Why Sampa the Great lives up to her name

To Sampa Tembo, rap and singing go together like brother and sister
Pictures: Rosetta Msimango
To Sampa Tembo, rap and singing go together like brother and sister Pictures: Rosetta Msimango

Sampa the Great is a Zambian artist based in Australia who has a sound that you absolutely have to experience. Phumlani S Langa dives into the world of this gifted vocalist and rapper.

Sampa Tembo, known professionally as Sampa the Great, is a name that has been circling the inner-city music scene for a while. Her name has become synonymous with soul and I had the pleasure of experiencing it first hand at the Bushfire Festival in eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) last month.

She is quite the performer, although I overheard festival organisers suggest that her engineers could have done more to bolster her set as a headliner. The crowd seemed to lap it up as her gravelly voice floated above them into the dark and chilly night air.

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Tembo’s sound may not be conducive to prancing around all the time, but that’s because some of her work employs a technique that is dying out – the ballad.

She let rip vocally over some slow, swaying music similar to that from Busi Mhlongo and Thandiswa Mazwai.

A string of young artists seems to be reaching into the past for the direction of their new sound, and this is one sister who has done just that, and in an amazing fashion.

Whether or not her sound was full enough for everyone, her presence up there is undeniable. Tembo says her time on stage in eSwatini meant a lot to her as it represented a milestone in her career.

“It was a beautiful, huge festival stage at Bushfire Festival. It was an experience I will cherish as it was my first show on African soil,” says the Zambia-born singer.

She has been besotted with beats and sounds since she was nine: “That was when I wrote my first song. I’ve been pretty sure I wanted to be a performer and artist since that age onwards. The problem was actually saying it out loud. [I’m the] first in my family to do artistry professionally.”

When asked if it was difficult to fuse singing and rap in the way she has without compromising the one for the other, she says: “It’s not difficult. I had moments when I was younger of just strictly singing and writing melodies. Then moments of strictly rap. They are like brother and sister now. So if what I need to express needs to be sung, I sing. Then if it needs a rap, I rap.”

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Her catalogue boasts two full-blown projects, Birds and the BEE9 (2017) as well as The Great Mixtape (2015), which are both worth keeping.

Some of her work will have you ebbing and swaying gently; in others, she lets loose with a brazen flow that would make quite a few rappers uncomfortable.

I’m not a fan of SoundCloud because it’s like citizen music, but Tembo’s is straight fire, including the banger Energy, which she performed at the festival – it’s straight boom bap with bold horns and one of the most grimy flows you will hear this sister use, and it’s accompanied by a mean video.

She made a name for herself with her first full-length offering The Great Mixtape, which led to tours with the likes of US rapper Joey BadA$$, who also seems to be creatively taking a few steps backwards to move forwards.

She reminds me a little of Yugen Blakrok – raps seeped in fundamentals with an avant garde texture where some of the sounds are almost weird.

“Joey is a very dope artist. He is constantly giving me advice on my career path. Listening to yourself and being able to level up to your next work is some of the advice he gives. It was a pleasure rocking with him on tour,” Tembo says.

She is definitely the best spitter I’ve heard from Australia, and that’s word to Iggy Azalea. She is firmly placed in the bracket of rappers who are also vocally gifted.

. Catch Sampa the Great on home soil on June 31 at Kenzhero’s Untitled Basement

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