Sampa's Great Afro Future
“We can showcase other African artists, we're doing things differently to what we're used to”
Sampa Tembo has always been destined for greatness, evident from the day she emerged as Sampa The Great with her debut single F E M A L E back in 2015. Seven years, two revered mixtapes and an acclaimed studio album on the legendary Ninja Tune label later, the singing, rapping, songwriting poet makes her mark on 2022 with the phenomenal Lane, featuring a fella named Denzel Curry.
Far beyond just a “rap song”, Lane is an audio-visual work of art, with a phenomenal cinematic music video created for the expansive composition that alternates between percussion-less spoken word passages to a dope banging hip-hop track - and back again.
Lane comes ahead of Sampa’s An Afro Future tour that sees her expanding the scale and scope of her live shows as she plays Vivd LIVE in Sydney and RISING in Melbourne in May and June, before jetting off for a tour of England, Europe and the US.
With a whole lot to talk about, we jumped on the line with Sampa to find out what’s happening.
I want to hear all about Lane obviously, a lot to talk about there, but first of all - how was Coachella?!
That was huge! It was amazing! It was amazing. Just, you know, I never go - I always say I never go to a place or country where, you know, I assume people know the music. I just go there, and you know, just introduce myself, and just to see people not only responding, but rapping and singing back to the music, to me will always just be the most… trippiest stuff ever.
But Coachella was huge. And then being the first Zambians to do that also was amazing. That’s all I’ve got to say like *laughs* Like, I don't think we've even, like, we've moved on to the next thing and making sure the music comes out. So we haven't even like settled and marinated on how epic, you know, it was… but it was amazing. I really had an amazing experience.
As a teenager, were you ever looking at the Coachella line-ups thinking “oh I’d love to attend that festival some day”, let alone play it?!
You know, I think it's only until Beyonce did her Beychella that I was like, “yeeeaaahhh.. so I wanna do that” *laughs*. Obviously, her’s is queen like stratusphere. But just to be able to be there and perform and, you know, just be given the opportunity for me was just like, yeah.
And in terms of you and your band being the first Zambians to play Coachella, do you want to expand a little on what that means for you?
First off, even just touring internationally, that's never been something that has been done by a Zambian band. Obviously, I had to relocate home when the pandemic hit, you know, my parents had COVID, and just a lot of - my sister was an international student, so she couldn't go to school, just a lot of things, you know, were happening around that time. So for me, it was like, okay, the best decision is to just fly back home and make sure everyone's okay. And then trying to get back in it was just like, hectic, you know, borders are closed.
And I just used that opportunity to be like, “Okay, what can I do at home”, you know, I always say, I've just never been Sampa the Great in my own country. Obviously, my career popped off in Australia, and everything grew, you know, in Australia, and I've just never been able to come home and express myself professionally as Sampa the Great. So I just got an amazing opportunity to connect with creators from home. Just being able to be at home for a huge amount of time without working as well, was something and just, you know, reconnecting, reconnecting it just, it was amazing. And, you know, the process brought up new music and just new art that I didn't think that I would ever make. So it wasn't all negative.
My brain just kinda exploded at the statement “art I didn’t think that I would ever make” because it’s like… what exactly does that mean?
I think you're seeing little snippets of the art that I would never make, I'd never think I'd make, from Lane, you know, just being able to venture into something else and visually even just, you know, sci-fi elements and just something I don't think you'd ever think you'd see from a Sampa The Great visual that you're seeing now. And that growth happened within that span of two years and it's exciting for me. For me, I can see my own growth. So I can't imagine what else is being seen on the outside.
I love that you made a swerving motion while you said “venture into something else” and talking about Lane *laughs* You mentioned the sci-fi elements that I want to ask about, and find out more about the video as a whole, as well as how you linked up with Denzel… I guess first of all though, with a production of this quality, like where does it even start?!
You know, Lane came about, as at the beginning of the pandemic, and, you know, everything was so dire and just every day we were hearing something and we're like, “Yo, this is the end of the world *laughs* like this is like it's finished” and just, you know, being able to see how technology impacted us or communication wise and even just now, and how it plays a part and exploring what it would be if technology was out of balance and just the relationship of nature and technology, those conversations birthed the direction in which lane went. And if you pay attention to the video, you see that there's a younger version of me and an older version of me. And what Denzel and I are essentially doing is connecting with our younger versions through VR, through virtual reality. And, you know, those sorts of topics come about where, you know, you feel that the reality you're in isn't real, or you know, a lot of things that are happening around you are made up or you're in an aspect of life that isn't real, and that's what the pandemic felt like, a lot of parts of the pandemic felt like, so those were some some of the seeds that birthed the direction in which the visual went, but I think more so the song itself is what was a huge influence.
Um, you know, as an artist, I never feel like I have to express myself in one way music-wise. And I know hip hop is often seen as “this” and nothing else, but I've just never only expressed myself through hip hop. And, you know, with Denzel, I met him at Listen Out festival a couple of years back. And so yeah, I thought it was cool. “Yeah cool, you rap, that's nice” *laughs*. But it wasn't until his Like A Version that he did. The cover of Rage Against the Machine was like, “Yoo, like, you really have the rage, and you're not afraid to step out of any spaces where people expect you to be as a hip hop artist”. And that's exactly what you know, my ethos is, I'll just never do one thing, because as an artist, you always want to grow. And I think when I shared the music with him and explained, you know, some of the meaning behind the song, he was like, “I'm so down”, you know, “to feature on this”. And because that's where I am, as well, you know, I just don't want to be boxed into one thing. And the talks happened, and obviously, I wasn't in Australia at the time so I got to talk to a lot of creatives from home and landed on working with these two amazing directors from South Africa, who we’re going to have a really long relationship after this, you know, because the work that they did was amazing. And I think a lot of people underestimate, you know, visuals and art that can come from the continent, and this just, you know, blows the roof off of anything people would think so, yeah, I'm really excited that, you know, people are seeing it, people are getting introduced to a new version of some power, a new era, if you will, like the kids say, but just, you know, another step towards growth. And I think, you know, that's evident, what the two years was spent doing.
I’ve just got so many questions to ask from that! The one thing that I really want to ask about is the idea of, you know, being boxed in as an artist and almost the irony of hip hop, a relatively young genre that was born from breaking rules to now seemingly having certain rules… Did you ever feel like you might get pushback for not just doing the formulaic thing?
Yeah. I probably think that that was the case when I started, you know, you go from The Great Mixtape to The Birds and the Bee9 and there’s an obvious change there, and a lot of the music on Bee9 is music that I heard when I was growing up. I understand that I'm heavily influenced by hip hop, but that's just not the only thing I'm influenced by. And to be able to mix those two worlds - I felt that the time around Bee9 that people didn't really vibe with it, it was “where are the hard raps, we need the hard raps!!”.
And it's just like, I have to express myself, regardless of what the demand is, like, that's just always the constant. And I think you're right, I think with hip hop, you know, growing and being commercialized and so on, there's just a certain element people are used to seeing maybe, and more so mainstream than underground because people in the underground do whatever the hell they want. But, yeah, hip hop was just not made to be that genre where you have to dumb down, like it was birthed out of full expression. And I think we're staying true to our inspiration as artists by fully expressing ourselves the best way we know how, yeah, and even if that doesn't look like it fits into a hip hop blueprint.
I’m not even gonna make a Jay Z The Blueprint joke here *laughs* So this all applies to the music of Lane - I don't even want to just call it a “beat”, it’s a composition that just flows and has a number of elements to it, including the beautiful beatless parts that match your spoken words. When it comes to the production side of things, how does music like this come together as opposed to just like a “standard trap beat”?
Yeah, it is - it is a mixture of a lot of things. To be honest, the beginning of the Lane video is another song that maybe potentially hopefully will be released after, but Lane itself when I got it - again, it's that thing of “I've never heard myself on a trap beat before, this could be fun” *laughs* And then in true Sampa fashion, I am going to explore that music but still bring elements of myself in it. So whether that's choruses, harmonies, melodies, chants… and it just felt more spoken to me in the way I rap. And it's a bit more fun than I'd usually go like, I'm like “okay, let's educate!”. And I'm just, there just, you know, rapping away. And that's what I love about music is just like, it's the music itself, the beat told me how to express myself. And that's sort of the way I went with it.
And that brings me to my next question - were you writing to the beat from scratch or did you have some notes or existing lyrics?
Nuh - we had the beat first and then I wrote to the beat. I think, if anything, the arrangement changed only around the chorus, in which we went on Zoom and communicated out how to, you know, arrange that differently. This is with Powers - Powers Pleasant is the producer of this beat but um, yeah, it's the beat that came first, the vibe of the music came from the beat. And then I wrote away.
SUCH a vibe. Speaking of vibes, lots of vibes coming up on your An Afro Future Tour - you’ve already touched on technology and stuff, and the way we use it… is this part of the whole theme?
That's half of it. And the other half is just being able to again, with the same breath, express culture in different ways than what people are used to seeing, especially African culture. And it will definitely be more theatrical than what people are used to seeing at a Sampa the Great show. So, like Origin, the first part of Lane, I'm very into storytelling, and that's just an element that I haven't brought to a live show yet. You know, the live show starts, it's high energy, we rap and everybody's rapping and that's cool, but there's just never been this theatrical storytelling element to my live shows until now, and I feel like An Afro Future is the perfect opportunity for me to do that, while also creating a platform where we can showcase other African artists, we're doing things differently to what we're used to, ergo KYE, Mwanjé, C.FRIM, especially in their respective boxes that they're not staying to as well. So it's both a new platform and I hope we can do more Afro Futures with it not be at Vivid and just become a thing in itself. But yeah, definitely a different way that people are gonna see my music live and hopefully we just bring, you know, new music we've been working on as well and just sprinkle that *laughs*
And when you say we… you’re bringing the band out from Zambia!
100% bringing the band out. There's definitely music within these two years that I've been working on that is particularly known from home that I want to influence in my music as well and I think that this is the best opportunity, under the Afro Future banner that I can bring it so - definitely bringinging the Zambian band out.
Not saying like biting, but I’m just picturing like a George Clinton style mothership coming down and you all emerging sorta thing *laughs*
It’s gonna be a lot! And I love that about it. Because, again, we're not thinking with limits, you know, we're bringing all elements of art, there’s visual, there’s dance, you know, it's going to be everything in one.
And in terms of setlists, you mentioned you might tease some new stuff?
Definitely gonna play some new stuff. I've been getting a lot of messages from people saying, “I've seen you on tour and you're playing a song that I've never heard before. What is that?” I’m just like “don't worry, you'll hear it at Afro Future.Don't worry about it. We just tested it out. You’ll hear it at Afro Future. But yeah, I don't think I've ever performed songs that haven't been released this much - not to this magnitude, where you know, there’s like five or six songs within the set, but definitely gonna be showcasing that at Afro Future for sure.
Hmmmm…. Five or six songs that people haven’t heard before… might these end up on a recording sometime in the future that we will perhaps be able to hear? *laughs*
*laughs* I will say that's enough for an EP *laughs* Definitely going to… there's definitely a project, let’s say that, and it's just about how, you know, we want to put that out into the world and make it make sense because I'm just looking at it through a timeline perspective. This is two years worth of work and people are just gonna get it in one go so definitely we'll look at how to do it but there is a project in there and it will be released soon… *laughs* those are the two talking points.
Hey, we’ll take what we can get *laughs* So I was about to say it’s still the start of the year… it’s nearly May, jesus… regardless, is there anything else you’re getting up to for the rest of the year you’d like to share, even if it’s non-music related?
I mean, definitely venturing into the film realm, definitely trying to do more shorts and hopefully get into the big league soon. Film has always been an interest and visuals has always been an interest… I guess it's not non-music related *laughs* but definitely want to venture into that. And then most of the year will be touring, you know, getting back to live music, which is amazing. I mean this North American tour is successful. We all went through it and then nobody got COVID which was huge, it was like “Oh my god!” but hopefully things get better as well. But yeah, touring and film are on the list of to dos for for this year for sure.