Live Review: Sampa The Great, Thandiswa Mazwai, Genesis Owusu, Dallas Woods, Mwanjé

21 October 2019 | 4:05 pm | Guido Farnell

"[Sampa The Great] spits her flow with poise and plenty of power."

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The Red Bull Music Festival, with Sampa The Great headlining, plus four supports, is an epic evening of Aussie hip hop from some stellar talents. Melbourne, its population seemingly growing without restraint for many years now, has always been a melting pot of cultures. Sampa Tembo and her friends pull together an internationalised vision of hip hop, that excludes the gangster white boys from the suburbs, spitting flow in broad Antipodean accents and getting wasted sinking tinnies. 

Mwanjé, Tembo’s younger sister, calls Melbourne home but has lived in Zambia and Botswana, and is influenced by the likes of Solange and FKA twigs. She deals a short but sweet set that mixes chill jazz, lounge and hip hop to stunning effect. The deep breathy lusciousness of The Divine makes it clear Mwanjé’s star is rising.

With just two turntables and a microphone, First Nations rapper Dallas Woods and his DJ reinvent Aussie hip hop. Originally from Western Australia but now based in Melbourne, Woods deals a flow that oozes peace, love, understanding and consciousness – without getting preachy. There’s an old-school vibe to his tunes that charms the slowly gathering crowd, putting smiles on their faces.

Dallas Woods @ The Forum. Photo by Kikki MacLeod.

In what feels like a very short space of time, Canberra’s Genesis Owusu has established an enviable reputation as one of the most exciting Australian rappers. Owusu and his producer lean on the tried and true two turntables and a mic format, but perform with a gang of dancers, all dressed in matching tracksuits. The pace and energy of the set makes it very clear Owusu is here to shake up the place, doling out sample-heavy tunes with R&B, soul and disco influences.

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Genesis Owusu @ The Forum. Photo by Kikki MacLeod.

The only international act on the bill, Thandiswa Mazwai is widely regarded as one of South Africa’s best vocalists and it's a privilege to be able to see a pioneer of Kwaito. Mazwai and her band deal in a glorious sound that's equal parts funk, dub, afropunk and tropical Caribbean influences, which at key moments is strangely reminiscent of ESG. Mazwai and her band are simultaneously eclectic and electric. They burn with energy but deliver a political message of peace, love and hope. They work to create such an uplifting vibe in the room that most people are no longer nodding along, but instead pulling shapes in time to the pulsing beats.

Sampa The Great @ The Forum. Photo by Kikki MacLeod.

Sampa The Great is here to showcase her latest album The Return and, in doing so, flex some serious musical muscle. Tembo is backed by a four-piece band that’s extended by a horn section and a huge choir of backing vocalists and guest rappers and singers. Tonight Tembo’s mighty funky band impressively play all the breaks and riffs that sound as though they could have been sampled off old funk records. Oozing charisma, Tembo spits her flow with poise and plenty of power. The crowd roars loudly with approval. Tembo is a citizen of the world who is able to take what she needs to craft her art – there are no borders in her music. Moving beyond funky breaks, Tembo and her band artfully bring together soul, jazz and even flourishes of African styles under the focused gaze of a hip hop beat. Tembo’s lyrics are imbued with a certain spirituality and political consciousness that engages her fans. She’s been compared to Lauren Hill guesting on an MF Doom album, but the influence of Brit-hop equally runs through tonight’s set. Tonight gloriously showcases The Return with all the bells and whistles.