Sampa the Great on success in Australia, Africa – and beyond: ‘It feels good to show younger Zambians they can do this’

Worn down by the Australian music industry, Sampa Tembo returned to Zambia to make a new album in two weeks, blending hip-hop and Zamrock. She spoke to Guardian Australia exclusively from Glastonbury

Last Saturday, taking the stage at Glastonbury, Sampa the Great made history. A vision in bright red, the Zambian rapper and songwriter, born Sampa Tembo, addressed the crowd with a sly grin on her face: “I’m standing on this stage with the first Zambian band to perform at Coachella,” she said. “The first Zambian band to perform at the Sydney Opera House … and the first Zambian band to perform at Glastonbury!”

Being the first was never her intention – but it comes with the territory. “When we first went to Coachella, our thought process wasn’t ‘we want to be the first Zambian band’,” she says. She’s speaking to me moments after her set, still swathed in red latex and a plush red puffer jacket, lucent gold eyeshadow visible behind her sunglasses. “Zambian bands don’t always tour internationally, they don’t always get success. We want to be able to live out our dreams and what came with it was being the first Zambian band to do it. It feels good to show younger Zambians that you can do this too.”

Never Forget, Sampa the Great’s latest single

I’ve caught Tembo during one of her biggest tours, a run through 12 European festivals that includes Barcelona’s Primavera Sound, Denmark’s Roskilde festival, and, of course, Glastonbury. Earlier in the year she performed across the US. And she still found time to return to Australia, her home from 2013 until the start of the pandemic, to debut An Afro Future, an immersive live show, at Vivid and Rising. Amid it all she was preparing for the release of As Above, So Below: her second album and, she says, the truest expression of herself to date.

Sampa the Great performs at Glastonbury
‘[It’s about] releasing that weight that came from being an ambassador for everyone else’ … Sampa the Great performs at Glastonbury. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Set for release in September, As Above, So Below continues a journey Tembo began with 2019’s The Return. On that album she was embattled and emotionally conflicted, worn down by the toxicity of the Australian music industry and constantly being asked to represent the African diaspora. As Above, So Below, is freer, more lithe, less burdened by that weight; the result of Tembo’s move back to Zambia, it’s a record that attempts to bridge the gap between who her family saw her as, who she was seen as onstage, and who she saw in the mirror.

“Whenever I’d be leaving Zambia, everyone always said, ‘She’s going back to Australia to do Sampa the Great stuff.’ I found it so funny that they would differentiate me from Sampa the Great,” she says. In Zambia, she says, it’s rare for music to be seen as a full-time career, as opposed to “something you do out in the west.”

“I’m always Sampa Tembo, Sampa the Great, we’re the same person. That [name] was an inspiration to be the greatest version of myself – it was not meant to be an alter ego, or a persona.”

When the pandemic hit, Tembo relocated to Zambia permanently and began working with musicians there. The disconnect she once felt began to fade: “Now I’m Sampa the Great in Zambia.” Finally she could enjoy her success as a musician at home, where her dreams of being an artist began. “That one person is a whole, and she’s doing what she does professionally in the west on the continent. It filled a huge void.”

Sampa the Great
‘This album is made by Zambians in Zambia, surrounded by Zambians’ … Sampa the Great. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The resulting album is Tembo’s best body of work to date – a vibrant bricolage of Kalindula and Kwaito hip-hop, trap and spoken word, Zamrock and R&B. It represents the first time that Tembo has felt free to express the full breadth of the influence that southern African music has had on her. “This album is not made from the context of an African artist in Australia trying to be seen, trying to defend my culture. It’s made by Zambians in Zambia, surrounded by Zambians. It’s mostly about now, releasing an armour, releasing that weight that came from being an ambassador for everyone else.

“As my story started to grow in Australia, and I was being called ‘Australian’, I felt that I really had to defend Zambia, and Zambian music and culture – the fact I was raised in Botswana and heard this music as I was being raised fell to the wayside.”

Made in just two weeks, it’s the first album Tembo has credited herself as co-producer on, alongside Mag44, a Zambian producer whose music Tembo grew up listening to. Working with him, real name Magnus Mando, was a full-circle moment. “I listened to Mag’s songs when I was about 10, and it was like, ‘Oh, we can think of ourselves as more than Zambian artists or African artists – we can do this globally,’” she says.

Working with Mando was an eye-opening experience for Tembo, in part because she no longer had to introduce her collaborators in Melbourne to the Zambian sounds she was trying to replicate. They quickly assembled a record that showcases a new generation of artists from the African diaspora, among them Tembo’s cousin Tio Nason and sister Mwanjé, as well as trailblazers including the Beninese legend Angélique Kidjo and the Zamrock forefather Emmanuel “Jagari” Chanda, of the band WITCH.

Paying tribute to Zamrock was important to Tembo – in part because, soon after moving back to Zambia, her father revealed that one of her uncles was a founding member of WITCH. “I was like, ‘I really could have used this information when I was starting out!’ I had assumed no one in our family had done music professionally. I was walking into it really scared that I may fail, and I didn’t have an example of anyone [who had done it before]. And this whole time, my uncle was doing music and nobody told me.”

Never Forget, the album’s latest single, pays tribute to the Zamrock musicians who paved the way for artists like her. “I just felt it was really courageous, as Zambian artists, to take on psychedelic rock in a country where what you’re doing is not considered a profession or career, and now it’s built this huge movement that’s known globally.”

Sampa the Great
‘She exudes is confidence in owning her own music’… Sampa the Great. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

If Never Forget looks to the past, Let Me Be Great – the album’s funky, anthemic closer – finds Tembo with her eyes firmly on the future. Featuring a chorus sung by Kidjo, it’s the pair’s second collaboration, after Tembo appeared on Kidjo’s Grammy-winning album Mother Nature. Tembo speaks about Kidjo with awe and admiration; when I speak to Kidjo about Tembo, the feeling is mutual.

“What she exudes is confidence in owning her own music, and doing it and standing for it,” Kidjo says. “Anything that comes from Africa in that light, I will support it, because my entire career has been to build bridges, but also to encourage young women to come to this male-dominated art.” The combination of simplicity and depth that she sees in Tembo’s music, she says, reminds her of herself when she started out. “As a girl born in any country in Africa, the best thing that can happen is for you to have a good marriage. We cannot be reduced to that. So Sampa, in her royalty, her attitude, her unapologetic talent – that’s what I’ve been fighting for.”

For Tembo, it feels as though she’s finally beginning to be understood – by the outside world, as well as her family. On The Return and As Above, So Below, the vision she saw for herself as a teenager is finally becoming a reality. “I think as parents, you always want your kids to do something that can sustain them when you’re gone,” she says. “To them, it always felt like I was pursuing a hobby. For them to see this come to light, but also see that I was using my music to show how proud I am of my culture, gave them a lot of pride. They finally understand – this is who I am.”

  • As Above, So Below is out 9 September (Loma Vista Recordings); her new single Never Forget, featuring Chef 187, Tio Nason and Mwanjé, is out now.


Shaad D'Souza

The GuardianTramp

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