Garden · Friday
As the profile of Sampa The Great has soared internationally in recent years, the woman behind the musical force was on a journey all her own. For Sampa Tembo, the fusion of her artistry and the perception of the public was one that forced her to face the anxieties and the identity challenges that only moving back home has managed to heal.
Sampa’s earliest release, The Great Mixtape (2015), stirred attention within the Australian music industry and her local music community - then Sydney - early. A prodigious talent with a unique voice and point of view, Sampa The Great threw down a particular gauntlet that only she would have to match. Having ‘The Great’ at the end of your name brings with it certain expectations: from your contemporaries as well as yourself.
And for Sampa, ‘The Great’ and everything it would come to embody, brought with it a series of self-realisations.
The infancy of Sampa’s career - beginning with The Great Mixtape and bolstered by the HERoes EP and HERoes Act 2 EP - was strewn with stories of empowerment, womanhood and cultural pride; a pride that was crucial to one’s personal and artistic growth, particularly when based so far from home.
Further exemplified by 2017’s breakout project, Birds and the BEE9, Sampa’s stories and visceral brand of storytelling was quick to draw international praise from outlets including NPR, OkayAfrica, Huffington Post, Noisey, Complex and more.
The project became a groundbreaking effort of sorts, winning the coveted Australian Music Prize; positioning Sampa The Great as a formidable force to be reckoned with, kicking down the door of a new wave of artistry in hip hop that artists in Australia were starting to familiarise themselves with.
As attention surrounding her music began to grow in Australia, Sampa The Great soon graduated from being ‘Zambian-born, Botswana-raised, Australia-based’ to being ‘Australia’s own’ and ‘Zambian-Australian’; the latter of which were simply untrue. With it crept up a sense of imposter syndrome that Sampa has acknowledged stuck with her, even as her music began to have significant cultural and sonic impact in Australia and beyond.
“The goal isn’t to come back and be like, “Guys I’m ZAMBIAN,”, but it’s [about] coming back and saying it with assurance. Before, there was doubt. Now it’s fully claimed from being back home and immersing myself with my people and working with my people. That’s where the confidence now is different to what we had before.” SAMPA THE GREAT
2019 saw Sampa achieve new levels of success and renown, with the release of her acclaimed debut album The Return. The award-winning record was an unshakeable presentation of musical ideas and expert songwriting that breathed much needed fresh air into the contemporary rap game, period.
For Sampa, The Return elevated her artistry and in the public sphere, the album was met with a series of accolades including three ARIA Awards (from six nominations), Bandcamp’s Album Of The Year, BET’s Amplified Artist of the Month, and the 2019 Australian Music Prize - the latter making history, Sampa becoming the first artist to win the award twice.
Globally, Sampa The Great was a name frequenting many well known festivals and franchises including (and not limited to) The Roots Picnic, NPR’s Tiny Desk series, AFROPUNK and, Later….With Jools Holland. An artist who landed on Michelle Obama’s personal playlist, who earned support from industry heavyweights like Zane Lowe, Ebro Darden and Annie Mac, Sampa The Great thrived with The Return.
And yet through it all, Sampa knew that she couldn’t truly be at peace with her art until Sampa Tembo and Sampa The Great - the personal and the ambassador - were in harmony with each other.
Home was calling and, as the world was forced to stare directly at a life-shifting pandemic, Sampa knew that Zambia is where she needed to be.
“I’d never fully claimed myself to be Zambian, because I wasn’t fully raised in Zambia. That fear to me of, “I wasn’t really raised there, so am I truly this because even at home they’d say…’, that has just vanished, just from actually being here. Being here and working with artists from here, seeing the struggle of being a Zambian musician, versus Zambian musicians telling you about their struggles. Actually being a Zambian artist who is struggling to make their art, regardless of being ‘Sampa The Great’, I actually had to feel that, I actually had to be at home to understand that.” SAMPA THE GREAT
This recent sense of liberation and rediscovery has seen Sampa The Great engage in some of her most revealing and creatively stimulating music yet. Where her catalogue-defining earlier work still exists as legacy building pieces that she remains fiercely proud of, Sampa now finds herself creative from a place of pure happiness and peace.
Collaborating with the likes of The Avalanches, Baker Boy, Emmanuel Jagari Chanda (WITCH) and Angelique Kidjo, appearing on the posthumous ‘Stumbling Down’ with the late Tony Allen in 2020 and lending her voice to younger sister Mwanjé’s forthcoming debut project, Sampa The Great is fully stepping into a new chapter of self-assurance and confidence.
New music of her own is coming though in the immediate future, a return to international touring awaits: a brand new live show set to be introduced to audiences at the likes of Glastonbury and Coachella, as well as exclusive curated performances at Australia’s Vivid Live and Rising festivals.
Timing and reflection is key to any sense of longevity as an artist, two things Sampa knows intimately. The impact she has made on hip hop and black music generally speaking, both in Australia and beyond, is bigger than her name suggests. It adds to a whole generation of artists who are now creating more freely, in spaces where even a decade ago, they would not have had the privilege to do so.
Strength in overcoming and emerging as a voice more vital than before is now part of Sampa The Great’s story. It’s also a key part of the story of Sampa Tembo, the human. Finding that voice and looking ahead to the future, clear-minded and ready for her next era.