Sampa The Great on Home, Identity and Representation

The Zambian rapper on her new album, "As Above, So Below"

Rapper, singer, songwriter and producer Sampa The Great (aka Sampa Tembo) has been appointed the poster-child of various movements, communities and cultures—without acquiescence—and, as such, she’s no stranger to myopic perceptions, reductive takes and misrepresentations. While she was born in Zambia and raised in Botswana, she’s often described as an Afrobeats (a West African genre) artist. She lived in Melbourne, Australia for several years and is often claimed by the country as Australian. As an African woman, she has been designated as a spokesperson for Black women artists all over the world. But now, with her second full-length album (following 2019’s The Return), As Above, So Below, Tembo is committed to representing herself.

After moving home to Zambia in 2020, Tembo began working on the new album (out 9 September) with musicians there, but rather than explicitly correcting inaccuracies swarming about her, she wrote and recorded the music organically and (atypically for her) without a distinct plan. In just a few weeks, she created a poignant, dynamic record that’s brimming with unapologetic self-exploration, power and joy. The riveting album is imbued with elements from southern African music (from Zamrock to Kalindula and Kwaito) as well as hip-hop, R&B and beyond. We spoke with the Lusaka-based artist about home, identity, representation and how music is in her blood.

Your new album As Above, So Below will be out in September, but you finished it some time ago. Do you feel differently about it now that you have some distance? Do you need to reconnect to it as it’s poised for release?

It’s funny, every time someone says “Your album sounds amazing,” I’m like, “Oh yeah, I actually stopped listening to it.” [laughs] Just to make sure I’m not over analyzing it, as we do as artists. But recently, especially when we’ve started releasing the singles, just seeing people’s reactions and seeing the excitement that I had when we first made the songs has made me go back into the space when the songs were created. I’m getting even more excited for the big release. At first, it was anxiety, now it’s excitement. I know we did a good job. I know we pushed ourselves and challenged ourselves to do something different. And, the most important thing, we all feel good about the record—each of us feels content with what we’ve made, we feel really proud of what we made, and it makes us really happy.

From the very first track, “Shadows” (which fuses genres and shifts between languages), the album feels like a full expression and exploration of you and your self-identity. Was that part of the plan for the record or is that something that happens organically since music is intrinsically personal?

With this one, it definitely was the latter; it happened organically. Usually, I’m like, “Yo, this record is about to say this, this, this.” But with this one, I think especially because of the relocation back home and because the context now wasn’t me trying to represent anything in particular to do with where I was. Instead the project in Zambia, it became, “Oh, how does Sampa feel about representing herself?” Let’s see the full scope of Sampa. Let’s see the joy, let’s see the laughter, let’s see more of that as well as the deep change that has happened. It just… it felt lighter.

I didn’t feel like I had to be an ambassador for anyone besides myself

This is the fastest we’ve ever finished a project and it felt like it was not a weight anymore. I didn’t feel like I had to be an ambassador for anyone besides myself. That brought a lot of lightness to the project. And it was just fun. It was just really fun… It actually felt a bit more whole and comfortable. Because I was home.

Home as a concept is different for many people. You spent your childhood in Zambia and Botswana and have lived in several other countries. What’s your definition of home—is it a place, community, family?

It’s where I feel the most free, it’s where I feel myself and it’s where my family and my ancestry is from. That’s what home is for me. It’s definitely the place that I feel the most free—and Zambia is that place for me.

Genres from Zambia plays a big role on the album, as well as other southern African musical elements, but you’re sometimes described as an Afrobeats artist. Do you feel like you have to correct these misconceptions, especially when your music is so connected to culture?

I mean, it’s very irritating. It’s discouraging and it’s exhausting. It think we’ve just got over calling Africa a country and I feel like this is the musical version. This is the musical way of saying “Africa is a country,” right? There are different countries and there’s different cultures within those countries, there’s different dialects within those… We haven’t even scratched the surface. Even if you bring up Nigeria and Afrobeats, there’s so much other music within the country.

It’s hard because you’re so happy that these different genres from Africa are getting represented and are seen in the global scale, but I think you see how people aren’t willing to learn more about the different sounds that come out of Africa. [People] will say, “This is the sound that comes from Chicago, and this is sound that comes from New York.” We’re willing to take time to educate ourselves on the different sounds from these different places, but when it comes to the whole continent of Africa, it feels like people are willing to educate themselves less. Because the music is attached to a culture, it becomes even more, I guess, insulting. There’s so much other music that is coming from the continent that it feels very lazy to put us all into one group. I’ve had all those conversations over and over. The best I can do on my end is define what my music is, where the influence comes from and why it’s so strongly rooted in where I’m from.

But that’s not ideal either. An artist makes the art—but then we’re also expecting you to do the labor of explaining it to us?

Exactly. That’s why we make the music! That’s the outlet in which we express who we are because we don’t know how to do it any other way! [laughs] But I’m hoping that with these explanations and with us trying to push these boundaries, we’re opening a door for people to hear different types of African music.

Last year—well into your musical career—you found out that one of your uncles was once a member of WITCH. Did that change the way you felt about Zamrock or yourself as a musician?

I was like, “Why didn’t anyone bother to tell me this information when I literally felt like the only Tembo who was trying to do this as a career?” [laughs] When I was starting out, my dad thought music is not seen as a career. But I really needed that information when I started out because it was a really lonely path. (This is before my sister and my cousin joined my musical journey.) My uncle was part of the group before they blew up and then he left the group—I think that’s why my dad didn’t really bother to tell me. But WITCH had a show in Lusaka early this year and me and my younger sister went, and my uncle came and he was like, “Oh, so this is the young rockstar.” And we cried, me and my little sister cried. He was just like, “You’re doing the right thing, you know that music is in your blood.” That was very affirming for me. Our family and our lineage did music; this is the way we used our gifts to communicate with the world.

Does your dad believe it’s a career now?

Yeah, now he does! After “Never Forget.” When “Never Forget” came out, I was getting texts that I’ve never gotten before—from aunties, like way out in the village saying, “I saw the video, you had our first president, this is good!” We do make music as a family, it’s just never been seen as something you can do as a career. So I’m really glad that I’m getting these texts now.

You also worked with Mag44 and co-produced the album, which is the first time you have done that.

It’s not the first time I’ve co-produced, but it’s the first time I’ve had the guts to say that I did! The beauty with Mag is, he started his music school and he did a program for young girls in Lusaka to produce because finding the confidence to say you’re a producer in a male-dominated industry is really tough. I feel like a lot of women in the industry, we don’t see a lot of ourselves in these positions so we don’t really claim to be the producer or an engineer. But I’ve always been there in the studio and we are creating the sound, the feel, whatever guitars I like, what keys I like, I’m really in it. And it was Mag44 saying, “Co-producing, that’s what you’ve been doing,” when I realized that I haven’t given myself that credit, because I assumed that one, I wasn’t doing it; two, I wasn’t good enough to do it; and three, that a producer looked more like a man on a laptop versus a lot of the women who I know do more than just sing or rap on a track.

This is the happiest I’ve ever been writing a project—and the freest

You have worked with so many world-renowned artists on the album, from Joey Bada$$ to Denzel Curry and Angelique Kidjo. You performed at Coachella and Glastonbury this summer. In writing that all looks like a win, but what does musical success look like to you?

I think this album for me, I’ll look back and this will be a big win for me as Sampa. I loved all the past projects, obviously, but I do also feel like I put a lot of weight on myself with the past projects. There wasn’t a lot of happiness because there was a lot to defend and a lot to prove and a lot to make sure I represent that it kind of took the fun away. But for this one, this is the happiest I’ve ever been writing a project—and the freest.

The shows are dope too! My mom was watching Glastonbury and she’s like, “You’re smiling from ear to ear,” and I was like, “Yeah, I was a happy!” I was really happy to be on that stage with my band and my sister and my cousin. All the weight of trying to be perfect on stage dissipated because I’m actually just happy doing what I love to do.

I think for any artist, you want to feel like you’re expressing yourself to your best ability, you’re feeling whole, like you’re doing your purpose, and you’re actually happy doing what you feel like is why you were put on this earth. That to me is success.

Images courtesy of Constance Spence