Yes, that is an arm cannon
On her most popular track to date, 2016’s ‘1080p’, the rapper Sammus exorcizes her demons, spitting bars about her struggles. She’s trying to find a place in academia as a black woman, undergoing therapy, dealing with imposter syndrome and navigating a breakup. The song goes so deep into her pain, she tells me, that she often cries after performing it live. “I think what ended up happening was that I started to be, how can I put it, it’s almost like people would come to the shows to consume my sadness, if that makes any sense.”
She isn’t complaining as she says this, rather she’s trying to articulate the emotional toll this performance of sadness takes, and the consequences of performing her pain not just for herself but for her fans and the world. It’s got her thinking about what she wants to put out there, she tells me. More specifically it’s got her thinking about how she can translate the more joyful aspects of her life into deep, textured music that feels just as connected as the sad stuff.
“Folks will, right from jump, be ‘play ‘1080p’’, ‘Do the song about depression’, ‘Do the song about sadness’ or, you know, ‘I love that you talk about being in your feelings and what it means to be hurt.’” She laughs as she’s saying this. We are not having a miserable conversation. “Because there’s a natural audience for those kinds of songs, people feel those are the most meaningful, often. Folks love to see it. I think a lot of fans of music, myself included, will think the most beautiful songs their favourite artists have written have come from moments of deep hurt or deep tragedy. But with joy it can come across as corny, or not as emotionally deep as the other side of things. So I want to challenge myself to write songs that are of course grappling with the moment and the heaviness of some of the things we’re dealing with, but temper that with who I am. Because I’m not just a sad girl. I have tremendous joy.”
Thinking about her work in this nuanced, careful way is characteristic of Sammus’ style. She’s been labelled a ‘conscious rapper’, because of the intelligence and political inflections of her music. But this label, like others (she earned a reputation as what she calls a “nerd-geek rapper” after releasing the album ‘Another M’ in 2014, based on the video-game Metroid), she rejects. Her latest music, she explains, is about showcasing the complexity of who she is outside those labels. 2016’s ‘Pieces in Space’, her debut release on the Don Giovanni label, was the beginning of that journey, and the album she’s working on right now will extend her exploration and rejection of the identities she’s forced to wear by others. “I started to become acutely aware of how my work was being read and try to find interventions to that. So for example, a lot of folks would say you’re really lyrical, we love that you don’t talk about your body, you don’t talk about sexuality. Part of my intervention was trying to say ‘No.’ There are all these different aspects of who I am and I want to reflect that in my music. So I started making music that was about rejecting these ideas.”