2019 has already started off with a bang for Zambian born and Botswana raised hip-hop and spiritual neo-soul artist Sampa Tembo, aka Sampa The Great.
She got to meet her idol, Lauryn Hill, while supporting Hill on the Australian leg of her Ms Lauryn Hill 20th anniversary tour, featured on Triple J’s Like A Version with Denzel Curry and performed at Victoria’s Grampians Music Festival. She’s also currently finalising her first full length album and preparing for a tour later in 2019.
This week, Sampa has come up to Sydney from her home in Melbourne to perform at Parramasala this weekend, a festival that celebrates the vibrant cross-section of cultures in Sydney.
We spoke to the well-known, wise and whole-hearted artist about the upcoming festival, what her socially-aware music means to her, how she got to where she is today and advice for artists hoping for their big break.
BYO: What does performing at Parramasala Festival mean to you?
Sampa: Australia is a very multicultural country, and I feel like a festival that showcases all the cultures in Australia is very needed because we don't see it in the limelight. It's something that's said but we don't really see represented.
BYO: You consider yourself a poet. What does that mean to you? And what would you say the difference is between being a poet and a hip-hop artist?
Sampa: It’s not a huge difference. In terms of being able to articulate your emotions and express words, both of them do that, poetry and rap. One is to music and one is not. In poetry, you don't have to have an end rhyme. Whereas with hip-hop, the beauty is being able to articulate your emotions and making it rhyme and making it go to rhythm. They're both branches of the same family to be honest.
The reason I describe myself as a poet is because that’s how I started first. The use of words and how simple word can have so much power was very intriguing to me, so poetry was my first route. Then came hip-hop and rap, and listening to Tupac who put both of those worlds together for me.
BYO: The meaning of hip-hop is changing nowadays, we're seeing a lot of genre-bending artists, what would you say your role in hip-hop is?
Sampa: Hip-hop is a culture, it includes both men and women and is very universal. Homage to the root of hip-hop is always given, but I feel like I add to how hip-hop can transcend. I'm an African and [the story of] how hip-hop reached my shores and my culture’s [relationship] to hip-hop as a whole is what I can bring to the table.
BYO: What is your purpose when writing music?
Sampa: Mostly to share life experiences, and if my experience as a black woman is what is written, then obviously it's going to be political. But most of my music is life experiences, most of it is spiritual. I delve into finding your purpose [as a human] which is something we all strive to do. Love, greed, anger, everything you express as a human being is in the music. It's truly an expression of me trying to find myself and figure out why I'm here, and everything that comes with that is my experience as a black woman.
BYO: Could you break down your process of how you got to where you are today and do you have any advice to others who are hoping for their big break?
Sampa: One, be a fan of the actual music, two, surround yourself with people who constantly help your musicality grow and three, be true to what your music is. Learn a bit about how to grow your music, your business. We get very afraid of that because it’s a big scary world and we think only other people will be able to do it. But it’s your music, you're allowed to make it grow, you're allowed to have it feed you.
My first performance in Australia was at a jazz and hip-hop freestyle session, and I remember being so scared to just jump on the stage and just go for it. And this is me as a student flying all the way from Botswana. I remember thinking before I went to that session that if I really want to do this artistry, I should be in an uncomfortable position, in terms of me being shy. We don't want to be uncomfortable, we like what's familiar to us, and we tend to stay in our own bubble. And jumping out of that bubble is what helped me initially.
People resonated with my music. They started sharing it to their friends, who started sharing it to their friends and it grew. Even for me now, knowing that when I came to Australia, I was a student, I was going to drop a mixtape and I was going to go home - it still shocks me how it all happened.
BYO: You’ve talked in previous interviews about imposter syndrome, and how prevalent it can be in women, have you overcome this?
Sampa: Yeah! Very much so. I understand where it comes from and for me, it stems from things that I've never done before. I’m the first in my family to pursue music as a career and with that came, ‘I don't know whether I'm good at this, I've never done this before, standing in this room of people who have done it, I don't feel quite as qualified.’ [Overcoming] that just goes back to learning, learning about yourself, learning about the music you like, that doesn't have to be a bunch of books, just your life experiences. The confidence I get from my family, my extended family, allows me to grow. There are some moments where it does pop up, and it’s usually when you're in a room and don't know what’s going on around you, but that should never be a reason for you to not be in the space. It really starts with you and how you value yourself, how you see yourself, because if you do not feel enough in there, then you will not feel enough anywhere.
BYO: What has been your proudest moment to date in your career?
Sampa: Definitely the Lauryn Hill support. I was really proud of the journey. The 360 of being this little girl coming up to a bunch of guys and being like ‘Wanna see me rap?’ and the guys saying, ‘you can’t rap, you're a girl.’ Seeing Lauryn and then meeting her in person and her saying ‘you're amazing’, that is my proudest moment.
You can check out Sampa’s latest single, Energy, since her Australian Music Prize winning mixtape Birds And The BEE9 below: