Sampa the Great, African rapper down under

Born and raised in Africa, Sampa Tembo’s work is helping to bring issues of race to the fore in Australia, where she studied and now lives.

It was a cool Monday at the Maboneng Precinct in downtown Johannesburg. There was a sluggishness to the morning as street vendors unpacked their brightly coloured crafts and curiosities, readying them for passersbyers who insist on touching but seldom reach for their wallets.

Sampa the Great was fresh from her headlining performance at the MTN Bushfire Festival in eSwatini. On her Final Form tour, she was trying to catch up on sleep between touring commitments in her Maboneng hotel room. Despite this, she was open and lighthearted in conversation.

“It was our first performance in Africa on Africa Day and the coincidence of it all has been so beautiful,” she said, still revelling in the success of her Bushfire debut. “There is this big perception that I am an Australian artist, when really only my professional life started there.”

Born in Zambia as Sampa Tembo and raised mostly in Botswana, she moved to Australia to attend university. The Bushfire gig was Tembo’s first performance on African soil, with another two to follow in Lusaka, Zambia, and Johannesburg, South Africa.

“It’s good to be back home and it’s good to reintroduce myself. Not introduce, but reintroduce myself to the continent as an artist,” she said in anticipation of the remainder of the African leg of her tour.

27 May 2019: Sampa Tembo on the roof of the 12 Decades Johannesburg Art Hotel in downtown Joburg.

Love affair with hip-hop

Tembo’s love affair with hip-hop started in Botswana. In Huck magazine, she remembers how rapper Tupac’s Changes served as her hip-hop initiation, sparking her love for the genre.

“[Hip-hop] was different but familiar as well. I guess I saw the similarities with music that I listened to, where it sounded like people were speaking on top of a song, rather than singing. That is what rap is to me: poetry spoken over beats. I was hooked,” she recalled.

Years later, towards the end of her studying in Sydney, Tembo would try her hand at hip-hop. Despite having a musically oriented family – her father is a DJ, her mother a dancer – Tembo said it was difficult initially to pursue a career in music.

Instead of a performance degree, she chose to study sound engineering at the School of Audio Engineering Institute in Australia. “To even do the engineering degree was a fight in itself,” she laughed. “We got to a point [with my parents] where they were like, you’re going to do music, but you’re going to do the engineering bit. Which I get now, in retrospect. Your parents always want you to be able to take care of yourself when they are not there … But even as I was doing the degree, I was sure and adamant that I wanted to be on the other side of the mic.

“I remember going to a jazz and hip-hop night with my sister and I jumped on stage for the first time in Australia. I started rapping and was trying to see if people were feeling it and after a while, it seemed like they loved it,” she said.  

Musical journey

Tembo has released two mixtapes, The Great Mixtape in 2015 and Birds and the BEE9 in 2017. Musically, her first release has the kind of conversational candour reminiscent of American-born rapper Fatimah Nyeema Warner, better known as Noname. Like Warner, Tembo transitions her already mellifluous speaking voice into sweetly sung melodies. She intones atop soulful beats in Blessings with deliberate ease, floating through melodies like water.

Birds and the BEE9 follows a similar musical trajectory, with standouts such as Bye River and Black Girl Magik featuring Botswanan songstress Nicole Gumbe. It draws on jazz, spoken word, reggae and gospel and there is a coolness to Tembo’s delivery, an assured sense of self and poignancy to her rhythms.

While Tembo is relatively new to the Australian musical scene, she is no novice. The artist has played in venues such as Sydney’s Metro Theatre and opened for established international acts like American artists Kendrick Lamar and Joey Bada$$. She also worked on a collaborative project with British RnB singer Estelle called HERoes Act 2, which was part of the 2017 Red Bull Sound Select series. Looking to the future, Tembo hopes to release her debut album in June.

27 May 2019: ‘New Frame’ spoke to Sampa Tembo in Johannesburg, ahead of her performance at the The Artivist in Braamfontein.

Being black Down Under

On Bye River, Tembo raps:

An ocean almost carried you Down Under
re gonna have to find your tune Down Under
Shit really look Snow White down under
How you supposed to
Be black down under

This seven-minute hymnal has an assured sense of self enveloped in tightly coiled rhythms. As Caitlin Welsh of The Guardian writes, “It’s a question she asks not only of herself but of her fellow immigrants, the indigenous artists she collaborates with, and the white Australians who have been, to say the least, less than supportive of the art and welfare of people of colour in [Australia].”

Perched on the edge of a brocade rocking chair, Tembo describes what it is to be black down under:

“Being black down under is surviving. Being black down under is being able to exist without being acknowledged that you’re existing. Being black down under is varied, because there are various black people down under. There are the First Nations indigenous people of Australia, the African migrants in Australia, the Pacific Islanders … all these different people that are in this country where the First Nations of this country have not even been acknowledged.

“And so you’re in a place where the history of the country is already messed up. And this is towards black people, you know, people who look like… and so being black down under, it is a struggle,” she said.

The Australian Music Award

In some ways, Tembo planted her Birds and the BEE9 project in fertile ground. From the Black Lives matter movement in the United States to the various iterations of the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements at universities in South Africa, the discourse around race and decolonisation was a pre-eminent feature of 2017, and the cultural work that emanated from this time reflects these conversations.

In a rare instance, her work found resonance in political circles and the musical establishment. Tembo beat other shortlisted artists, including Australian artists Paul Kelly and Jen Cloher, to the annual A$30 000 (about R300 000) prize for best Australian album of 2017.

“When I first heard about the nominations, I think I was at home with my mom in Zambia and we saw the shortlist. It was a list of what, 20, 25 people? And I was like, huh, look Mom, there’s no way I’m winning this!” she laughs. “One, I’m not an Australian, and two, we talk about some heavy stuff in BEE9 and I don’t even think people like it.”

Race and rhythms

Australian Music Prize judge Mikey Cahill described Tembo’s album as having “an openness to the future”, saying she was a poet “using hip-hop and soul to connect and hit the ground gunning”.

“When I got it, I was like, how is this happening? Because BEE9 is an honest conversation about race in Australia. Which is usually put under the rug or we’re told to move on. There are actually wounds that you need to heal from and talk about, so I was not under the illusion that I would win it,” Tembo said.

“I think Australia very much wants to be part of that conversation, but sometimes also wants to be in front of that conversation. I think that [in giving me this award], that was a way of them saying, ‘Look, we are listening to what you are saying’”

Tembo seems proud to have her work feature as part of the arsenal of tools on race in Australia. With only two mixtapes to her name, Tembo’s greatness does not only appear as an addendum to her name but is also a testament to her talent.  

Tickets for Sampa the Great at The Artivist in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, on Friday 31 May are available through Quicket.

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