Sampa The Great is absolutely fascinating.
On record, onstage, and in person, the Zambian-born and Australian-based artist seems to explode with new ideas at every opportunity.
Clash hosted Sampa The Great early last year at London's KOKO venue, one of her first live performances in this country. It's been a joy to watch what's unfolded since, with the newcomer signing to Big Dada and releasing her vital new mixtape 'Birds And The BEE9' as 2017 came to close.
The only person who can predict what will happen in the next 12 months is Sampa The Great herself - Clash writer Ryan Nair tracked her down to ask a few questions...
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First of all, what is the artistic vision behind ‘Birds and the BEE9’ – can you tell me more about the choice of title and the kind of double-entendre/pun at play? Obviously this wordplay is deliberate and conjures up quite a juxtaposed duality of images…
Yes, well I used birds and the bees to symbolise the “coming to” of my sound.
BBEE9 is a collection of sounds that I think has made up the most 'me' sounding project to date. Nine being the date of my birth and being a message to myself. Gentle and kind and of no harmful effect.
How does this release set itself apart from your previous tape and EPs?
Hmm I stick more to the “project” label. 'The Great Mixtape' of course being my Intro was more showcasing what I can do and what I experiment in. There is definitely more freedom in experimenting on mixtapes I’d say, for sure.
Is a Sampa the Great ‘album’ in the works – do you see yourself writing a self-contained record or do you prefer this boundary-less approach where form is suspended for content?
Yes there’s definitely a project in the works. We don’t think in boundaries for any project but for this one I’ll probably will go above and beyond.
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We don’t think in boundaries for any project...
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You worked with three different producers on this release – Kwes Darko, Sensible J and Alejandro Abapo – what was it like working with a collection of producers? How did they differ in their approaches?
It was great to say the least. We were able to keep in communication throughout the production process but more importantly I think was being able to describe the sounds I was going for and what the project means, kept us all working towards a common goal.
Then working together was super easy. Yes they were different approaches but not so different. With every person there was a discussion about life, where we are and who are before expressing that in the music. The differences would be personality wise. We would probably start with lighting incense with jj. Some tea and drum jams with j and food and loops with Kwes.
They all had lamps though when we had recordings and the lights are off which I found super dope!
Your diverse heritage is well-known, and this is immediately apparent in your eclectic music. Do you think this globalised process is instinctive/natural or is it something you actively try to promote and channel?
I think it’s instinctive. It’s definitely not something I consciously pull out during the music making process. It just happens to be expressed subconsciously into the music.
In this day and age ‘genre’ doesn’t really mean much as genres are kind of bleeding into each other more than ever before with expansions in technology, etc. If someone asked you what your genre of music was though – how would you describe it to a passer-by?
I wouldn’t be able to describe it. I can tell you what I love. Poetry, chanting, raps and singing. The sound in which I choose to express these is probably where the genre talk would come into play.
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With every person there was a discussion about life... before expressing that in the music.
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A big question in modern society I think at the moment is whether artists in music (and elsewhere) should use their platform as a position of authority to speak on other issues – especially politics and social ethics...
For me, at a younger age our parents would never kick us out of the room when they talked about politics or society, in fact they would ask our opinions and this is at age nine. So me and my sibling always had a sense that our voice matters and to stand up for what we think is right regardless of what we do or who we are.
I would always say speak up. These problems don’t stop and turn around when they reach the door of music. So we are part of the society in which these things happen.
Can you talk me through the artwork – it’s quite prophetic and spiritual… Why ‘Sampa the Great’ as a stage name as well?
I feel the artwork represents a sort of authority/empowerment that is encapsulated in the whole record and definitely echoes the name. The cover - done by the amazing Sheeba Maya - symbolises what it looks like on the other side of confronting what you are trying to heal. But not before.
I think healing is often made pretty. With the flowers and the incense and the birds , when it is intact the hardest and unpretty processes we have to deal with in life. So I wanted to highlight the getting back up, the walking on crutches with a broken leg as well as show the healer/healing. The overcoming.
Sampa The Great... Just stems from putting what you thought you would never be at the end of your name and set it as a goal. 'Great' being the greatest version of myself I can be.
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It connects you to something inner and bigger... I definitely think it taps into the ethereal.
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What are your plans following the mixtape’s release – are there any UK shows scheduled or big dates coming up fans should know about?
I’m going into writing mode for a little following the mixtape and will be going back home to see my family friends and do that. I also have a lot of exciting shows lined up for next year and want to explore more countries with our music. It will be exciting times.
What songs on the tape did you have most fun writing/recording and why?
I guess the most different approach to recording would have to be 'Bye River'. I went into this session with my friend Areej and of course we all started talking about life and where we are at. Then I played Callie Days' rendition of 'Walk Around Heaven'.
We all got teary and started playing all these gospel songs spearheaded by these amazing black women and it just felt like a moment. It really did feel like our spirits were being lifted and you could hear it. Then silent Jay started playing the keys and “river river river...” kept popping up.
It was just crazy and we managed to incorporate poetry, chanting, singing and rapping on this one song. It was just different.
At the beginning of ‘Casper’ you speak of a dominating "internal voice" and say "feeling shit is hard, man – why can’t we just do turn-up music?" Do you think art is a way of tapping into something ethereal and suspending reality - an escape as well as an embrace?
That’s beautiful... an escape and embrace. Definitely - I haven’t seen it as any other thing, and it may be cheesy to say music is spiritual but it is... and not in a sense of Sunday dresses. It connects you to something inner and bigger... I definitely think it taps into the ethereal.
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'Birds And The BEE9' is out now.
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