Born in Zambia and raised in Botswana, rapper, songwriter and poet Sampa Tembo released her debut music project The Great Mixtape in 2015 while studying sound engineering in Sydney, Australia. 

People were quick to catch on, and following a series of singles including Estelle-collaboration HERoes Act 2, Sampa’s next mixtape Birds and The BEE9 won the 2017 Australian Music Prize – though frustratingly, its message was lost on the industry it sought to call out. So when it came to her debut album The Return, Sampa did not mince her words. 

frustratingly, [Birds and The BEE9]’s message was lost on the industry it sought to call out

Across 19 tracks, Sampa calls out Australia’s problematic music industry, puts out a powerful message of self love and reclaims her cultural identity – making a physical and spiritual return to the places she was born and raised.

Sampa’s skill as a rapper, in her delivery and musicality, is what hits you first on hearing her music; striking her powerful message into your aorta with hard-hitting hip hop bars, taking some shape from soul and R&B influences. She might chant black power and flip off the ARIAs, but Sampa is not trying to ride a wave of controversy – Sampa is here to tell her truth and fulfil her artistic calling. 

The Great is an allusion to where Sampa wants to go, not itself a claim to greatness

The Great is an allusion to where Sampa wants to go, not itself a claim to greatness, though there’s an almost Titan-like quality to her music, her presence and her work ethic that makes it easy to believe she will go down in history as one of them. She’s already sharing a lineup with artists at a level that most can only aspire to, playing alongside some of hip hop’s most influential pioneers at Beat Horizon Bristol last month. We meet Sampa at Motion before soundcheck and head round the corner for a chat at Moor Beer.

An overarching theme for The Return is reclaiming your identity as a Zambian-born artist in the diaspora. What instigated that huge personal journey?

A lot of that titling as an Australian artist was really frustrating in the beginning, but I chose to let it go and continue doing what I was doing. But it got to the point, especially after Birds And The BEE9 – which was really an emotional confrontation about being an artist in the Australian industry – where I was really frustrated.

Then it dawned on me that I can’t expect people to tell my story. I hadn’t really shown people where I’m from, so it was more of a mission for me to fully tell my story, musically and visually.

it was more of a mission for me to fully tell my story, musically and visually

It’s just as weird as you living in India for two years and being called an Indian artist – it’s not based on something that’s factual. It’s a common story for people to go to the West or developed countries and just move their identity, and I wanted to make it a point that was not what I was doing. 

The Australian industry didn’t understand the extent of how racist that could be – to fully take someone’s identity away from them. That was something that I had to solidify for myself and to myself, and then the rest of the world.

Were there any surprises on that inward-looking journey along the way?

There were moments of this journey that were really confronting. When you think there’s something definite that you know about yourself, but it turns out some of those elements aren’t true, it’s a bit of a shock. You’re going back to the elements that you’ve defined your whole life by and some of them are being questioned – even to the smallest element of my Bemba sounding different or watered down to the point where Zambians think I’m not Zambian. I didn’t expect from this album to feel displaced myself. I had so much certainty in this and who I was writing it for, then I became the people who I was writing it for.

I didn’t expect from this album to feel displaced myself

In that sense, is the Sampa on this record and going forward a different Sampa than we’ve heard on previous releases? 

It’s a grown up Sampa. I think that comes from where you lessen the fear of how you’re willing to describe or express yourself through music, which was something that I was still finding. When BEE9 came out, I feel like I found what Sampa sounds like musically. The Return was more specific and more mature. It’s the Sampa whose grown a bit more and willing to share a lot more. I would never talk about love, that was mine, you could have the rest of the thoughts. But I was willing to open up and talk about that in the album, in songs like Leading Us Home.

Final Form explores working towards the greatest version of yourself. Is this a real state that an artist can achieve and what will that look like for you?

It’s knowing that you want to be at this state of your being – I know that I can be at that level and I know I’m willing to grow to be that level. Or I could final form on stage today, and be my truest form and express my most vulnerable thoughts and be my happiest and most courageous – that’s a state of final form. 

It’s not that it’s a constant state, it’s acknowledging that state is there, where you feel the most human you’ve ever been. I want to be the most comfortable spiritually and also in the skin I’m in, which happens to be black. 

Do you have a sense of what’s next on that journey of self-discovery? 

Hopefully we’re moving less from the physical and more into the spiritual realm. I do dig in and out of it; on projects like BEE9, you’ll find both. I’m still describing myself as a woman, as a black woman, as an African woman. On the spiritual side: do I feel fulfilled in my purpose? My career is starting to grow, do I feel like I’m on the right path? Is this something I want to do forever? How do I feel about not being at home for most of the year and have I really taken home with me wherever I go? So it’s more on the spiritual side in terms of the questions that I will be asking. Who knows, maybe a project will come from that too. 

we’re moving less from the physical and more into the spiritual realm

You won the Australian music prize for Birds and the BEE9, though you’re actively outspoken about a very problematic music industry, in Australia in particular. Did you ever second guess the rocking of the boat in that sense of calling out the industry you’re in?

I did. I was surprised that I got the shortlist with a project that I thought would rub shoulders wrongly. For me, it got to a point where I thought, there’s no way I’m dealing with this alone. And also, I just want to be truthful about the space I’m in. I’m not going to stand up there and smile. If my truth is ‘I’m finding this really hard’, then I’m going to express that. I was really fearful of what would happen after BEE9, but to have that as a result was really shocking.

After the year that I’ve had, ending with the ARIA awards, the eyes are on us and I feel they’re engaging in a conversation about change, rather than treating it like a trend.

You won the 2019 ARIA Award for Best Hip Hop Release for Final Form, the first woman to win in a hip hop category and with a song that is powerfully pro-black. Are you seeing real change on the ground?

Not really. I mean, we won that award, myself and Kaiit [Aboriginal artist Kaiit won Best Soul / R&B Release] and it was shown during an ad break. That says something. This was a moment to say we are changing – and they chose to do it then. What does that say? So, you know, we won’t hold our breath, but we do know that people outside of Australia do hear our message and our music. 

we won’t hold our breath

Time’s Up is another powerful track on the record, musically and in its message. Is it a call to action? 

Yeah, that was a confrontation. That was, I hit them up – where we do actually say ‘F the ARIAs’. It’s definitely that we’re not afraid now to openly call you out. We are going to be honest about what we feel, what makes us feel that way, who is making us feel that that way. Because if you’re saying you don’t hear us clearly, then we’re just going to be real specific. 

if you’re saying you don’t hear us clearly, then we’re just going to be real specific

It’s a final call out between an artist whose been doing music for a little bit and an artist that’s just starting out. I’m telling him the realness of what he’s about to get into, and he’s reminding me of the passion of starting and wanting to do this and this, without really knowing about the barriers that come with wanting to do such things. 

It’s an open conversation between black artists of different ages in an industry that has created barriers for both of them, at whatever levels they are. It’s saying, if you want to succeed the way you want to succeed, we’ve got to call this out together, and I’ll show you that I’m there with you. 

Without those role models you can see yourself in to look up to, what brought you to the point of saying, I am going to make hip hop here in Australia?

I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t say it out loud to my parents. A compromise between me and my dad was that I’d do sound engineering. Once that was done and it was time to go home, I thought I had to at least try. It was moreso me accepting that I’m an artist than anything. I was doing The Great Mixtape on the side at school without telling anyone, Australia just happened to be where I was when I released it.

when I saw Lauryn Hill on TV (…) that was my permission slip

I think the inspiration that first put the thought in my mind that I could actually do that was when I saw Lauryn Hill on TV – someone who looked like me, doing hip hop and doing it very well, even better than some of the guys. So for me, that was my permission slip. I’d do it, even though I wasn’t in the limelight, in my room I’d write songs and raps.

You’re here for Beat Horizon – representing the future sound of hip hop, alongside some of the genre’s greatest pioneers. Did that feel like a significant acknowledgement of your work within hip hop music?

Definitely. People like Talib Kweli, Raekwon, all the people I used to listen to when I was young, being on the same bill as them is definitely a huge nod and I’m very grateful for it. But also I’m still grateful to learn from these people, if I can get the chance. It’s a very humbling nod to the work that Final Form and the whole album did, and the level up it gave me – personally and within the industry.

In the same vein, Ninja Tune is a really aspirational label and puts you in the ranks of many great artists across many genres. What did that signing mean to you and what’s it been like working with them? 

It’s been so dope, even just to get that acknowledgement from them, that there’s potential in your work and people are willing to put time and energy into making sure other people hear it. 

Ninja has been really amazing. We got to work with them on BEE9 and The Return and are continuing talks onwards. 

They’ve been so amazing pushing the story – and making sure they ask us about what we want to be pushed forward. We create the stories, we tell them we’re going to Botswana and this is the story we want to tell, and they really support that. That’s really refreshing, there is always a fear as an artist that someone else wants to tell your story for you, or water down the story that you have. And they’ve been really supportive of the expression, 100%. 

Photos: Dominika by Scheibinger

Location: Moor Beer // @Drinkmoorbeer

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