On Friday Sampa Tembo, the rapper-singer-songwriter better known as Sampa The Great, will release her debut studio album, The Return — one of the year’s most arresting statements of purpose. Tembo’s previous two releases, The Great Mixtape and the critical hit Birds and the BEE9, were formidable early works, flowing effortlessly within intimate rap, spoken word and singing, in agile bursts amidst playful production. Now, after co-signs from Kendrick Lamar and childhood idol Lauryn Hill, Tembo has located her final form. (For now.)
Flowing between funk, soul, R&B, hip-hop and spoken word, traditional folk chants and singing, and including guest appearances from her mother and sister, The Return is a portal into the psyche of an African artist who has traveled the world in search of herself. The album emanates joy, shifting on its axis with each voicemail interlude, allowing the listener to delve deeper into the heritage it celebrates.
NPR Music spoke to Sampa The Great while she was in London, a few weeks after her performance at Glastonbury.
NPR Music: What was your childhood like? At what point were you aware of a creative leaning?
Sampa The Great: I was born in Zambia, but I was raised in Botswana, which is the country right next to Zambia. My dad got a job offer [as an insurance broker] … better opportunity, better way of life, better school opportunity for us. At age 18, I decided to get out of Africa and see what the world is like outside of what I have grown up around. It was my best friend who said we should do directing and music at this school in San Francisco [at Academy of the Art University] … It was never something you could do professionally, because nobody in our family had done it professionally. [So] my friend was egging me on to do all this creative stuff.
Socially, America was intense for me … It was a beautiful place, but it was also a bit of a culture shock. It was the first place I’m going to outside of my home, my bubble, and seeing how the world reacts to who an African is. Looking back in retrospect, that’s the one time I had in my life that I didn’t really write or make music.
I started going through and redefining who I thought I was versus who [Africans] actually are in the world, and I think that’s where the character of who Sampa The Great, Sampa Tembo, is today was born. I learnt more about myself as an African through my travels outside of Africa than in Africa.
How do you think the time in San Francisco shaped you? What was it about the city?
I was in two places. I was in San Francisco and I was in Glendale [California].
San Francisco was very open, very expressive … it forced me to express myself and say who I really wanted to be. San Francisco wasn’t negative to me, it was the beginning of me being like ‘I actually have to truly express what I want to be.’
Glendale was this white county. I was greeted with racism. It shook me to the core, all that racism — and the normalization of it is what made it even worse. I remember feeling like I was in a cage in America.
You mentioned evolving from a version of yourself through these experiences into something greater, feeling some sort of assurance with who you are which has translated itself into this latest record.
That was when I was going through the whole reconstruction of what my identity was. I was going from the Sampa who didn’t really have the voice to say, ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’ I knew I wanted to do it — [but] didn’t have the confidence in who I was or where I was from yet. At this time, it wasn’t even cool to flex where you were from — this is the pre-Wakanda days. This is the ‘you African go back to Africa’ days.
How did you find yourself building a career in Australia?
The next step was to go back home. [Laughs] It was going back to a place where people actually want me. It was my sister who actually said, ‘Then aren’t you inhibiting yourself from growing because you’re allowing people to say we don’t want you here?’ I didn’t have any way to refute that. She was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it in Australia,’ and I was like, ‘Where is that.’ I know no one there. No friends there. No family there. And she was like, ‘We’re going to Australia and finish our degree’ … I said, ‘Okay, I’ll go with you.’
[So] out of the blue, I went to Australia. Compromising with what I actually wanted to do — with sound engineering — instead of actually being an artist. Went to Sydney. Got my degree.
I moved around there, too, and I think that’s why the album is really important, because I’ve had many homes. As a student, you’re living in homes that are other peoples homes as well. The sense of home just lessens … Home was constantly moving for me. I never had a place that was like this is home — let me now start establishing that as my own, not my parents, or my aunties or my uncles or cousins or anything like that.
At the same time, I lost my friend, Jordan, in Botswana. He had passed away and he was doing music. I was 21 and I remember thinking, ‘Jeez, he had the courage to actually do music and he passed away. I’m too scared to even say that I want to do music.’ That shook my core.
How did you find Australia, initially?
As much as [it] seems to be a welcoming place, it isn’t. They will welcome you if you bring money to the economy, and that’s what international students are; they place us in the city far away from the knowledge of anything else. Even in my research of Australia, there wasn’t any information about First Nations people. I didn’t really find a community until I went to Melbourne.
But in Sydney, I went to this jazz and hip-hop freestyle session. I just remember jumping on stage and people responded well. And I thought okay, maybe this is a thing, because people are finding it dope. My little accent isn’t getting in the way of it … I continued going every Friday and meeting new artists, like ‘Come over, we’ll make music.’ And continuously making music and create our little group of musicians there … That slowly grew, until me and [producer] Godriguez made our mixtape [The Great Mixtape]. We made that while I was still in school and finishing my last year — the same day school was done and I was supposed to get my degree is the same day the mixtape was released.
I was still at a baby level knowing my place — “my place” — as a black person in Australia, and how the industry is actually set up, and how the country is actually set up. I had no idea.
What was your first realization…
… that something was different? I actually got into this incident in — I was on the train with a friend, there was a man behind me, old white guy. We exchanged looks for a few, and then there was the spit that happened. Spit on my back. At the time, I was already like, ‘I don’t want to be in Australia anymore.’
But after I released [The Great Mixtape], I’m having all these little kids come up to me and I started feeling this little weight on me to be this black representative of the place that I’m still learning myself, and that pressure was enormous. There was too much weight to be this thing and I just can’t — I can’t do it. This to me was a black artist who’s usually clamped together with other black artists in Australia. They don’t allow an individual black artist to just be themselves. And when that black artist does start rising, then it’s a huge cling … My Zambian-ness, or my African-ness, meant nothing to you because you wanted to claim this thing as [being] Australian … and it’s okay to say that I’m based — you don’t lose anything because my first festivals happened there, I started my professional career there. That is not a loss. This thing to claim a person, claim a being, is very racist.
What about the development your follow-up, Birds and the BEE9?
So, I met this amazing queen [in Melbourne, where Sampa relocated after Sydney]. She had a collective, where you sing, rap, draw, paint, whatever — it created this space that allowed me to feel like I could express my frustrations as a black artist, which didn’t really happen in Sydney for me for some reason.
I knew it would be a journey, two-three-four years, I’m going to have to stay in this motherf*****, [so] I might as well learn how to navigate it. And I knew that Melbourne would’ve been that place for me where I could actually find a community of my own.
Which informed BB9?
BB9 was the way for me to say this is how I sound like as an artist, this is who I am musically. From this, I will grow. I can express myself through singing, rap, poetry … I can express myself as a full human being on this project. That was the first project that I actually got to do that and on top of that, identity and navigating Australia, and being able to call out — I really thought I was going to get in trouble. Australia was the first place where I felt, ‘Hmm, maybe I won’t say this because I won’t get booked for it.’ If your expression is controlled by someone else, then you’re not really expressing yourself … so BB9 was me expressing myself, how I found being a black artist in Australia and how I had to navigate it, and how I choose to express that.
What I noticed about the new album is that it is much more — especially in comparison to BB9, it’s much more hopeful. There’s a joy that emanates. On BB9, you can hear frustration, you can hear anger, you can hear the visceral critique.
When I was going through BB9, I was lost. It was just like, ‘I’m in this place where I can’t be who I am. I’m all these different things for all these different peoples. I don’t know how to navigate just as me.’ With that comes a sense of loss.
But not fully. It came around full circle and there’s an assurance in who I was and with that came the joy of being like, ‘Ahhhh, I can laugh the same as I did before I got lost in this — I can be as happy as I was before I got lost in all of this.’ At the end of the day, I’ve managed to create home within myself. When I’m not at home, I’m still home.
I feel like there are a lot more influences from folk, tribal — I feel like you’ve gone back to your roots in a way. Was it intentional that between the voicemails on The Return, you wanted to go back to your roots?
Yes. BB9 was ‘Hey guys remember, I’m African.’ This one, there were no holds barred. We are going to put the influences of where I grew up and what I grew up around, and this would be fully in this body of work throughout. And if that means we’re going to sing and chant throughout the whole album, that’s what we’re going to do because that’s what I heard. Like, I want to fully express who I am through this album. And the most me I felt was when I was growing up listening to all the adults sitting in community together, singing. And this is what we’re going to reflect in the album. So, the most me to date.
And are you nervous about it coming out?
No. Now, I’m like, let’s go.
This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity.