Inner Peace Be the New Success: An Interview with Sampa the Great

Evan Gabriel speaks to the Botswana-bred artist about art, life, and searching for peace of mind.
By    October 29, 2019

Sampa the Great was born in Zambia and grew up in Botswana, but it wasn’t until relocating to Melbourne for school that she formally began a career in music. “Art is just something that’s always been a part of my life. I think the hardest part was being like, “I want to be an artist. I want to do this professionally.” The middle child of three sisters and a brother, Sampa felt a void when it came to being fully heard among her siblings, even though self-expression was highly encouraged in the household.

Sampa uses her debut album The Return album to explore what it feels like to come into success without your closest family of friends in the same city experiencing it with you. Produced by longtime collaborator Silentjay, and mixed by Jonwayne, The Return seamlessly melds rap, R&B, and jazz. “Give Love” is a floating a spacey interlude electrified by a guitar, while the vocals on “The Return” sound like they could have been lifted from an old gospel record. This segues perfectly into “Don’t Give U, which draws some similarities to Sampa’s 2017 Birds and the BEE9 mixtape.

Throughout The Return, Sampa is clear about her intention of reunifying with the place that she feels most at peace. “I’m coming back home,” she announces on the title track. In May, she played her first ever homecoming shows in Zambia, as well as performances in Swaziland and Johannesburg. In less than half a decade, Sampa has established her own musical identity, catching strong praise from Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar after performing at Glastonbury. When I catch up with her late in the evening over Facetime, she’s caught in London’s downpour, dodging raindrops as she exits an Uber. — Evan Gabriel

Was there a specific intention set out for this album before you began recording?

Sampa the Great: It happened after the recording process. I was thinking a bit like, “this is my debut album,’ feeling a bit of pressure. I had to sit down and say, “what part of my life do I want to give as an album?” And that’s when I started creating and the topics and themes of the album started to come to fruition. It was all centered around home.

What helped you to shake that pressure of making your debut album?

Sampa the Great: I think convincing myself that it’s not my only album. When you step into the first album, it feels sort of like a test situation. Like, once this album comes out this will explain who I am and be an introduction to me. But also it’s not the last album where I can express myself. Convincing myself and reassuring myself that this is just a snapshot of where I’m at right now.

Why is the concept of home such an important theme to this project, and ultimately to you?

Sampa the Great: My professional career started in Australia. And I’ve been at it for like 5 years now. I was born in Zambia but raised in Botswana. My professional career started growing in a place that I do no call home. As everything is going and I’m reaching milestones and amazing things are happening, it was a sense of contemptment and loss because as great as everything is, it’s not happening at home. It started to feel like two different people. I’m not the first person to leave home and pursue a professional career. But why is it affecting me so much to the point that I can’t be content with everything that’s happening? It’s [about] where you safe haven is. Do you feel where you are is a safe haven? And if not, why isn’t it? Talking to my friends about it, there became so many questions about what home means. I have friends that can’t go home, and this is their second home. And this started the album’s topic.

What music made you want to rap?

Sampa the Great: Tupac. At age 8 or 9, I walked up the stairs to my cousin’s room, and at this point I’m so little, walking up the stairs, going into his room , sitting down and just thinking, “what is this?” He was playing “Changes,” and I just thought it was so beautiful. It just felt like poetry. I loved music. And this person was able to encompass that in full. Then that started my interest in writing raps. I think that was only solidified when boys at my primary school were rapping. They were performing and I wanted to be a part of it. But they said I couldn’t because I was a girl. I was like, “what? I really love this thing and I thought that.

The theme of peace of mind comes up on this album (“Give Love”). What is your process for finding your own, personal peace of mind?

Sampa the Great: It could be something musical in terms of going some place. Usually for me it’s some idea around nature, and just having a moment with myself. A moment where it’s silent, and it’s me by myself in nature. Or it could be through the thick of the storm, while I’m on tour, and just going into a room. Lighting some incense. The sense of self comes from actually having that peace of mind. Where you’re able to sit and hear your heartbeat, and breath, and say, “alright, I’m here, I’m in this place right now, I’m perfect. And a sense of peace comes from that. In Zambia there’s a sense of belonging. I don’t feel like I have to wear armor there, or try and be anything else but myself.

While traveling in Africa with Sanjay de Silva, you shot two videos for “Final Form” and “OMG.” How was it traveling and working on multiple videos at the same time while you are visiting your home?

Sampa the Great: A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into it [laughs]. Again, it’s like a merging of two worlds; professional life and your home life, I guess are now one. The main thing I wanted to do was tell my own story for myself. Being based here, I was often frustrated because it’s like, “Yeah I’m based here, but I’m also Zambian and have a whole that can’t just be erased because people don’t want to take into consideration that people are from these different places. It got to the point where I just had to write the narrative for myself because it seems like people are writing it for me. It can only be real when you, the person behind the music and the art are like, “This is my story, these are my parents in this music video, this is the school I went to, this is the town, this is the shopping center that I went to when I was younger, and showing that so you can know there is a person behind this story. That was the main goal for doing that at home. Telling my story for myself. And it was beautiful, just to start recording the music video and then people around you start gathering. So you’re actually performing for people. They’re watching you, cheering you on, “Zambia! Zambia!” There’s a sense of pride, showing where you’re from that’s so fulfilling.

Did you make any formal announcement about the shoot, or did you just go and start performing?

Sampa the Great: Nah, we just went!

The theme of family os pretty strong in your music. You even feature your parents in the “OMG” video. Was it hard to bring them into your artistic world? Or did it feel natural?

Sampa the Great: Not at all. The thing is, they weren’t that involved in my music life. It was like, “This is something Sampa does. To us, we thought it was a hobby. But it wasn’t something they were fully involved in but they understood. So I’m entering an industry in another continent that they know nothing about. And they were concerned about how I would take care of myself.

Did your parents understand your passion?

Sampa the Great: That was the first time they were fully invested. These are my parents. They’re in my music video. It was so nice to have them involved because I knew this wasn’t something they had done before. [They] don’t understand this world, but [they] take the initiative to be like, “I want to be involved, I want to understand this passion and this art that you have because I’m proud of it.

What was your childhood like?

Sampa the Great: I’d say a lot of laughter. A lot of joking, that was prevalent. Not only for myself, but for my siblings, and for my parents. [My parents] would make it known that our opinions matter. We’d be 7 or 8 and walk into our sitting room and my Dad would be there with his friends talking about politics, like, “What do you think?” And I thought, “Why are you asking me? I thought this was grown ups talk. But they wanted to know our opinions on how topics affected us. When you talk to kids like that. You make them feel like their opinions are valid and their voice means something. We had a house of kids that fully expresses ourselves, from singing to shouting, That’s just how we grew up.

Does that sibling dynamic play into how you go about art as a career?

Sampa the Great: 100% because as a middle kid it was like, “I’m saying this and I don’t think anyone is hearing what I’m trying to say. And what you do with that is you turn to yourself, and for me that was writing poetry in my diary. That turned into the way I express myself. From that, I just carried on expressing myself. Everything you do, you do it to make a mark and to say something. It definitely was and is a part of who I am now.

Can you talk about the short film, ‘Homecoming’ that you are also releasing alongside the album?

Sampa the Great: That will show the making of the album, all the artist that came into the studio while we were making it and their stories. But also a connection to home and how everything from home and my childhood has brought me to where I’m able to create an album like this. You get to see my parents, my highschool, all the young students that were there and know my music and know who I am. That just brings this into reality. People from the schools that I went to are like, “I want to do that.”

You’ve mentioned that personal experience is one of the biggest sources of inspiration for music. What was one of the most significant experiences that brought you to music?

Sampa the Great: It’s just always been a part of my life. It was the people around me. Like my mom or dad would sing. It’s just something that;s always been a part of my life. I think that adds to them being like, “Oh you want this as a career? This is something we all do. But art is just something that’s always been a part of my life. I think the hardest part was being like, “I want to be an artist. I want to do this professionally.”

What solidified you wanting to do music as a profession?

Sampa the Great: I’d say around the time of the Kendrick support. It may have been my first tour outside of Australia where people were actually singing the music back. And then I was like, “aight, this isn’t just something where you jump ons stage and say words. People were actually singing the music back. That’s when I knew This is something that’s actually being acknowledged and it’s affecting a lot of people in certain ways.

How do you navigate the music industry?

Sampa the Great: It’s something I think I’m still navigating. When I first came to Australia. And I came into an industry that doesn’t like like me and I was saying “I’m going to make a mark, I’m going to make my story. And something that I’m still taking in today, is stepping into a space and not saying how do they see me, but this is how I am. And if this space doesn’t allow for it then I’ll create a space that does.

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