned it was to where we are I am at now.”

There is where the artist Sampa The Great became professional. Greatness being an epithet usually crowned by others after having made a weighty impact on the industry, Sampa instead chose to self-proclaim her ability. What others would deem a brave choice, became an admirable one. She explains, “I used to say to myself ‘man, I don’t think I can do this’ and till this day I still have those doubts. So before I started out I had to sit myself down and say, ‘what is the one thing I said I would never be’ and that was great. So I put it at the end of my name! Crazy right? Speaking things into a reality. It’s a daily reminder as having it next to my name, that greatness is reachable.”

Sampa champions a catalogue of rappers who came before her as her source of inspiration. After her first encounter of hip-hop, age of 9 hearing Tupac ‘Changes’ blaring out of her cousin’s room, she was struck by how poetic yet rhythmic it flowed. “The feeling caught me in full effect. That was my introduction into something that would shape me into who I am today.”

“I first realised that it was something I wanted to do was when in my primary school, a bunch of boys were having a rap battle and I was so intrigued that I wanted to be a part of it. They said I couldn’t take part because I was a girl, I remember being so mad at the limits of being girl. Then Lauryn Hill told me through her lyrics, ‘fuck that’ and that’s when the journey began.”

Besides Lauryn Hill and Tupac, she notes some of her other influences to be lead singer Thandiswa Mazwai of Bongo Maffin (the African answer to ‘Fugees’), and rapper K’naan. “They took [the] hip-hop sound and intertwined it with their own African culture and I identified with that. There’s African influence in hip hop and they blended both hip hop and their African cultures”.

Sampa tells me that she was born into a very musically inclined family. “It was something that was embedded within me so I felt it was bound to come out one day. I had to gain the courage to become a musician full time.” She is grateful for her father’s support: “It started out with my dad buying pianos amongst other instruments. I was the kid who wanted to try everything and I love that my dad supported that. It was that belief, that was the driving force. Like ‘ay look, my dad believes in me so it may actually be possible, you know’.”

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Stepping out onto the scene back in 2015 with her debut ‘The Great Mixtape’, Sampa lead with a refreshing jazzy 12-track project which focused on consciousness, self-belief and identity. This project saw her tackling issues such as racial discrimination and feminism head-on in a poetic flow reflective of her own stories.

The success of the mixtape lead to many opportunities, including opening for the likes of Kendrick Lamar and more collaborations with artists, a notable favourite being ‘For Good’ by Remi ‘REMI’ Kolawale.

A more recent release, ‘Mona Lisa’, is track heavily expressive of her African heritage. The song explores ideas surrounding women’s self-image, standards of beauty and belief in one’s own abilities. The word ‘Mona’ means ‘Look at’ (Lisa) in Bemba, one of Zambia’s indigenous languages.

Sampa’s latest project ‘HERoes’ was picked up and premiered by Red Bull Sound Select. Here, Sampa chose to use spoken word as a form of re-introduction. “I decided introduce myself with what I started off doing which was poetry. So I was like let’s do spoken word, as spoken word to me is the rawest form of an artist. There is no music, it is just you and words, and if you can carry yourself with just you and your words than you can do whatever”. This is a project made strictly with friends, showcasing some of their many talents.

“HERoes is about finding the gifts and talents within ourselves and nurturing them, to grow. We need to stop putting people on a pedestal, and fully grow. I went from an audience member to an artist in a few months. It’s about being your own hero and to stop putting people on pedestals. Make your own reality by wearing your gifts and talents on your cape.”

Sampa has done just that, continuing to make her mark on the industry, which I am so excited to see. With International Women’s day in full effect, we at gal-dem celebrate all women, championing their achievements and unwavering ability to thrive despite the challenges of a male dominated industry.

Catch Sampa The Great, supporting Yuna on 16 March at KOKO, London and another solo show soon to follow.
Socials: Sampa’s Soundcloud | Instagram | Twitter

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