Nataal goes on tour with Sampa The Great as she releases her new mixtape, Birds And The BEE9
Sampa The Great’s dressing room is far from being a clichéd scene of rock&roll excess. Her backstage rider consists of fresh fruit and water and the young artist sips on tea with honey as she tells me about life on the road. “The only downside of touring is not looking after my voice,” she says, having traversed Europe supporting Joey Bada$$ and now landing in east London for her own sell out gig. “Show after show I’ve been so hyped. It’s always ‘One more song!’ and then the next day I realise I have to find that same amount of energy again." But she’s full of life tonight and evidently relishing the experience of her first international tour. “Joey is king. Watching the passion and confidence he has on stage is educational. Those are all qualities that I hope to own. He’s also good at letting you know that fear is normal and giving guidance as to how to make your own presence known on stage.”
Sampa’s trajectory has been swift since her first release, The Great Mixtape, in 2015. Since then she’s supported Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, Hiatus Kaiyote, Ibeyi and Little Simz, collaborated with Estelle on the HERoes EP, been given industry nods by everyone from Gilles Peterson to Don Letts and now releases her new mixtape, Birds And The BEE9, on the UK’s Big Dada. But the performer remains adorably humble. “It’s a blessing to be climbing so many hurdles in such a short space of time. I’ve been able to share my work while still figuring out my artistry.”
Actual name Sampa Tembo, she was born in Zambia and raised in Botswana among a close and expressive family. “My parents were big on laugher, performing and culture. And when they talked about politics they’d ask us what we thought. They made us feel like our voices mattered,” she recalls. “My dad used to play the piano but he denies it now that all his children want to be musicians rather than accountants!” Big on laughter too, Sampa lets out a hearty chortle at this reflection. It’s an earthy outburst she repeats often during our conversation.
Her first love was Zambian folk music – full of harmonies, drums and hand claps – and then she discovered 1990s hip hop – both major influences on how her sound would later progress. As a teenager she studied film in San Francisco and Los Angeles before relocating to Sydney to complete a degree in sound engineering. “I knew I wanted to be an artist but will still too scared to admit it. Then my friend, who was doing music, passed away. We were both 21 and all of a sudden, this person who was doing what I wanted to do, was gone. So I decided to push myself.” She hunted down the city’s freestyle jazz and hip hop events and one night, her older sister forced her on stage. “She was like, ‘You bought me here, I dressed up – we’re not leaving until you do it!’ So I performed and people reacted well. That was the first step.”
Sampa immersed herself in Sydney and Melbourne’s music scene and met the producers and musicians that would help her realise her early releases, including Dave Rodriguez (Godriguez) and REMI. Her career soon took off, which brought new challenges. “I’ve had to deal with being called Australia’s hip hop hope while being Zambian, which is taken negatively,” she says. “Being black in Australia, and being an African in Australia but not a born and raised African-Australian, are both things to navigate. I’m in a country that doesn’t recognise its first nations and where contributions from people of colour are only now being recognised, so I'm often made to feel a guest who can't speak my mind. But I live with the black community, my friends are first nations, I know their struggle, so as one of the only black artists on a pedestal here, I have to speak my mind. Representation always matters. Lauryn Hill inspired me, so if there are young black girls in Australia who see me and think ‘Yeah, girls can rap too’, then who am I to go home even if I really want to. It’s hard but you have to change the perspective.”
The new mixtape makes this intention clear. Working with producers Sensible J, Kwes Darko and Alejandro ‘JJ’ Abapo, her sound has matured to explore everything she holds dear. Rapping yes, but also singing and spoken word – often all on one song. She delivers messages both spiritual and hard hitting on songs as much influenced by Compton as by Lusaka. The results are deeply personal and draw you into a heady universe where spitting bars, chanting benedictions and crafting poetry all hold equal, intoxicating sway. “On this mixtape I’m accepting of my individuality. I talk about where I was born, I’m bringing in different languages from home and expressing what’s in my heart. It can be scary to open up but this time it’s no-holds-barred.”
“On this mixtape I’m accepting of my individuality… It can be scary to open up but this time it’s no-holds-barred”
Rhymes To The East sets the scene. It opens with a sample of one of her friends blessing the song in Tanzanian Swahili. “It was just a goofy Whatsapp voice memo but Sensible has turned into what sounds like a prophetic sample,” she says, grinning mischievously. From here the track blows all negative energies out of the way with its no-messing, gospel groove. The accomplished Bye River explores her bi-continental existence via soft sax, glittering percussion and echoing, soulful vocals. Meanwhile Black Girl Magik is a divine ode to her younger sister – and all African women – urging them to embrace their natural beauty. The mixtape closes out fittingly with the soothing sounds of Healer, featuring first nations artist Zaachariaha sing in his language.
What’s evident from listening to Birds And The BEE9 is how homesick Sampa must be. “Oh yes, 100 per cent! The dream is to perform in Zambia and Botswana and to tour Africa. Eventually I want to open up studios back home, once the music has been shared globally.” Which African musicians would you like to collaborate with? “Wizkid and Tiwa Savage. Oh and if I could record with Thandiswa Mazwai my inner child would be very happy.” With her voice joining theirs as the interest in contemporary music from Africa continues to grow internationally, I wonder how she feels about the current hype surrounding all things ‘New Africa’? “Now we’re cool, right?” she chuckles. “It’s partially on us; we no longer need to have any other influences other than this. The whole world catches on when we accept ourselves. This means more opportunities for young kids like me. But it’s not new. We’ve always been fly.”
And with that, it’s show time. Sampa steps onto the stage, accompanied only by Kwes Darko on the decks, and her energy is instantly engrossing. The short, rambunctious set is a celebration of life, a celebration of dance and a celebration of all the queens in the building and beyond. The bounce remains big as she performs her songs new and not so new and gives praise to Hill with a rousing rendition of The Fugees’ Fu-Gee-Laa. Sweet thing? Yes indeed.
Sampa The Great’s Birds And The BEE9 is out now on Big Dada