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Sampa the Great: "My home, my culture, I can carry that with me wherever I go"

Sampa the Great examines self-identity and belonging on her arresting debut album, ‘The Return’.
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Published: 10:58 am, September 23, 2019Words: Jenessa Williams. Photos: Barun Chatterjee.
Sampa the Great: "My home, my culture, I can carry that with me wherever I go"

According to the last official census, Australia's population is made up of approximately 22% immigrants. Ranging from political refugees through to nomadic sunseekers, it's a melting pot as big as any, all looking for a new place to call home.

Not every new-found Aussie, however, is Sampa The Great. Having first stepped foot on the country's shores as a means of pursuing her artistic ambitions, the fusion of genres that fuels her music is souvenir basket, trinkets gathered from her birth country of Zambia through to her childhood in Botswana, years spent studying in San Francisco and LA, and her current settlement in Sydney. With her heavy-hitting, bouncy delivery and inspiring mantras, she leads the ever-increasing charge of Australian hip-hop, fuelled by the desire to challenge the musical stereotype of the country as an exclusively white, guitar-toting enterprise.

"If you know the history of Australian music, as dope as it was, it was very white and male, and all this other talent that got swept under the rug because it didn't fit that story," she explains, calling in on a rare day off. "Now, because there's more visibility and people are making more space, we're popping out of everywhere! The scene of hip-hop there is finally reflecting what Australia is and what it's afraid to be; a multicultural country."

Something of a restless soul, Sampa brings her experiences of travel to the fore on her debut album, 'The Return'. Building on her prolificacy of mixtapes, collaborations and support slots (think Kendrick Lamar, Lauryn Hill, Thundercat and Little Simz), the stakes were high as she decided which version of her eclectic self to put out into the world.

"It's so funny because normally I listen to a huge range of music, but this time, I had to just not think, because the pressure of a full album was so scary," she recalls. "The illusion of this being the only body of work that will describe who you are, you have to come to the conclusion that this just has to be a snapshot of where I am at in life. For the first time, it was more about observations, just looking at people around me and what was happening in my own life. It's what the album is all about – all these things that I have experienced and how my career is growing is super dope, but there's still a sense of homesickness. Because of that longing to go home, I felt a bit displaced, and with that came the questions of what home is, how can it be defined and finding a way for me to carry home wherever I go so I don't end up feeling defined by not being there."

"My mum told me, you carry your heritage with you whether you like it or not; it's in your DNA"
Sampa the Great

If these lyrical themes sound emotionally taxing, the music is anything but. Lead single 'Final Form' is a defiant, horn-led banger with swag to spare ("Greatness in me/ you can't make me feel less/ Got my Afro like an empress"), while 'Grass is Greener' will please fans of Tyler The Creator or NoName, a languid melody tempered by staccato flow. The jewel in the crown, however, is undoubtedly 'OMG'. The song itself is pretty powerful, but when combined with her colourful video, a celebration of the African diaspora that places her parents front and centre.

"My parents are so funny, man," she laughs. "My dad came early from work and did two takes like cool, I'm done. I was like, Dad, that's not how it works around here! I wanted to give the narrative of my home, so people know I'm Zambian rather than removing that part of me by being an Australian musician. The beginning of this journey was not the funnest – your parents just want you to do something in life where you can support yourself, and they had a lot of hesitation. I supported Kendrick, and they were like 'oh cool' because they didn't really know what it meant. Then Jada Pinkett Smith tweeted that she liked my stuff recently and they were like, 'woooooah, we know her!' I had this one show in Australia, a festival, and my mum watched the video on YouTube and could see how many people were in the crowd, and I think it clicked, like this isn't just you playing in a bar, this is a lot of people. And then they got it."

It seems the rest of the world is getting it too. The rest of Sampa's year is blocked out with live shows across the world, and any free time at her disposal is being channelled into 'Homecoming', a short documentary that she says will complement the themes to the record.

"I just love that expression can go through different visuals; I don't want to just be a rapper," she says. "It's all about community and finding people who share your experiences. It's just enough for me to say I will get better, and I will teach myself and try and learn as much as I can." And what has she learnt so far?

"I've to the conclusion that home is actually me, and everything that has created me – my home, my culture, I can carry that with me wherever I go. What resonates with me is something my mum told me, and that is that you carry your heritage with you, whether you like it or not; it's in your DNA. You might not feel fully like your people yet, but you already are." Her smile is audible, stretching wide across the transatlantic call. "There's no other option, sis!" 

Taken from the October issue of Dork. Sampa The Great's debut album 'The Return' is out now.

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