SAMPA The Great remembers the first time she was refused the space to express herself. She’d written her first rap lyrics — about the frustrations of being the middle child in her family — as nine-year-old Sampa Tembo, in the parking lot where her father collected her from school. But it was at high school that she realised if she wanted a life in music, she’d have to claim that space herself.
‘There was a group of boys doing a rap performance,’ she recalls, ‘and I thought, “This is so cool, I want to be a part of this.” And they were like, yeah, you definitely can’t do this because you’re a girl. I was so confused: it’s like, there’s no way someone can have this much control over something you love and want to do! I also didn’t understand because I saw Lauryn [Hill] do it and she was amazing. After that, I gave myself permission to perform and knew I wanted to be an artist, but I hadn’t said it out loud. It was kind of like a secret revelation to myself.’
The unfolding of that secret took a circuitous route. Sampa, who was born in Zambia and raised in Botswana, moved to California when she was 18. Then, after returning home, she followed her sister, a journalist, to Australia in 2015. She settled in Sydney and completed a degree in audio engineering before moving to Melbourne, where she lives now. While she was studying, two events galvanised Sampa’s desire to make music herself. One was recording a classmate rapping and realising she was far better than he was. The other was the death of a friend in Botswana.
‘Jordan was doing music and it was such a shock to all of us who went to high school with him,’ she says of that loss, ‘because he was doing something that he loved. The realisation that life is really short and the fear of not going for what I wanted pushed me to be like, you know what? Let’s go and find a music outlet and actually search for our future.’ Soon after, Sampa went to a jazz and hip-hop freestyle session in Sydney where, after being literally pushed onstage, she rapped for the first time.
Now, she has three albums under her belt. Last year’s The Return set heavyweight themes — identity, heritage, belonging and displacement — to a soundtrack that mixed hip-hop with R&B, funk, Afro fusion and dreamy psychedelic soul, adding the odd tender love song. But Sampa’s had to battle — both against her own instincts and a hidebound Australian music industry — to make her voice count. ‘If you step into an industry where a lot of people don’t look like you,’ she explains, ‘you walk into the place asking for permission to sit in the room and that’s something I’ve had to learn not to do. But, to step into a room and say, “This is who I am” instead of making sure everyone else is comfortable. And that’s just in life in general, with people who are not seen as the majority.’
Her second LP, 2017’s Birds And The BEE9, won the Australian Music Prize for best album but Sampa found herself being ‘turned into the token of the group of people who are like you’, which for a time blocked her creativity. So if she could rewind to smooth out her early career path, would she? ‘I’m super content with how far my journey has brought me and where it’s brought me to,’ she says. ‘No, I wouldn’t change it.’
■ Sampa The Great plays Beat Horizon at Brixton Academy, London tomorrow, and touring, sampathegreat.com