Sampa The Great: The African voice of Australian rap

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Born in Botswana and raised in Zambia, Sampa The Great is one of Australia’s rising hip-hop stars.

Innovations in hip-hop often don’t happen when there are new stories to tell, but when the unseen ones are finally heard. This distinction allows for a spectrum of emotions from boastfulness, triumph, tenderness for the familiar, and reckoning with displacement. That is the thesis of Sampa The Great’s debut album, The Return.

Sampa Tembo, the 26-year-old rapper from Zambia, has taken their conflicting identities and tried to reconcile them. “It’s about coming home spiritually, the more you’ve been,” she says by phone from Melbourne, her home since 2018, where the sun is beginning to shine after a characteristically cool winter.

Sampa has carved out a position for himself in Australian music, winning the Australian Music Prize for Best Album of 2017 and A$30,000 cash prize for his second mixtape, Birds and the BEE9. Signing to the UK Ninja Tunes label and widespread acclaim for The Return has seen Sampa step up to take on the rest of the world.

Although Sampa The Great has been exploring his roots, he is aware of their importance to Australian hip-hop (Credit: Alamy)

Although Sampa The Great has been exploring his roots, he is aware of their importance to Australian hip-hop (Credit: Alamy)

But Melbourne, Sampa grew up in Botswana and left there at age 18 to explore the US. Studying at the University of San Francisco Academy of Art, she moved, making a stop in Los Angeles before returning home. . But thanks to her sister’s advice, she moved to Australia in 2014, a country where she didn’t know anyone.

Music is Sampa’s raison d’être, but his nomadic lifestyle became the focus of his spiritual journey.

While living in Sydney, he discovered the Australian hip-hop scene. In the United States, she had performed a series of poetry slam shows. She always envisioned making music for others, so he began studying audio engineering at SAE. The industry “was male-dominated and definitely white, which was very interesting to me,” Sampa says. “Especially knowing hip-hop and its origins. But more than that, it didn’t reflect Australia or what I saw as a college student.”

During this time, what is affectionately known as ‘Larrikin rap’ dominated the Australian charts. Characterized by white youth seen as good-hearted hipsters, artists like Hilltop Hoods, Bliss N Eso, Pez, and 360 wrote songs about trips to music festivals and drinking beer in the sun.

“When I went out on the street I saw the multicultural [Australia] actually it was”, continues Sampa. “The hip-hop scene didn’t reflect that. [Something] I didn’t see that they were black women hip-hop artists.”

In 2014, Sampa added Great to his stage name. The suffix would serve as a reminder whenever the outside world felt like it was closing in around them. But the release of his debut The Great Mixtape in 2015 not only marked the beginning of an unexpected change in his career, but the beginning of a new era in Australian hip-hop.

Australian hip-hop acts like Hilltop Hoods eschewed politics for good vibes (Credit: Alamy)

Australian hip-hop acts like Hilltop Hoods eschewed politics for good vibes (Credit: Alamy)

Fellow Australian Iggy Azalea’s rise to commercial success led to her claiming a one-two position on the US Billboard charts last held by The Beatles. But while the rest of the world was enamored with Azalea, whose pop-rap starkly parodied black women from the southern states, she was destined to fizzle out by the end of 2018. Meanwhile, Australian hip-hop was simultaneously going through a metamorphosis. .

Sampa witnessed this, and in one fell swoop became part of a scene involving indigenous rappers like Briggs, Baker Boy and Brothablack, as well as rappers coming to Australia from other countries, like Manu Crooks, Jesswar and Kwame. . . But even as Sampa’s scathing strains took hold in the Australian hip-hop music scene, he sensed something was off.

“Everything about Sampa The Great started professionally here in Australia, but I was born and raised in Botswana and Zambia,” says Sampa. “And the fact that those two worlds didn’t meet caused a lot of frustration that resulted in me not feeling fulfilled. [despite] Really amazing things are happening in my career. I was not at home.

There is African iconography in Sampa’s work, but her identity was tied to a place that didn’t feel like home. “Usually when you watch the news, all these stories of Sampa The Great [have] Australia behind my name. And in an attempt to connect his life in Australia and his position in the hip-hop scene with his home in Botswana and Zambia, Sampa recorded The Return.. “I just wanted those two worlds to be connected, but also to talk about the journey of why those two places are apart. The album takes you through that journey.”

Sampa’s discontent is not unique, which is central to the overall journey of his record. The 10-minute long title track The Return is a sprawling examination of displacement featuring Brooklyn rapper Whosane, Hiatus Kayiote’s Silent Jay, Zimbabwean-born artist Thando and the mysterious Alien.

“You know, after that shoot we broke down, we all cried,” Sampa admits with a wry laugh. “[Identity] it’s a topic that is really deep especially for the diaspora. It’s a no-go area for some, so I was happy that people could be super vulnerable knowing that the world would share their stories and pain. For me, I didn’t want the home theme to be solely in my story. Throughout the album, you hear my journey and my home story, but it’s not the only story. It is a branch of a very large tree, and so with The Return, in fact, we resigned with many of our friends and many of our communities struggling with ‘home.’”

Australia's biggest hip-hop export so far is rapper Iggy Azalea (Credit: Getty Images)

Australia’s biggest hip-hop export so far is rapper Iggy Azalea (Credit: Getty Images)

For many people in Australia, the idea of ​​home is a strange feeling. Australia’s increasingly draconian immigration policies, refusal to cede sovereignty to indigenous peoples, and a sometimes combative and racist atmosphere have severed that connection. “There are people who can’t even go home or people whose house we’re at, who don’t feel like they’re ‘home,’” laments Sampa. Confining asylum seekers to offshore detention centers, the Australian government recently reiterated their dedication to a hostile approach.

Although Sampa wants his African roots to come to the fore, he understands their importance to Australian hip-hop. “I know that representation-wise I’ve definitely added my stamp to the spectrum,” says Sampa. But she wants more for the hip-hop artists in her adopted home. We don’t want to be seen or heard [but] we want to create avenues [to ensure] that this is not a trend for us”.

The Return is not just a meditation on diaspora, discontent and nostalgia, but a celebration of his family. The opening track Mwana features Sampa’s mother and her sister Mwanje. “I mean, we sing [together] all the time anyway,” laughs Sampa. “We’ve been performing for our parents in our living room since we were young, so it was really beautiful.” Her sister is not just a guest feature, but the impetus and inspiration behind Sampa’s role as ambassador for young Africans in Australia, which terrified her at first.

“I didn’t know anything about the history of the country itself, or the hip-hop scene, and I felt like this ambassadorial role was being forced on me,” she says. The album’s first interlude, Wake Up, a recorded voicemail from a friend marks this moment. “Your phone is still off,” the voicemail begins.

“Listen, I understand what you’re dealing with one hundred percent.

And it’s very hard and it’s hard

but we are black

And you’re black in the music industry, no less

that’s how it is

You just have to be able to deal.”

Australian hip-hop has gradually become more inclusive and representative (Credit: Getty Images)

Australian hip-hop has gradually become more inclusive and representative (Credit: Getty Images)

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