When moving through the musical landscape, navigating past the tired sounds and sorting what’s “good” from what’s “bad,” it can become all too easy to slip into a sort of complacency. Discerning becomes difficult when you have a mélange of artists and notes and tracks circulating your mind, each one vying for attention like children who remain completely oblivious to their potential lack of significance.
And then you come across something that stops you in your tracks. It’s artists and albums like these that not only instantaneously ascend to the top of your priority list, beckoning you to write about them, but inspire a big sigh of relief. They remind you: this is what music is meant to sound like.
Meet Sampa Tembo, AKA Sampa The Great, the Zambian-born, Botswana-raised, and Sydney-based musical extraordinaire whose 12-track debut mixtape is set to propel her into success. Produced by Godriguez and released by Melbourne label Wondercore Island (Haitus Kaiyote, Oscar Key Sung), The Great Mixtape is a punchy, irreverent and politically charged debut that grounds itself within sultry R&B roots, and arches its back to reveal stunning hip hop and experimental elements.
I could tell you a list of artists Sampa The Great sounds like, including Lauryn Hill, Nina Simone, Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu or England’s Ghostpoet. But the reality is that while these influences punctuate her work and connect her to the larger community of artists that preceded her, her sound remains like nothing I’ve ever really heard before.
We are introduced to Sampa The Great in her assertive first track ‘Intro 1‘ where she speaks and raps in an almost Nicki Minaj-esque affected voice over a stilted beat, and ends it with a similarly Nicki-style maniacal laugh. ‘Intro 1′ spills seamlessly into the following track, ‘Jamal‘, where the beat develops a more distinct and regular rhythm. Sampa The Great calls herself a rapper, poet and singer-songwriter, and so right off the bat she delves into hip hop territory, showcasing her amazing skills for weaving complex rhymes around a deep, melodic beat.
The fourth track on the mix ‘Class Trip‘ is lathered in Sampa’s almost unparalleled rapping rhythm and the steady, gutsy base underpinning the track. As a listener, decoding her music is a process of learning and unlearning, and she assumes the role of the teacher – the authority figure that is both educating and being educated by the revelations in her lyrics. Imbued with messages about life as a woman of African decent in a Western world, Sampa The Great tackles complex topics with tact and insight.
But this album isn’t purely about race relations. By track seven, Sampa is literally spelling out what it is to be a woman in ‘F E M A L E‘, and follows the hip hop and R&B tradition of celebrating female body shapes that don’t align with our current Western beauty standards, starting off the track saying, “Big boned women, round of applause.” The underlying jazz influence and steady bass line riffing its way like a heartbeat throughout the track is reminiscent of earlier hip hop sensations like Tribe Called Quest, and signifies to the listener the myriad of influences from which Sampa The Great has drawn.
In the more instrumental, ambient, and experimental track ‘Weoob‘, Sampa again employs a slightly affected rapping voice, sounding similar to American artist Earl Sweatshirt insofar as the pronunciation becomes slouchy with the nonplussed attitude of a teenage boy. This vocal style continues in later track ‘Born To Be Blue‘ – a title happens to be borrowed from canonical black songstress Ella Fitzgerald’s song of the same name. Sampa is nonchalant in her lyrics, talking about “laughing with my friends and maybe having barbeques, and even though I’m vegetarian, fried legumes,” at the time as she yields her innate power, saying, “I’m great, I was born to be great.”
‘Dutch Spring‘ stands out as one of the most deceptively simple but sonically impressive tracks on the album. It’s funk elements are beautifully sustained and Sampa’s voice chimes in during the chorus, showing that her talent extends far beyond her rapping abilities.
Sampling in hip hop and R&B, and specifically in black music culture, has become a powerful tool for the artist to extrapolate their political views and pay homage to the activists who have clearly informed their beliefs and inspired their music. It’s the quoting or the referencing of the musical world, introducing one circle of listeners to an entirely different voice or opinion. Take Beyoncé’s famous sampling of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk in ‘Flawless‘, or Kanye West, who integrated Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970s spoken word poetry in ‘Who Will Survive In America‘.
Sampa The Great follows this tradition in ‘Revolution‘ where she samples Malcom X, Leo Muhammad, and black activist Dr. Khalid Adbul Muhummad, a voice who also interestingly features in D’angelo’s ‘1000 Deaths‘ and is also used in tracks by Ice Cube and Public Enemy. When the interviewer asks him, “Are you an entertainer or are you a committed person to Black People?” it becomes clear that this exact question permeates through Sampa’s work and shapes her conception of her role as a musician. After speaking with her in an interview, she reveals to me that Bob Marley is one of her main influencers, not solely in the music he makes, but also in his politics, and the inclusion of ‘Revolution’ in The Great Mixtape reflects Sampa’s same boldness in address issues that go beyond music.
Sampa The Great quite clearly comes from a long, inimitable lineage of powerful black artists who steamroll their way up the musical charts and into our political consciousness, providing not only musical delicacies to satiate our appetite for good rhythm and beat, but much needed insight into the plight of a marginalised people.
In today’s political climate, and in light of the continued riots in the U.S in retaliation to police brutality and unjust treatment of African Americans, Sampa The Great’s album does indeed deal with some incredibly dense and heavy topics. As if representing the almost unbearable weight of these issues, her making light of the topics – calling in a ‘mixtape’ as if it were a collection of songs compiled by a teenage girl for her boyfriend; the way she takes on different voices and personas in the tracks; and her laughter that trickles through the album – almost counter intuitively signifies the incredible seriousness of this album. It sounds playful and fun, but also reveals the unmarred resilience of black culture and identity, specifically as she has found it through African American styles of music.
The Great Mixtape is an album that is human, raw and impassioned, appealing to our natural desire to move, express identity, and be listened to. It reminds me of music’s powerful and perhaps even core position in activating social change. Inflation of ego and hip hop are seen to be almost synonymous, but it’s these grand self-proclamations that add to the allure of the artist and give a credibility to a voice that would otherwise be seen as undue. She is not simply Sampa, but Sampa The Great. And this difference is everything.