Sampa The Great on the Importance of Identity and Representation in Music

People sometimes wait for a sign to signal them to pursue a particular path in their lives — it can come at a fairly early period in one’s life, or when someone’s greeting their mid-40s. For Sampa Tembo, it was when she listened to Tupac’s ‘Changes’ at just 9 years old.

Sampa was born into a family that had built careers from being dancers, musicians, and performers. So, music was second nature to the Zambian-born MC. She adapted the moniker Sampa The Great after asking herself what she would never be, but thankfully this instance of self-fulfilling prophecy worked out to her advantage as she did turn out to be a great artiste.

JUICE spoke to Sampa before her set at Laneway Festival Singapore ‘17 a couple of weeks ago to discuss her inclusion of representation and politics in her musical narrative, how she defines good music, and more.

Images Cliff Yeo/Laneway Festival Singapore.

“… if I didn’t see anyone who looked like me singing or rapping, maybe I wouldn’t do it.”

You address the importance of identity and representation fairly often in your music. Why are those topics important to you?
I’ve had parts of my life that I didn’t have that — I felt very lost. I felt like a lot of people don’t have that sort of representation — like an acceptance, in a way — whereas if I didn’t see anyone who looked like me singing or rapping, maybe I wouldn’t do it. I feel like it’s very important — not only to showcase [diversity] but also to encourage the youth.

In a previous interview, you expressed how annoyed you felt when people referred to Lauryn Hill as a ‘female rapper’ instead of just a ‘rapper’. What’s with people’s obsession with female-designated labels?
(Laughs) It makes it easier — if I can put a label on something, it’s easier to find whatever it is that I don’t understand.

How do you keep it from affecting you and your artistry?
Good support team, good family. People who love me and tell me that I’m overreacting (laughs). I guess being able to reset and just go back to why I started. Every time it gets cloudy, I think it’s time for a reset and that’s how I keep it stable.

So, why did you want to start?
Start music or start professionally? Because I didn’t get to choose (laughs). I didn’t get to choose for music, that’s just something that my family had always been involved in — we always sung, did poetry. I guess to do it professionally… I don’t know. That’s something I have to answer now, like, why?!

Let’s just boil it down to you being good at it.
(Laughs) Yes! Let’s use that answer.

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“I’ve only ever thought about [politics] when people ask me why I talk about it (laughs), but I ask [them], ‘Why are you not?'”

In addition to representation and identity, you also include politics in your narrative. What’s your motive for that?
It’s not conscious. I talk about it daily with the people I’m surrounded by — that’s the way we communicate with each other — I’ve only ever thought about it when people ask me why I talk about it (laughs), but I ask [them], “Why are you not?” (Laughs) We have to live in this world after we get off stage, so, I guess it’s unconscious.

You’ve lived in three different countries — Zambia, Botswana, and Sydney — what have you observed from the political statuses of all three cities you’ve lived in?
Zambia and Botswana [have] sorta the same vibe. My only real culture shock was when I went to the States (laughs). I guess being a young person — for me — the US was flashing lights, it was Hollywood, it was, “Wow, it’s beautiful, let’s go there and get money!” (Laughs) But no, little girl, it was a lesson. Then, going to Sydney… the only thing I can say truthfully is there is corruption everywhere. The only difference is there’s corruption you can see and corruption that is under the rug.

That’s the painful truth.
Yeah, but I’d rather see the lion than not — we’re talking parables (laughs).

We read that Tupac’s ‘Changes’ was the song that caused a spark in your brain, right? What was it about that song?
I hadn’t heard anything that was quite like it in my life. The lyrics — they were very eminent to me. I think I was going through a time where I didn’t want to grow up and Tupac was saying, “That’s just the way it is, things will never be the same,” but I guess it’s [also] the same statement of political climate — we’re still going through the same things right now [as we were when Tupac sang ‘Changes’] and I just hadn’t met an artiste that was able to convey that in such a beautiful way. I didn’t know you could do that, I didn’t know you could put your soul in that. So, that was my introduction.

Is that why you gravitate towards artistes like that?
I guess so, I don’t want to say that it’s conscious because I am with trap music! But it’s a balance — all of us as humans, we think and then we laugh. It’s a balance of what we do. I guess I gravitate towards that because I think of purpose a lot and there are others who do too.

So, there’s an argument that good music is anchored by profound or intellectual lyrics — which is unfair seeing as there are also great instrumentals or songs that don’t have the most poetic lyrics but the beats make up for it. How do you define good music?
I’d say feel. There’s music without lyrics that make you bawl to and you don’t even know why, so I’d say feel and that also depends on the person — whatever they gravitate towards makes them feel a certain way. I guess it depends on what you’re listening to — I like what I’m listening to, seeing how my friends translate hip hop and what it means to them is still beautiful, like it was done in the golden old age, and my friends who do trap do it beautifully too! I don’t know. For me, I guess how we’re still able to find people who do it that way — with the heart and soul, regardless of the politics and money — people who do it that way, that to me is beautiful.

Update (3 February ’17): Sampa’s answer to the seventh question has been rectified to better reflect her opinion as it was previously a misquote.

Sampa The Great performed at Laneway Festival Singapore ’17 on Saturday 21 January ’17 at The Meadow, Gardens by the Bay. 

Listen to Sampa here.