Spotlight On: Sampa the Great | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Spotlight On: Sampa the Great

Music Editor Thom Dent tells us why Sampa the Great lives up to her name and we should be keeping an eye out for her impending conquest of hip-hop

Sampa Tembo is nothing if not unique. Hailing originally from Zambia, she was raised in Botswana and moved out to Australia when she was 22 – now based in Sydney, Sampa has set about making music that encapsulates the diverse influences that have formed her. It is a sound that soars, that sings with the voice of southern Africa and the swagger of western hip-hop, as indebted to Thandiswa Mazwai as it is to Lauryn Hill. 

Her latest mixtape, Birds And The Bee9, was released just last week, but it can already stake a claim to being one of the best releases of the year. In a genre fully invested in the trap phenomenon to the extent that even Kendrick Lamar, previously hailed as the great saviour of jazz rap, is releasing tracks like ‘Element’, Sampa the Great is carving out a niche for herself that makes her all the more essential to modern hip-hop. 

Sampa’s sound sings with the voice of southern Africa and the swagger of western hip-hop, as indebted to Thandiswa Mazwai as it is to Lauryn Hill

You are fairly likely to have already heard some of Sampa’s music – her biggest hit, ‘Blue Boss’, has over 5 million plays on Spotify thanks to the airplay it received (in the U.K. at least) from Annie Mac on Radio 1. And while the pool of female afro-Australian rappers is, admittedly, relatively small, Tembo is already one of its biggest players. Although her first mixtape, The Great Mixtape, appeared back in 2015, Sampa has made a name for herself across the last couple of years with a string of excellent singles, such as the dub-groover ‘24’ and the fleeting ‘Blessings’, a superb soul-tinted jazz rap track. Now well-established as one of the most exciting up-and-coming rappers in the world, the young Aussie is flying the flag not simply for African and Australian music, but is speaking out as a notable female voice amidst the male-dominated hip-hop scene. 

The young Aussie is flying the flag not simply for African and Australian music, but is speaking out as a notable female voice amidst the male-dominated hip-hop scene

Sampa claims Lauryn Hill to be ‘the woman that got me up on stage,’ and it is obvious to anybody who has seen her live or listened to one of her tapes that Tembo is putting in the graft to become the successor to Hill’s indomitable throne. With a background as a slam poet, Sampa’s lyrics are nuanced, clever and tremendously provocative – take some of the political punches on ‘Blue Boss’ for example: ‘It’s time for you to see / That this is democracy / If the rich are getting richer boy how poor we gonna be.’ But at her best, Sampa’s poetry is also remarkably anthemic: 2015 track ‘F E M A L E’ opens on the chant-along verse ‘Big bold women, round of applause / Get-my-goals women, round of applause,’ a spoken-word celebration of femininity that is as empowering as it is catchy. 

Birds And The Bee9 is Sampa’s softest and best work to date. Texturally, it finds the perfect blend of her African roots and western inspirations (I am not going to entertain a debate about Australia’s status as a western nation, but hopefully you catch my drift), beginning with the gorgeous, choral ‘Healing’ and peaking with the record’s wonderful centrepiece, the seven-minute odyssey ‘Bye River’. It’s a unique record that perfectly encapsulates and ascertains Sampa’s voice – from the assertive ‘Protect Your Queen’ to ‘I Am Me’, a rhythmic exercise in self-love that rivals Loyle Carner’s ‘Sun Of Jean’ as the most uplifting hip-hop track of the year. It’s a tremendous record, a poetic statement of intent from the woman who unashamedly calls herself ‘Great’. 

The tremendous Birds and the Bee9 ascertains Sampa’s voice; a poetic statement of intent from the woman who unashamedly calls herself ‘Great’

While Birds And The Bee9 should by any measure be the project that kick-starts her career, Sampa’s talent has certainly not gone unnoticed so far. Already this year she has earned support slots for hip-hop heavyweights Kendrick Lamar and Joey Bada$$, the latter taking her to the Birmingham O2 Institute at the end of last month. She returned to Brum in her own right a couple of weeks later, headlining an intimate show at The Hare and Hounds the night before the release of Birds And The Bee9. Her live show is not yet spectacular, naturally, yet the even the simple setup of Sampa and her selector is powerful, particularly in such a small venue. Although she cannot stand at more than 5’5” tall, Tembo cuts a powerful figure on stage, holding the microphone like it was born in her hand and carrying herself with a grace and swagger that could command any stage in the world. 

Seeing Sampa live carries the same potency that must have been felt at the 1976 Sex Pistols gig in Lesser Hall, or at one of the rap battles that Eminem was frequenting in the late nineties

Seeing Sampa live at this stage in her career feels special. It carries the same potency that must have been felt at the 1976 Sex Pistols gig in Lesser Hall, or at one of the rap battles that Eminem was frequenting in the late nineties. You get the same impression listening to her music – it has the sound of endless potential, and feels like you are hearing the burgeoning of one of the next musical phenomena. Sampa the Great, indeed. 

I like music and writing. You can see why I'm here. (@thomdent)



Published

20th November 2017 at 10:00 am

Last Updated

20th November 2017 at 11:42 am



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