Sampa The Great: ‘Hopefully My Journey Opens Doors For Young Creatives’

19 May 2022 | 11:42 am | Cyclone Wehner

"What a journey, hey – and it's only beginning. It's been amazing. It's had its ups and downs, definitely. But it's been a beautiful journey."

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Sampa The Great (aka Sampa Tembo) delivered a personally empowering debut album, The Return, in 2019 – and became a global superstar. Now, as she heralds "a new music chapter", the Zambian auteur is headed back to Australia to present her spectacular An Afro Future show at the Sydney Opera House (SOH) as part of Vivid LIVE.

Today Tembo – born in Zambia and raised in neighbouring Botswana – is unwinding in Lusaka following a hectic period in California that involved meetings with her new US label, Loma Vista Recordings. "My parents live in Zambia," Tembo says over Zoom, sipping from a mug. "They were like, 'Um, it's been a while since we've seen you – can you please come back home?' So I just came back to see them, make sure everybody's okay."

Tembo rarely grants interviews, rather communicating through her art. Still, she's animated, expressing joy in creating, connecting and culture. Tembo laughs often – and in different keys, usually playfully, but sometimes archly or wryly. 

The 28-year-old frequently uses the word "journey", literally and figuratively. Yet, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Tembo suspended any travels, remaining in Southern Africa. It was here she conceived high-profile virtual shows – among them her viral Tiny Desk (Home) Concert for America's NPR (National Public Radio).

The Afro-futurist is variously dubbed a poet, MC, singer, composer and visual artist. But, for Tembo, it all begins with storytelling. Originally she intended to be a filmmaker, studying at San Francisco's Academy Of Art University. "I wanted to be a director and then it switched to music – 'cause I was like, 'Ooh, maybe I'll do this music thing 'cause there's a bit more avenues with sound engineering.'"

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In 2013 Tembo transplanted to Sydney, enrolling at the SAE Institute. Meanwhile, she developed her hybrid of gospel, soul, reggae, hip hop and Afrobeat. Tembo circulated The Great Mixtape to underground buzz. By 2017, she'd aligned herself with the British Ninja Tune stable, airing the ambitious mixtape Birds And The BEE9. It scored the Australian Music Prize (AMP). Nevertheless, now living in Melbourne, having bonded with REMI's House Of Beige crew, Tembo was disconcerted by how readily she was subsumed into 'Australian hip hop' discourse. She told The Guardian, "I felt a sense of being lost in that narrative because it wasn't fully describing who I am."

Understanding that disorientation was the catalyst for Tembo's conceptual album proper, The Return. Indeed, she recalls experiencing "so much doubt and so much fear" in approaching the project. Tembo examined the dialectics of displacement and cultural erasure while reclaiming and celebrating her heritage, identity and authorship. "It was such a huge leap to release," she notes. And The Return was "solidifying" for her. It was met with critical acclaim and generated vital discussion. In Australia alone, The Return reached #12 on the ARIA Albums Chart. Ever the trailblazer, Tembo would be the inaugural act to twice win the AMP. In 2019 she received an ARIA for Best Hip Hop Release with the self-manifesting single Final Form, becoming the first woman of colour to do so, and the next year collected several more – including Best Female Artist. Globally, Tembo led a fresh wave of creatives redefining 'pop' – challenging Western hegemony, if not pervasive Anglocentrism. (Michelle Obama actually chose Freedom for her playlist.)

Tembo is gratified that The Return resonated. "It's funny – I feel like we're all just trying to find our way home. We're all just trying to find where we feel the most loved and where we feel that we belong. It's just really the same journey throughout… It's just something that shows that music is beyond me. It's beautiful that something that was birthed under uncertainty and fear could be such a powerful, inspirational tool to other people. It's just, again, a testament to how music is its own force and its own language, regardless of who you are." Tembo felt validated in calling herself an "artist", too. "The Return was just like, 'This is who I am; this is what I do.'"

Ironically, isolating in Zambia during worldwide turmoil allowed Tembo to achieve a deeper self-knowledge and perspective, as she concentrated on writing music. "I mean, you know, a lot of things were shutting down; borders were closing," Tembo ponders. "The music industry, as we know it, was collapsing – there were no shows, no tours... So it was kind of this crossroads, where this very thing that I stayed in Australia to do, which is my career, seemed to be falling off my hands. And it was a time where my parents got COVID as well. It was like, 'Okay, I feel like I need to go home and kind of realign, redirect – 'cause I just don't know what's happening and I don't know what direction I'm gonna go, as with everybody.' I found myself at home. I couldn't get back into Australia and it was just like, 'Okay, so what's the move here? Now that we find ourselves here, how can we make the best of the situation?'"

Tembo recognised a chance to establish local ties. "I think one of the main things with my music is talking about home; talking about Zambia; talking about connecting with music – and just knowing that I have never been an artist at home was really weird for me," she explains. "So it just pushed this whole new journey of seeing what it is to be an artist at home – you know, the struggles that come with it, and knowing the things that I've gained while being in Australia and the people who I've worked with; and just finding a way to work with new creatives from home, finding a way to push some creatives from home, and finding out what we can make from home."

Tembo's latest output is all the more authentic for that process. "It's just brought up this beautiful journey of wholeness – because there's just always been that hole to fill of where I come from and not being at home a lot and not working from home and not being an artist at home. But I think, being home, it's definitely filled that emptiness; that doubt. It's just made the music even more better, even more sure of itself, even more happier. Those are just some of the aspects that weren't there when the music started."

Throughout the pandemic, Tembo performed live-streamed shows – the most epic Black Atlantis for Planet Afropunk 2020. However, in April, she finally appeared in-person at Coachella, fulfilling a "goal". "That was huge – just being on a big platform like that and sharing your music; introducing yourself or reintroducing yourself," Tembo pauses. "I never go into a space thinking people know who I am or my music. It's just always, 'Okay, let's give you a story – a new story.' Just being received well, and doing that with a band from Zambia – and that just being historic in itself – was just amazing."

Since The Return, Tembo has embraced collaboration. In 2021 she featured on the pioneering Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen's album There Is No End, issued posthumously via Blue Note. Tembo also guested on Angélique Kidjo's Mother Nature alongside other young African stars like Burna Boy. She initially encountered the Beninese avant-popster at WOMADelaide 2016, asking her to sign a vinyl. "She didn't know who I was," Tembo chortles. Years later, Kidjo DMed Tembo after catching her Tiny Desk. "She is a legend! Pretty much [she is] the only artist my parents would be like, 'You're on a record with Angélique?' Everybody else [they're] like, 'Who is that?' But it's wow." 

Symbolically, Tembo considers their duet Free & Equal "a generational leap". "Angélique broke a lot of doors for a lot of young African artists and made being an African artist global with a lot of her peers," she observes. "That's just something that is like a teacher to a student moment… Even now, I don't even know if I can say, [but] just working on music with her for other things, is surreal."

Notably, Tembo graced The Avalanches' 2020 Take Care In Your Dreaming with Tricky (who, coincidentally, remixed Kidjo's '90s club classic Agolo) and Denzel Curry – its curation surprising her. "I thought it was a really beautiful space shared between three different artists, with three different perspectives, over a sort of dreamscape." 

In fact, Tembo had previously befriended Curry. Back in 2019, she accompanied the Floridian maverick on a rendition of his BLACK BALLOONS | 13LACK 13ALLOONZ at both a Melbourne gig and for triple j's Like A Version. Recently, the neo-soulster solicited Curry to rap on her avant-trap single Lane. Tellingly, the pair are now Loma Vista labelmates. 

"I remember meeting him," Tembo laughs. "Denzel has a lot of energy, if you meet him at a good time! He has, like, crazy energyI was just like, 'Wow, this guy's a lot!' But he very much struck me as someone who is really invested in doing things outside of the box, which I love – because that shows that you have confidence enough in yourself to try new things. 

"Once I got to know him, and know the range that he has, it made it so much easier to send a song like Lane to him – 'cause that's exactly what it's about. Yes, I do hip hop. Do I necessarily think I'm only a hip hop artist? No. I think he's just a perfect example of someone who's able to fully express who he is and what he loves, without feeling like he has to be one way." 

Tembo was supposed to tour Australia with An Afro Future early last year. The benefit of rescheduling is that she can preview album material. "I'm definitely gonna be performing new music when I come back to Australia, for sure. I also think Australia's probably heard The Return more than any place else! So it would just be good to give people a little sneak peek into what's happening. In saying that, obviously we've just revealed there is new music and that probably will be a 'situation' that comes out this year. It's been a long wait!"

In 2018 Solange Knowles played the SOH – her Vivid LIVE blockbuster, an ode to Black womanhood, now mythic. Tembo attended, tweeting her joy. "That was huge," she raves. "It was just so impactful for all of us to see someone who's inspired us, our journey, our communities, that much be in the same space we're in and share music with us in that way."

Solange's concert is a touchstone for Tembo. (Incredibly, at The Age Music Victoria Awards in late 2018, she staged a heavenly mini-extravaganza, performing Bye River with a gospel choir.) "I kind of feel the same way with how An Afro Future will go; sharing musical story with my community and musical story with people within Australia and just bringing you into that perspective through visuals, dance, music, even more so getting theatrical with it – which is something I've never done – and maybe introducing something new than to what Australia's used to makes me excited, and to do it at a venue that everybody knows all around the world."

In June, Tembo will return to Glastonbury. Though the international live circuit is rebuilding, she worries that COVID hasn't gone away. "There's a lot of doubt, anxiety and depression around musicians right now – it's still an uncertain time." Mind, Tembo is cautiously optimistic about her own future. "What a journey, hey – and it's only beginning," she muses. "It's been amazing. It's had its ups and downs, definitely. But it's been a beautiful journey. Hopefully it opens doors for young creatives in Australia, especially Black creatives." Tembo's aspiration is to launch a label – and she plans to further explore cinema.

Tembo laughs when quizzed about where she's currently based. "Yeah, that's a really good question. My luggage is everywhere – I have luggage at my cousin's place, luggage at my parents' place… I don't have a home base yet." Tembo will be on the road for the rest of the year. Beyond that? "It'll probably be a half-and-half thing – Zambia maybe [for] three or four months in a year and then we split that between probably the States or Australia or the States or London," she says. "But, yeah, it's gonna be one of those situations – there cannot be one homebase. I mean, I was born in Zambia and raised [in Botswana] – I'm already into different countries."

Sampa The Great will play Vivid LIVE on May 27 & 28 in the Joan Sutherland Theatre with special guests Mwanjé, KYE and sounds by C.FRIM. For more information, click here.