Notions of Home: An Interview with Sampa the Great

It’s all in the name, and Sampa the Great’s rise has been anything but small. From opening for Kendrick Lamar to the release of her debut album, Sampa’s artistry has held its own among seasoned producers and big name collaborators. None of the hype seems to side track the rising artist since the power of the music lies in its unquestionable honesty and lyrical dexterity. Her rapping style and presence exudes a sense of natural ease reminiscent of hip hop greats like Mos Def and Lauryn Hill. Without being overly referential, it’s clear that Sampa the Great is not only continuing but bolstering hip hop’s message of creative, social and political empowerment.

Born in Zambia, raised in Botswana and now based in Sydney, Sampa the Great is quickly becoming the face of Australia’s hip hop scene. But her impact is quickly extending far beyond Sydney’s city limits. And as far reaching as her music and activist messages are, so is her sense of home having lived in several corners of the world. We caught up with the artist to talk about her sense of place and how she got to where she is.

Today Sampa the Great drops her latest EP HERoes Act 2 featuring the always impeccable Estelle and the production of Rahki. Listen below and read on the discover more about the place(s) behind the music.

Born in Zambia, raised in Botswana and now in Sydney, do you insert a little bit of all these places in your music?
Yes very much. Zambia and Botswana have been a part of me for 20 years and continue to be, as I do travel back home. So they will always be a part of me and my identity and so expressed through my music.

What was the music scene like in Botswana when you were growing up? Did you know any other women doing rap and hip hop?
Well I was still in high school as I was observing the music scene, at the time I would never think to do music professionally even though I wanted to. It was definitely a moment where the music scene in Botswana allowed you to translate your identity and culture into the music you like.

With examples like Motswako which is a Southern African genre of hip hop, it merged English and Setswana (one of the many language spoken in the southern part of Africa.

Do you feel like you have one home place?
I have two. Zambia, where I’m from and where I was born. Botswana, where I was raised and where most of my childhood experiences come from.

If someone only had 24 hours in your hometown in Botswana, where would you take them?
First we would do normal things like go eat and go to the movies. Then give them something they can only experience in Gabs, like our amazing house parties and braais (even though I’m vegetarian), have them dance to some crazy good African music. Then take them somewhere extravagant like the Okavango Delta.

Think of your hometown: what’s one smell, sound and sight that instantly come to mind?
7 a.m morning smoky air, birds chirping, music from the neighborhood streets playing and kids on the streets laughing. Walking outside to see beautiful people smiling.

Your style really feels like a merging of many different styles from from the cadence of Chance to Lauryn Hill. Where and how did you develop your rapping style?
Initially Tupac definitely. The storytelling element to his music was what caught my attention as a child walking into my cousin’s bedroom. In fact, I forgot why I went there in the first place. Spoken word also has and continuously plays a huge role in my writing, finding my voice and using music as an actual way to articulate my feelings and thoughts that I would never be able to express otherwise.

But of course the greats in terms of representation and inspiration were Lauryn Hill, Nina Simone, and Thandiswa Mazwai to name a few.

Do you think music and activism are inherently connected?
I think if you live in this world and you express your existence and surroundings through music, speaking on injustice and the state of the world is inevitable.

Your music paints very vivid stories even if the lyrics are abstract. Where do you draw inspiration from outside of music? Any writers, or places?
Inspiration can come from the smallest things to a smile on a baby’s face, acts of kindness, strength of a people. From my home, childhood and from overcoming huge obstacles in life and coming out ok.

Anything that I experience in life really. Also reading a lot of Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison.

Do you treat your songs like poetry and then dive into production, or is it happening congruently?
Sometimes I translate my hums to lyrics, other times I put pen to paper with only a word of how the music makes me feel and the rest comes out (e.g fear, strength etc.)

It varies. I’m still creating new ways to translate music into words and vice versa.

With all the attention your music and work has received recently, what’s the biggest thing you’ve learned so far about yourself and about being a professional musician?
Knowing who you are as an artist and self belief have been my truest lessons to date. I feel like I learnt more confidence in myself and my voice, also the power it has. As well as knowing who I am as an artist in order to guide my artistic direction.

Estelle, Rahki and Sampa

How did you get connected with Estelle and Rahki for your upcoming EP?
Through the Red Bull Sound Select program, which is an artist development program designed to support and uncover local music talent. Red Bull Australia curated the meet and suggested some artists to collaborate with. We ended up meeting with Rahki and Estelle in the Red Bull Paris studios to record and it was amazing.

Any plans to tour?
I’ll be co-touring alongside Remi and Sensible J in June/July for our national tour Fire-Sign. It will be awesome and also a good time with family. I’ll also be in the UK for the first time in two weeks!

Sampa the Great UK Tour
Tues 16 May – Koko (supporting Yuna), London
Wed 17 May – Headrow House, Leeds
Thurs 18 May – Sallis Benney (The Great Escape Festival), Brighton
Fri 19 May – Koko (Burst x Clash Magazine), London
Sat 20 May – Patterns (Aussie BBQ @ The Great Escape Festival), Brighton
Sun 21 May – Hoxton Bar & Grill (Aussie BBQ @ The Great Escape Festival), Brighton

Sampa the Great ‘Fire Sign’ Tour w/Remi – Australia
Fri 9 June – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney
Sat 10 June – The Cambridge, Newcastle
Fri 16 June – 170 Russell, Melbourne
Sat 17 June – The Zoo, Brisbane
Fri 23 June – Capitol, Perth
Sat 24 June – Fat Controller, Adelaide
Sat 1 July – The Waratah Hotel, Hobart
Sat 8 July – Beachfront Hotel, Darwin

photo by: courtesy of the artist