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Sampa the Great Reflects On A String of Excellent Firsts

The Zambia-born artist speaks about returning home, the weight of representation, and the journey to making a record as multifaceted as she is. 

by Madeline Lines

Photo by Imraan Christian

I’m ushered into Sampa the Great’s trailer on a hot day, tucking in next to her on the tiny built-in sofa. The songstress-slash-rapper is in a sleek all-black outfit, fresh off the stage of Osheaga after an electrifying set. She’s about to set off for Newport Jazz Festival, another in a long line of back-to-back summer appearances including Coachella, Glastonbury, Primavera Sound, and just before this, Lollapalooza. Any other artist would be burnt out, festival-ed out, and interviewed out. But sitting across from the artist otherwise known as Sampa Tembo, the calm, contemplative energy she exudes makes the few minutes we have together feel like all the time in the world. 

From the get go, everyone’s wanted a piece of Tembo. Early mixtapes like Birds and the Bee9 and her debut album The Return immediately made waves that rippled internationally. But for all the awards and accolades the Zambia-born, Botswana-raised artist has swept up, it’s only now that she’s reaping success on her own terms. Her initial work, and a lot of the hype around it, had roots in Australia, where Tembo studied audio engineering and lived for a few years. There, she shook up the predominantly white Australian hip-hop scene. For a long time, it felt like the music world defined her by that – trying to simplify her story by pinning her to one place on the map. She wasn’t having it. 

“When I was in Australia, I was really gunning to remind people that I’m Zambian, and then being raised in Botswana fell to the wayside,” says Tembo. “Now, I finally get to show my range, and show other parts of me, and other sides to my story.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Tembo moved back to Zambia. Her upcoming album, As Above, So Below, is coloured by a return to her home country and a loving embrace of all the past versions of herself. With her single “Bona,” she finally returns to her formative years in Botswana, playing with familiar beats and the Setswana language. The new album even features some of the Zambian artists she grew up on, like the psychedelic 1970s Zamrockers WITCH, as well as fresh collabs with rappers Denzel Curry and Joey Bada$$. 

“It’s such a full circle moment for me to be able to come back home, and work with musicians from home, to create a project that I’m proud of,” Tembo says. “The kid in me is really happy.”

She’s also making moves beyond her wildest childhood dreams. Not only has she opened for her longtime idol Lauryn Hill, she’s now met her multiple times – although she admits she’s working on not fangirling every time. The morning of her Osheaga set, on a whim, she told the team she wanted to add “Fu-Gee-La” to the mix. Onstage behind her was an all-Zambian crew that included her cousins and her sister, Mwanjé, singing, dancing, and pulsing with incredible energy. “We’re the first Zambian band to play Osheaga, but we won’t be the last,” Tembo told the crowd, who roared with cheers. 

Although it’s a beautiful moment, Tembo tells me that being the face of her country on world stages gets heavy sometimes. Back in the Zambian music scene, she jokes that she sticks out like a sore thumb. Although she masterfully mixes traditional touches with genre-pushing work, many in the scene back home are resistant to change. Even so, many more are warming up to the new sounds of Zambia. She keeps this all in mind as she sets foot on stages across the globe and proudly reps her country. 

“I have to make sure I represent people well, and that kind of makes you a bit stoic,” says Tembo. “It can take some of the fun away from actually making music. You want to also be able to freely express yourself, obviously not carelessly, but in a way that’s more carefree.”

That’s where ‘Eve’ comes in, a kind of persona Sampa the Great conjures on the album to help embody the woman she’s always wanted to be, and the one she is at her core. As Above, So Below is an incredibly self-reflective album that puts past, present, and future versions of herself in conversation with one another. They grapple with womanhood, especially with the cultural expectations of femininity she grew up with that often clash with her career. In fact, part of the reason for choosing her alter ego’s name hearkens back to the first woman herself. 

Sampa the Great performs at Osheaga 2022 (Photo: Lindsey Blane)

“What I’m doing is not traditional for an African woman, being a rapper and traveling the world at almost 30 years old,” says Tembo. “I’ll be the first in my family to do that as a woman. So I was using that as a word play – I’ll be the Eve of my family, the first to break those stereotypes.”

As she battles imposter syndrome (even naming a track on the new album after it), tools like channeling Eve or remembering the confidence-boosting stage name she gave herself help to ground and push her forward. The result is Tembo’s best album yet. She laughs, remembering how they were having so much fun in the studio, they had to stop and ask each other if it was actually sounding good. It all poured out of her happily, in less than two weeks. She calls it the freest project she’s ever made. But she doesn’t want anyone, including herself, to forget the journey it took to get here.

“Looking back, I underestimated how courageous I was, being based in Australia. I now see the battle scars that came from opening doors as an African migrant who didn’t even live there,” Tembo says. “Part of coming back home has really taught me the courage that it took to do that. Because to even take the armor down has been a real struggle. I’m realizing, ‘Wow, I needed a whole lot of armor for that!’ ”

The new album captures this experience viscerally. It’s clear Sampa the Great has stopped waiting for everyone else to catch up, catch on, or understand. The cathartic final track, “Let Me Be Great,” celebrates this. As Above, So Below truly serves up Tembo in all of her greatness, whether the whole world is ready or not.