SAMPA THE GREAT: Spoken Proudly and Unapologetically
The underground hip hop scene is slowly but firmly breaking into mainstream music; bringing new and diverse artists to the surface and allowing us, as the humble listener, an opportunity to broaden our listening horizons.
Sampa The Great is one such artist, carving her own legacy through the music industry.
When you listen to her music, pride is something that beams through the lyrics of her songs. Sampa's artistry is a journey that continues to evolve, exploring who she is: poet, rapper, African woman, person of colour and more.
THE PIN. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood and where you grew up?
SAMPA THE GREAT. I was born in Zambia and my family moved to Botswana when I was two years old, but we were raised between the two. All of my extended relatives are in Zambia and my immediate family is in Botswana. It was such an amazing experience growing up between the two countries and seeing the characteristics of each; knowing that I come from both. The older I get, the more I am able to view my family from the outside. When you’re in it you think, ‘Yeah, it’s my family, we’re all crazy, isn’t everybody’s family like this and don't you don’t laugh like this?’. Then you grow up and realise what kind of family you were raised in.
I’m so blessed to have such loud and crazy characters surrounding me.
When did you first arrive in Australia and what did you think about the Australian culture?
S. I arrived in Australia two years ago. Prior to that my first experience outside of Africa was actually in the United States, I lived in San Francisco for two years and L.A for another. It wasn't that big of a culture shock because I'd already experienced it in the U.S and saw similarities between the two countries. Australia is such a melting pot though, I've met so many people here from every part of the world.
Growing up, were there certain cultural values instilled in you and has your opinion of them changed or strengthened over time?
S. Definitely, a lot of cultural values were instilled in me. A lot has changed too, but I think the one that sticks out would be my understanding of how people view Africans and how we should view ourselves. Being in the U.S, and seeing the attitudes, made me really proud of myself, where I am from, and unapologetic.
Do you remember when you first became aware of race and how it came about?
S. My first racial experience was in the U.S It sort of hit me really hard; everything from how racism played out there, the racist experiences I encountered, to the separation between African-Americans and Africans. It all got to me really quickly. I always knew racial tension was real, but in the U.S I was living it and I had to wake up. I had no other choice.
One of the things that hit me hard in the U.S was that I was experiencing racism but in my mind I thought, 'hey, at least I am here with my African-American brothers'. Unfortunately, everybody in the diaspora is pitting people against each other so the unity is not there. I have a lot of African-American friends now [laughs], but I just didn't expect the reality of the U.S I thought it would be different.
I’ve read that you’re very much into poetry and see yourself as a poet. Who is your favourite poet?
S. Ah man, the new one who has knocked me off my feet is Nayyirah Waheed. She's beautiful. I feel like nobody really knowns I started with spoken word before rap. It was my first artistic medium, that's why I continue to call myself a poet.
I read that Chance the Rapper is one of your biggest influences, and I'd assume one of your favourite people from the interviews I've read...
S. There was a misquote in an article about me. I said Mos Def is one of my biggest influences, along with Chance. They wrote 'most definitely Chance the Rapper'! I think they misheard [laughs].
What is it about Chance the Rapper and Mos Def that stands out to you, as an artist and as a fan?
S. Before The Great Mixtape, and while I was just recording other stuff, I went back home for a while. At the time, I remember putting this enormous amount of pressure on myself to be this hard rapper chick. It came out of nowhere, and it really took my love away from the art form. I wasn't happy because I was so strict! I remember listening to Acid Rap by Chance and the whole idea of trying to control everything just melted away. Chance put love back into the art form. It wasn't about being perfect, it wasn't about being hard, all this stuff rap is made out to be, he made it what he wanted it to be. He inspired me to just let go, express myself, and laugh! I do that a lot! You're supposed to laugh when you're creating your art because it's your art, man!
With Mos Def, it's the soul in his music. He sings and it grabs you. I wouldn't put him alongside my biggest inspirations, like Tupac, Nina Simone, or Lauryn Hill, but he is definitely a musical mentor.
What does it mean to be a female rapper in the Australian music scene right now?
S. I think there are a lot of us underground...I just popped up! There are so many of us people don't know. A good example is when Remi had a show at Newtown Social Club in Sydney. He called a bunch of rappers up on stage and I was the only female. I was like, 'surely this can't be it in Australia?!'.
For me, it's not about being the only female black rapper. I want my queens to be up there. I want to learn from them, I want to work with them, there has to be more than this!
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
SAMPA THE GREAT. Your spirit has chosen this body and everything that comes with it.
Female. Black. It’s not a mistake. Walk in it with no fear.
That’s what I would say to my younger self.
- This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credit: Justin Nacua & Chris Peken