Sampa The Great: “You’re going to see vulnerability – that’s what makes for good music”

The Zambian artist is going 'Eve mode'

In the music video for ‘Lane’, the first taste of her new album, Sampa Tembo stands opposite the younger version of herself. This younger self, played by Keneiloe Moletsane, is precocious but unwieldy. At first, she pushes away the guidance and hugs from her older counterpart.

By the end of the song, the two have found common ground and lie asleep, embracing each other. It was her favourite experience of making a music video ever. “Just visually seeing me interact with my young self, and going back to when I dreamt of doing stuff like this, seeing it coming into fruition,” she says. “We’d cut and all just look at each other. It felt pretty special.”

In 2020, Sampa Tembo moved back home to Zambia during the forced downtime of the pandemic. She reassessed her career after a hectic few years of making a name for herself in Australia. This return home made her reflect on who she had been before leaving, and who she was now. 

“The younger Sampa was such a carefree girl,” she says. “I think when you’re met with your dreams, and the hurdles that come with your dreams, you put up a shell, because you don’t want the dream to die, or you may think you’re not strong enough to take on the challenge. I guess that simmered down some of the laughs the young Sampa would have had. She experienced life as it came. She is truly embracing where the older Sampa has taken things, but re-teaching the older Sampa how to achieve these things while including the fun and innocence that comes with creating art. That’s why the dream of being an artist was birthed.”

Sampa has just finished a dance rehearsal for her stage show, An AfroFuture, at the Sydney Opera House when we call. Her conversation is energetic, passionate and thoughtful, but she still apologises for potentially sounding knackered. “I was very much reminded that I’m not in shape by these dances,” she jokes. 

This is the third time the AfroFuture shows have been rescheduled, and it’s finally come together. An ambitious mix of hip hop, dance and spoken word, the show has given Sampa the Great a chance to document her ambition on a new scale. Sampa sees herself as a storyteller first and foremost, and this new project has allowed her to incorporate her early love of poetry. It’s also a scary opportunity to share new music in a way she hasn’t before.

“I love the vulnerability of poetry”, she tells me. “No flash, no music, no dancers, just you and the mic. I love how those moments are captured, and we all share the same emotions in that small space. Seeing people’s reactions live is always beautiful but always nerve-wracking, because it’s your art.” The show was inspired by another similarly ambitious project by Solange at the Opera House back in 2018. 

“At that time, I was living in Melbourne, and just remember a whole lot of people from Melbourne flying down, driving down, however they could get to the Opera House,” she says. “We all experienced that together. People of my community were hungry for something that’s different, something that relates to us to be done at a venue of that calibre.” 

Sampa shares this full-circle moment with her sister Mwanjé, who will also be performing. The two share a musical history, but Sampa can’t help but laugh at that history now being taken seriously. 

“We started as kids. We were in the backyard performing to my grandmother. We are so used to performing together, so when people ask, it’s such a laugh because we know where this came from. It’s so natural to us. It’s an on and off stage situation. We send each other inspirations. It’s just now that it’s being done professionally, which in a way makes it sillier.” 

Photography by Travys Owen

Sampa reflects on her childhood moments like this throughout our chat. She’s been in an introspective mode since her return home. 

“I realised that I’ve never been ‘Sampa the Great’ in my own country”, she says, with all the excitement and nerves that comes with it. “That was so wild to me, because that’s where the full inspiration comes from.”

Like many artists, the pandemic created an unplanned shift in her life – a shift she now sees as well worth it. “It forced me to sit and stay put. I think after an album like [her 2019 debut] The Return, where it was really focused on returning to your roots and grounding yourself, it was the perfect manifestation to be at home and getting to do that. I got to rediscover a lot of dreams and hopes that I’d had as a kid that I don’t think would have happened had people not supported me from home and outside of home, and just knowing the privilege to have the resources and support that I have had in Australia, I try to pay it forward with artists at home.”

With shows no longer an option, Sampa looked for other means of connecting with her audience. A series of recorded visual performances were the result. With her band back in Australia, her producer connected her with Zambian musicians she hadn’t met. 

“Now I’m there nervous because I haven’t seen them play,” she says, “and we play one virtual show together and they’re amazing. Had this not happened, I wouldn’t have met them, and we wouldn’t have seen how we perform together. I got to understand myself as Sampa the Great at home as a mentor to other people, because I still feel like I need my mentor. It filled the fears and the doubt of not truly being enough of an artist at home to step into my Zambianness. There are a lot of unfilled spaces in there just from not being here regularly, and this just brought it into a new beautiful direction.”

While The Return was an act of translating her influences for a new audience, her upcoming project goes straight to the source. She tells of how her new bandmates instantly connected with her love of Zamrock, having experienced the same music with her as children.

“This fusion that we call ‘hybrid music’ takes all our inspirations, even outside of Zambia, to bring forth music that we consider to be a new genre itself. It’s such a beautiful time and I don’t think that would have happened had I not relocated back home.”

After working with her band for NPR’s Tiny Desk series, Sampa caught the attention of legendary songwriter Angelique Kidjo, even being shouted out in Kidjo’s recent Grammy acceptance speech. “Even now I’m just like ‘how did that happen?’ That’s so wild. Mostly because she’s also a legend to my parents. Of all the things I’ve done, my mum has only been like ‘you got to work with Angélique Kidjo!?’ That’s the only thing that stands out to her. It’s beautiful to know that someone who inspired both our generations is someone I get to work with and pass the baton. She’s someone who opened doors for a woman like me – an African woman who’s kind of eccentric, and is interested in a lot of ways to express her art. That was Angélique for us.”

As well as collaborating with Kidjo and her Zambian bandmates, Sampa has formed close bonds with contemporaries like Denzel Curry, who has also dealt with being boxed in as an artist. In this collaborative period of her career, emotion sits at the centre.

“Whenever I step into the studio, whether it’s producer, artist, whatever, we start with ‘where are you in life? What’s going on with you? What are you feeling?’,” she explains. “That breaks it down into emotion, and what you’d like to talk about, what you’ve never expressed, and that seeps into the music.”

She made ‘Lane’ with Denzel Curry after being inspired by those conversations. “[‘Lane’] is an acknowledgment that I recognise my talent as much as the next person. I may get overlooked or not seen, but that’s okay for me because I know how dope this music is. I don’t consider myself underrated. I know I’m dope,” she says. “I had met Denzel around the same time, and those were the kinds of conversations he was having. ‘I’m not your typical hip hop artist, I love other things, I love rock.’ That was exactly me. Why should we only express ourselves in only one way?” 

That self-confidence was something that Sampa wasn’t used to being so forthright about, but the ethos of showing her full range carries through onto the new project. “This new album means full transparency,” she explains. “Everything that’s within me, every element of myself is now going to be shown publicly.” 

While The Return was written based on the struggles of being away from Zambia and her adopted home of Botswana, she’s found that actually being there has changed her perspective once again. 

“There are stakes when it comes to representing people who aren’t normally heard,” she says. “As dope and emancipating as that is, it’s also a kind of music that requires a certain emotional and mental capacity to express. There’s a freedom and joy that comes from being able to express freely without having to defend [your position].” 

Though Sampa isn’t ready to share the name or concept of her new record quite yet, she can discuss one key character within it: Eve. Eve is a confident version of herself that we’ve heard before on ‘Final Form’. Eve is at the centre of what she is trying to achieve in this new era. 

“I’ve always tried to stay away from Eve from the standpoint of an alter ego or a persona. I’d summarise my ‘Eve Mode’ as being that version of myself that I think of in future tense. ‘Man, I can’t wait for me to be that confident. Man, I can’t wait for me to be free in how I walk, my sensuality…’ That future sense of self is the mode that you activate in your present. It means ‘the first of’. This is the first time I’m going to show this side of myself.”

As well as self-assuredness, the new album is coloured by uncertainty and openness. 

“I’ve benefitted so much from being a kid who had a diary around me,” she explains. “I had no option but to write what I truly felt. There was no use writing something that wasn’t true, or trying to compensate for something because you’re just writing for yourself. 

“That expanded itself into a music journal. There are definitely songs on the album where I’m like, ‘Why did I say this? This is too honest’. You’re going to see my vulnerability. You’re going to see weaknesses. That’s what makes for good music. The humanness is what people relate to. I’ve never had a struggle in expressing that humanness.” 

Within that vulnerability is a fear that the dreams of making music could have ended with the pandemic – something that now looks brighter. “I’m super glad that I’m still making music, and that people are connecting to it from all different places,” she says. “Yes, I am a Zambian, born in Zambia, raised in Botswana, but what a beautiful testament to music as a language that it has connected to people from everywhere.”