“Imagine what you’d never be and put it next to your name,” African-born rapper Sampa Tembo says, explaining her moniker Sampa The Great. From Notorious B.I.G. to Joey Bada$$ rap-names have always been about big noting yourself or at least displaying your ambition at the forefront but for Sampa it seems that isn’t the case despite what her name may say.
Even if Sampa’s debut mixtape is titled The Great Mixtape, it’s not a chest-puff like her hip-hop genre-labelling would have you believe. “I’m great, you’re great, we’re all great,” she says sipping on an orange juice as we meet on the main street of Newtown - shy but enthusiastic. “It took a minute for me not to be shy and believe in myself and do this. For me it’s about inspiring people and even, selfishly, being the best me I can be.”
“We should all put the great after our names,” she suggests ending her explanation of how she came up with Sampa The Great. It’s not a bad idea but surely Great is an easier last name to adopt when you can rap like Sampa can. Growing up in Botswana and Zambia, she’s been surrounded by music all her life and was introduced to hip-hop when she was 8. While she insists she never intended to pursue a career of hip-hop it’s happened and it’s working. Her debut mixtape is a celebration of her heritage, femininity and life’s little beauties wrapped in jazz-infused beats and chopped ‘n screwed samples.
Sampa has been in Australia for two years now studying music engineering at SAE but life has taken her in a slightly different direction to what she anticipated. “I got on the stage at Jazz And Hip-Hop I felt like I could do it,” she says depicting the first time she rapped in public in Australia. Jazz and Hip-Hop is a weekly open freestyle session in Newtown and was the place she first collided with her now producer Godriguez. The pair clicked instantly with Sampa admiring his jazz and soul-infused beats that were “different,” in her words. They immediately opened a creative tap that is still flowing, unlocking a partnership that’s sometimes rare to find for even the most established artists.
Sampa comes from a musical family. Her brother plays the guitar, her sister sings and her whole family plays music for the joy of it. She grew up with folk music, Zambian music and afro-beats but something really clicked when she heard hip-hop for the first time. While her older cousin was staying with her family she walked into his room to ask him something. “I forgot what I walked in the room for as soon as I heard it and said, “what is this?” From then on, it’s been like this is something new,” she says. The song was Tupac’s Changes.
From there it took a few years for her to completely invest in music because she was so surrounded by others genres but eventually it worked its way into her everyday life. “In primary school there was a boy rap group and they did a performance which was so cool to me,” she says after telling of how everyone at school was listening to hip-hop. “I asked “can I join?” and they said, “no you’re a girl you can’t rap”.” For many that would’ve been the end of it, but Sampa wasn’t that kind of kid. “From then it was like, “no”,” she says. She was the kind of kid that followed everyone's statements with “why” and it was that attitude that made her question why females couldn’t do it.
That, and Lauryn Hill. The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill has played a huge part in Sampa’s life and she even gets a name check on mixtape track Dutch Spring. “Listening to Lauryn Hill it was like hah females can rap,” Sampa says recalling her eureka moment. “For me, she wasn’t good for a female rapper, she was good for a rapper period. Male rappers couldn’t contend with her.”
Now Sampa is a rapper. Not a female rapper. A rapper. “If I can find them on Facebook I’m going to send it to them and be like “hah, who’s rapping now”,” Sampa jokes about sending her music to the boys who said she couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be far out to bet that they couldn’t match Sampa’s skill right now.
If anyone needed anymore proof that females can rap (surely, you don’t), The Great Mixtape is that. Its hallmark track F E M A L E celebrates “big-balled women,” centring a chant around the title that you can only imagine will be echoed by thousands once Sampa starts to play to large audiences. There’s a certain pride in the way she raps about it, celebrating women in general and even more specifically women from where she’s grown-up. “The women in my village only carry five stars,” she spits on F E M A L E.
The Great Mixtape is full of heavy subjects - WEOO talks about inner-strength, Revolution centres around race sampling Malcolm X among others while Class Trip reflects on being in control of your own reality. Still the whole mixtape is peppered with laughter and errs further on the side of joy than seriousness. “It’s art - it’s supposed to be a fun, beautiful experience to make it,” she says.
It’s a similar notion that binds Kendrick Lamar’s most recent masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s a deeply political and social record but it’s driven by perky funk riffs and free-flowing tempos. “This is art and I’m going to show you how deep it can go,” Sampa says taking the perspective of Lamar himself before further reflecting on the record, “It was creative and there was so much presence in each song.” Despite all the intricate production and all the features, Lamar’s voice on To Pimp A Butterfly is the record’s strongest force and it’s the same when it comes to Sampa’s music.
While nearly every point of the conversation with Sampa comes back to Lamar, Chance The Rapper is the artist she attributes her ability to accept imperfections to. “Sometime it gets too polished and too hard. The fun bit is the best part of it all,” she says talking on Chance’s undeniably joyful Acid Rap.
“I’ll be very analytical about things but I can still joke about things.”
In person, Sampa is a joker. She’s got an infectious laugh and she flicks between voices throughout conversation as impressively as Nicki Minaj did on Kanye’s Monster. “It would be too perfect or polished if there was no laughing or coughing,” she says of the foliage that contributes largely to everyone of her songs overall atmosphere.
Next up, Sampa is taking that atmosphere and putting it into a live show. She’s got two headline shows next month (which just happen to be Cool Accidents Single Club shows), a plethora of festival bookings like Melbourne’s Sugar Mountain and a support slot for Thundercat while he’s here in February. For next month's shows Sampa is bringing along an eight-piece band which is almost unheard of for a new artist.
She’s got guitar, keys, drums, bass and three back-up vocalists all behind her ready to bring the mixtape to life. “I’m surprised people are letting us do it,” she jokes but then defends it saying, “It really brings more to the performance rather than a DJ set.” It seems when she steps on stage that’s when she really wears her “great” hat. “I’m shy when we’re sitting and talking but never on stage,” she says. “Where I’m from we’re performers.”
With so many live shows, Sampa’s name is going to spread like wildfire over the next few months but she seems unphased even if there’s some negativity that comes with that. ”If there was negative I’d think, “cool that’s your interpretation of it,” she says with an unbelievably level head.
When it comes down to it she’s doing it because she loves doing it and for no other reason. “You can’t be too strict on yourself - it’s art,” she says before letting out a bellowing laugh. She contains herself almost as if she knows she’s about to say something poignant.
“There are many beautiful things to laugh about in life.”
-sweet .gif, pics and words by the interns' Sam Murphy and Bianca Bosso
Catch Sampa live in action at the next Cool Accidents Single Club shows below and listen to her stellar debut mixtape HERE