Sampa the Great: \”You can go back, but you’re not the same person\”

Sampa Tembo and her musical alter-ego, rapper and songwriter Sampa the Great, have experienced numerous challenges over the years, including moving halfway around the world, finding purpose in a new culture and living with weighty artistic expectations. But recently the MC, who now lives in Melbourne, had to confront a difficult new dilemma: Sampa’s younger sister, Mwanje, doesn’t want big sis cruelling her social game.

“She’ll be getting ready to go out and I’ll be like, ‘OK, where are we going?’ And she’s like, ‘This is not an “us” situation. I’m going out by myself’,” Sampa says, shaking her head at the youthful impudence. “Somehow I’ve become the uncool person in the two of us. She says to me, ‘Please don’t come, it’s not cool with you there’.”

Sampa the Great, is a Zambian-born, Botswana-raised and now Melbourne-based hip-hop artist.Credit:Simon Schluter

It’s the kind of call only a family member could make, because frankly no one else has Sampa the Great marked down in the not-cool column. At the age of 26, she’s distinguished herself as a vital voice in Australian music, accumulating 33 million streams of her hip-hop tracks worldwide and winning the prestigious Australian Music Prize for Best Album of 2017 for her long-form mixtape Birds and the BEE9.

Support slots with the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill have given way to mainstage music festival slots across the country, while her growing international profile has been confirmed by signing to influential London label Ninja Tune for the release of her expansive new album, The Return. The album’s ability to mix jaunty singles and contemplative deep cuts marks it as a breakthrough record.

With their parents back in Botswana in southern Africa, where the Tembo family moved from neighbouring Zambia when Sampa was aged just two, it’s natural that the older sibling keeps an eye on her younger housemate, and equally obvious that the younger sibling would chafe under the older one’s watch. But Mwanje Tembo is willing to make the odd exception. When she released her debut single in May, a spectral jazz-flecked groove titled The Divine, Mwanje asked Sampa to appear alongside her in the video.

“I do want her to be her own musician and find her own voice,” Sampa says. “I don’t want her to feel that my shadow is there. In the studio I step back and keep my ideas to myself, but if she needs my help I’m there.”

Sampa the Great arrives at a Melbourne pub for this interview direct from the photo shoot, still wearing a strapless gown but with a coat casually slipped over her shoulders to blunt the serious southern winter. Sampa’s smile is iridescent and her handshake firm, while her earrings look like atomic protons captured in the moment they shatter into multiple directions and release their energy; you could apply the same description to Sampa’s songs.

Articulate in her answers, she is close to being the antithesis of the self-centred musician. Sampa thinks in terms of helping others by making sense of her own life and looks outward with the impact of her songwriting. Her beliefs are universal and her fun inclusive. Point out that there’s a strain of optimism running through her comments and she’s quick to note how that should be the norm.

“What else can you have? I’ve seen people go through some of the worst parts of life and the change they needed came from music, so I took it upon myself to be the person who brings change,” says Sampa. “You can’t do that unless you see situations as being able to change for the better. Even if it’s a world that will never actually happen, I keep that belief in myself in order to carry on. That’s the only way to be.”

Sampa attributes her outlook to her parents. From her father, an insurance broker who played the guitar and sang, “I get my analytical brain, which can look through life and check out the logistics. From my mum, who loves dancing, comes the passion and sensitivity and willingness to be emotionally invested in people.”

Growing up in Botswana she was a middle child, and felt there were times she got less attention than her siblings. Her consolations were training as a sprinter and the notebooks that were a combination of diary and poetry collection. The discipline of writing about her feelings and actions at an early age helped make an easy transition to songwriter, while hip-hop was a staple of local radio stations in the Botswanan capital of Gaborone. A performance by a rap group at her primary school introduced her to rhyming, even though the boys in her group were emphatic girls couldn’t do it.

Sampa the Great, pictured performing at the 2016 Secret Garden festival, has supported hip-hop greats such as Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill. Credit:Anna Warr

“You never want to put a limitation on anything anyone wants to do,” says Sampa. “They put a limitation on what music is and what another can do, and that’s not what music is about. It was a push – it made me passionate about proving something not only to them but to myself.”

Her parents were determined she have a career, so to stay close to music she studied at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, before coming to Sydney in 2014 to study audio engineering. The idea was that she would record the work of others, but the course primed Sampa to make her own music (she attached Great to her name as an encouragement to try, not a boast of success) and when she self-released her debut The Great Mixtape in 2015 she found herself with the beginnings of a career she chose to grasp. There was also the responsibility of being a black artist making inroads for people of colour.

“There’s definitely been a change since I first came with an explosion of young POC artists who are being seen. They were there, but they didn’t have the avenues to be seen,” says Sampa. “That has changed, but for me that is just the first step. The stage I’m in now is helping to create opportunities for young POC to step into places where they effect change more than just showing their face. Representation is good, but at a certain point it becomes tokenism.”

Even as Sampa’s career took shape, especially after Birds and the BEE9 was acclaimed, she felt a pressure to serve as an “ambassador” for young Africans in Australia while struggling with being an outsider to this country’s culture and missing the sounds and textures of her teenage years in Botswana. She felt in between two worlds, and incomplete. Resolving that became the focus of the music that would form The Return.

“The theme of the album is finding a safe haven within yourself. My career started here so I was never really Sampa the Great at home. People there would see someone based in Australia, who was sometimes called Australian, and who’d never made the first steps there,” Sampa says. “I wanted the two worlds to be connected, because home is important for me and the people who raised me hadn’t got to see me express myself.”

Earlier this year she took a break from writing and recording to play her first gigs in southern Africa. At the Zambian shows her extended family all turned out, with cousins screaming their approval in the front row, while the Botswanan gigs allowed her parents to see her perform live for the first time. She opened the shows with a new single, an ode to female strength titled Energy: “Feminine energy, balance up the indestructible in the vaginal, heaven is thine…”

In Australia the recording sessions for The Return became a communal experience. The rappers and singers, producers and engineers, lived together, sharing dinners and ideas. Sampa didn’t have to be in control, she didn’t have to oversee the tracking of every part – the music went where it needed. The songs feature multiple languages and genres, with the rhythmic pulse of Africa’s popular kwaito music seeping into the grooves.

“It wasn’t introspective. It’s about how we all relate to home,” says Sampa says.” It wasn’t just my perspective – although there are interludes on the album that relate just to me – because I created a sense of home within myself and that opens you up to how other people live.”

“I’m a third culture kid,” she adds. “You don’t just go somewhere and come back. I’ve picked up ideas and experiences that subconsciously came into my music. I have an array of influences. You can go back, but you’ve shed skin and you’re not the same person. Sometimes to adapt or navigate or just survive, you need to grow up.”

The album has sharp, sparse inducements to the hips, such as OMG and soulful invocations such as the Ecca Vandal duet Dare to Fly. It all comes together on the title track, a nine-minute epic where Sampa and the guest rappers detail their differing experiences of home and exile, some as refugees. By the time the last vocal was done all the vocalists were in tears.

“At some point we all have to sit down and think about how far we’ve come. That’s not the usual thing for me. I’m usually like, ‘What’s next?’” says Sampa. “That became a bad habit because when you’re constantly reaching for something else you never sit back and think about what you’ve achieved and whether you actually need to change direction. At this time,  I know where I am in life and it’s helped me express myself and redirect my wrongs.”

The video for her most recent single, Final Form, was shot in Botswana, and like the album artwork it gives a modern interpretation of the culture Sampa grew up with. She’s balancing elements now, whether it’s in the styling or figuring out how to maintain a relationship while on tour or tempted to write about your partner. It’s the right time to have everything squared away, because Sampa the Great has only just started to introduce herself to the wider world.

“I’m stepping into the mainstream. I just put my foot down. I just stepped into the building. And that’s me having the confidence to say what I want to say,” says Sampa. “Now I’m walking with a sense of direction.”

The Return is released on September 13. Sampa the Great plays Woolly Mammoth, Brisbane, on October 5; the Forum, Melbourne, on October 18; Factory Theatre, Marrickville, on October 31. For full tour dates go to 


As far back as Tina Martinez in Sound Unlimited Posse, women have been part of Australia’s hip-hop scene. But it’s only in the last decade that a new generation – technically assured and boldly confident – has announced itself. Here are three more local female hip-hop artists like Sampa the Great who are stepping up.

Tkay Maidza A vibrant presence on the microphone, the Zimbabwe-born and Adelaide-raised MC had a breakthrough success with her debut single Brontosaurus while still a teenager in 2013 and her career has gone from strength to strength since. An international profile through collaborations with the likes of Run the Jewels’ Killer Mike and electronic producer Martin Solveig has charged her outlook. Maidza’s new single, Awake, is a showcase for her talents, transforming halfway through so that lean menace gives way to exuberant defiance.

Kaiit Barely out of her teenage years and working in the fertile intersection of hip-hop, jazz, and neo-soul, this Melbourne vocalist and rapper wields a terrific studio palette and a dexterous lyrical outlook. Shout-outs from American heavyweights such as Jill Scott have helped elevate her voice and her distinct visual aesthetic. “I got pressure, she call me diamond,” she sings on bitter-sweet new single Miss Shiney, turning career expectations into a catchy tune.

Coda Conduct Recent additions to the storied roster of Sydney label Elefant Traks (Horrorshow, L-Fresh the Lion), rappers and sometimes radio presenters Erica and Sally are complementary MCs whose quick wit and sharp turns makes for hip-hop with a pop inflection and uncompromising standards. Their M5 Motorway-referencing new single Leaving Home has an urgent sense of momentum and verses that that capture lives in transition – like them, it’s a potent pairing.

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