FEATURE: Spotlight: Sampa the Great





PHOTO CREDIT: Priitt Siimon 

Sampa the Great


I keeping saying how this year is a hot one…

 IMAGE CREDIT: Sampa the Great

for music and, lo and behold, that sense of desire and confidence is not running dry! I am still unsure regarding my albums of the year so far but, when it comes to singles, there is no doubt: the leader is Sampa the Great with her single, Final Form. If you have not heard the song then you really need to! It is a swaggering, swivelling and fiery declaration that gets right into the brain and will not shift. I first encountered the song a few weeks back and, upon the first listen, I was blown away. It is one of the most intense and memorable songs I have heard in years and I am still not bored of it – despite the fact I have been playing it for ages! You get these songs that arrive out of nowhere and sort of do what they need to do when you need them, if you see what I mean. Reacting to the Final Form song/video, ABC described it thus:

 “First up, the beat is incredible, flipping 'Stay Away From Me' by The Sylvers (a '70s funk track once sampled by Ghostface Killah). Producer Silentjay knows it's hot, that's why he gives it a full 40 seconds breathing room in anticipation of Sampa's boss bars.

Sharp and stylish, she sounds fierce ('Nah knock the walls off/F**k the whole key we gonna hinge the whole door off'), riffs on her 'Black Power!' identity and rising status ('24 years/fantastic/young veteran/new classic'), and even slips in a classic pop culture reference to The Matrix.

Tying the whole package together is the music video. Directed by Sanjay De Silva, it takes the tour de force cultural aesthetic of a Beyoncé or Rosalía video and uses it showcase Sampa's cultural heritage in a vibrant, visceral way. Shot between Zambia and Botswana, where Sampa was born and raised ("by a Bemba mother and Tumbuku father") it draws connections between the African artistry of the past and present day, as Nyau dancers bust moves in the marketplace and the streets.

But it's the spirit of 'Final Form' that really matters most. Sampa says the song "is about expanding yourself and calling out any negativity towards that growth process". She's only four years into her career but been raved about and accomplished so much, but she's still probably got untapped reservoirs of potential”.

There is talk that a Sampa the Great album is not too far away. I think it would send 2019 over the top regarding female power because, if the songs are anywhere near as good as Final Form, it will rival the best of 2019! Her last album, Birds and the BEE9, was released in 2017 and it is a truly stunning work. It is hard to describe where the music comes from, in terms of inspiration, but, as detailed on her Bandcamp account, this is the best way to view Sampa the Great and that album:

Born in Zambia, raised in Botswana, her upbringing continues to bear an influence on her music. Moving to Australia four years ago, the connections she made there have propelled her to where she now stands. Living in Sydney when she first arrived, it was the shock of losing a close friend which prompted her to take the leap to try to become an artist. Going to the city’s weekly Jazz Hip-Hop Freestyle sessions for the first time, she went onstage to join the band and continued to go there each week, building up a network of likeminded music heads.

"Birds And The BEE9" arrives after a mixtape and series of EPs and singles which have attracted an increasing swell of support in Australia and beyond. Meeting through that freestyle night, it was with producer Dave Rodriguez (Godriguez) that she made 2015’s “The Great Mixtape”. She linked up with Godriguez again for the 'Blue Boss' single, followed by 2016’s "Heroes Act 2" which she worked on with Estelle and Rahki as part of a project with Red Bull Sound Select.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Expanding the scope of her collaborators for this release also meant honing her idea of what she wants to create. “I’ve only been doing this for two years professionally,” she says. "It was important for me as things continued to grow to take a little time to step back from everything and say, ‘This is what I want to do with my music.’ Music is the way I express myself, the way I reflect on life, reflect on the things that I’ve experienced." 

A trio of different producers have helped her realise her vision for ‘BBEE9'. First up, there’s Kwes Darko who’s put out his own critically-lauded LPs for Black Acre and R&S. There’s Justin Smith (aka Sensible J), who is the producer and drummer for Melbourne’s much-touted REMI. And finally, there’s Alejandro ‘JJ' Abapo (aka Silentjay), another Melbourne-based producer who’s put out in-demand EPs for Rhythm Section and been in the band for Australian trailblazers Hiatus Kaiyote.

This new mixtape showcases the qualities which were already evident in those first releases. Boasting an unhurried, assured delivery, it’s the perfect foil for a self-aware, spiritually minded perspective. In 'Can I Get A Key', for instance, she shines as both a singer and MC while bemoaning the gatekeepers who maintain the rarefied, exclusive nature of the art world. Set against a backdrop of rumbling sub-bass, she sings a defiant chorus – in harmony with an earworm-like, softly-played sax refrain – before diving into ridiculous, tongue-twisting lyricism set down with her customary offhand delivery.

The reaction to Birds and the BEE9 was pretty positive and, with new work in the world, there will be many asking when the next album is due. We must be patient but, when thinking about Sampa the Great’s blends, one can definitely hear her upbringing and roots running through every note; the backbone that gives her songs such fizz, depth and personality. It is wonderful hearing her music unfold because, not only do you get that sonic hit but there are scents, emotions and touches that take you into her world.

Before you leap ahead and see where Sampa the Great is going, investigate her older work and you can see how she has evolved and what she has accomplished through the years. If we want to get a full impression of Sampa the Great and how she got into music, there are some great interviews out there. This one from Huck last year is especially illustrating and got to the roots of the songwriter:

Do you remember your first introduction to hip hop?
I went upstairs to my cousin’s bedroom and he was playing ‘Changes’ by Tupac. Everything stopped. It sounded like poetry and music together. Then ‘Until The End Of Time’ played and I was like, ‘Woah… what is this?’

Why do you think it resonated so much?
It was different but familiar as well. I guess I saw the similarities with music that I listened to, where it sounded like people were speaking on top of a song, rather than singing. That is what rap is to me: poetry spoken over beats. I was hooked.

When it comes to plotting your journey as an artist, which moments really stick out for you?
My parents were visiting and we were showing my mum a video of me performing. Later, when everyone has gone to sleep, I come out of my bedroom to get some water and walk into the kitchen… My mum is sitting there alone, in the dark, and all you hear is her cheering. I was like, ‘Mum, what are you doing?’ and she just stares at me, looks back at the TV screen and puts her arm by her cheek”.

This year is busy with quality and promise but one cannot discount Sampa the Great. I think she has the promise to be a future icon and I think she can guide and influence other artists. Not only is her recorded music a blend of her upbringing, musical tastes and what is happening around her; her live sets brings details and movements from the music that blow you away. If you can see Sampa the Great in concert then go and catch her as she is a mesmeric proposition! In terms of what she can do in the live arena, she is someone you’ll certainly want to go and see. I have been looking at a review from The Guardian from last year that encapsulates what defines Sampa the Great: 

 “Her dense, dark flow has as much in common with MF Doom and Kendrick Lamar as Ms Lauryn Hill, who she’s most often compared to. She scrunches her mouth up so the words curl out in a crimped, rhotic drawl over the glimmering arrangement drenched in neo-soul and funk. Her inflections and phrasing are deliciously angular, her consonants crisp and sticky at the edges like honey toast, her voice slipping between crinkled spoken-word tumble and fluttering, breathy soul.

The effect of the stage set-up in the Metro is both welcoming and regal. Song titles, subtle animations and stars are projected on the wall beside the stage, adding a theatrical edge, and warm keyboards drift and twinkle between songs, never quite fading away. Her stage presence is unassuming but effortlessly charismatic. She beats her chest a little with a fist as the crowd roars, after a superhuman run of rapid-fire bars that pushes past where most mortals would need a breath; she raises a finger deliberately to point to her skin while talking about wanting to make her little sister feel beautiful”.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Spotlighting Sampa the Great makes me happy for a number of reasons. For a start, she is based in Melbourne and I rarely get a chance to back any Australian artist – it is a rare delight I want to experience more. Also, with Final Form out, there is this tasty and addictive song that suggests something big is about to arrive. Sampa the Great is that rare combination of intriguing songwriter, icon-in-the-making artist and a truly original live performer. Throw into the mix the fact she is still relatively under the radar and you believe that the next couple of years are key – where she will carve up the music world and put out some utterly wonderful albums. Spend some time her way and check out what she has put out already because, very soon, another album is due. I cannot wait because, in a music world that is filling up with greatness and surprise, Sampa is occupying a space all of her own. I keep banging on about Final Form but I really cannot overstate its power and effect. It is a song that defines 2019 and is a step up from Sampa the Great. The way she weaves sounds and presents these thoughtful, culture-blending lyrics; the might and nuance in her voice and the spellbinding effect she has. Some of you might be unaware of her place and voice but, after a few short minutes, it is clear why Sampa the Great is truly worthy…

OF her name!  


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