Sampa the Great: The Arrival
“Find out who you are.”
Sighed over the soft patter of syncopated drums, the opening line of Sampa Tembo’s second album, As Above, So Below, functions on several levels. As well as providing an impressively incisive primer for a record steeped in ideas of identity and legacy, it serves as a directive to listeners and as a distillation of her own creative journey to this point.
It’s now been two years since the Zambian rapper returned home from Australia – her base for the past seven years – to be near family during the pandemic. It was only ever intended to be a brief sojourn but quickly became an indefinite move when Tembo’s repeated attempts to return to Melbourne were thwarted by some of the strictest border controls of the entire Covid crisis. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m not going anywhere,’” the 29-year-old chuckles, speaking down the line from LA, where she’s finishing up the US and Canadian leg of her current tour before picking it up again in Brazil. “What can I do now that I’m home?”
The answer was to create As Above, So Below. A wildly imaginative and eclectic album fusing hip-hop, trap and R&B with Kalindula, Kwaito, Zamrock and amapiano. Accompanied by an ambitious Afrofuturist visual concept devised with filmmaker Rharha Nembhard, the project was created in just two weeks in the Zambian capital of Lusaka, in collaboration with an impressive cast of local talent. Tembo was joined by her younger sister Mwanjé and cousin Tio Nason, as well as Afro-jazz musician James Sakala, MC Chef 187, Emmanuel “Jagari” Chanda of 70s Zamrock pioneers W.I.T.C.H. and rapper-producer Magnus “Mag44” Mando.
“I first worked with Mag44 when we were in high school,” Tembo says of the connection. “He and a couple of artists – including my cousin Tio – were part of this label called Lota House that brought a fresh perspective to the Zambian music industry. They made a lot of us young artists dream bigger, inspiring us to take our music global. To have him executive-producing my album is a dream come true.”
If Mag44’s involvement proved a full-circle moment, it was eclipsed by the involvement of Jagari Chanda on Can I Live, one of two Zamrock-inspired songs on the record. “Discovering Zamrock was huge,” emphasises Tembo. “When I went back home, I started learning about the genre and became fascinated by the idea of young Zambians mixing psychedelic rock with traditional folk music at a time when society was even more conservative than it is now. And then meeting Mr Jagari Chanda – hearing his stories and him becoming a mentor to me – was amazing, made even more incredible by the fact I later found out from my father that my uncle was one of the founding members of W.I.T.C.H.”
It took a move back to her home nation for 29-year-old Tembo to make these cultural connections. As Above, So Below is the first body of work Tembo has had the opportunity to record outside of Australia. Raised between Zambia and Botswana, Tembo briefly had a stint in LA in 2012, before relocating to Sydney in 2013 to study music production. She released her debut project, The Great Mixtape, two years later. The follow-up, 2017’s Birds and the BEE9, received the coveted Australian Music Prize, as did her debut album proper, 2019’s The Return. Examining ideas of home, belonging and exclusion, the record also won Tembo a clutch of highly-coveted ARIA awards, including Best Hip-Hop Release – the first time a woman had ever won in this category. When she acknowledged as much in her acceptance speech, the organisers hastily cut to an advert break.
Even more alarmingly, as Tembo’s popularity grew, so did the industry’s attempts to downplay her heritage. ”When the first mixtape came out I was a ‘Zambian artist’, but as my career started to take off, I became a ‘Zambian-Australian artist’. Sometimes it even got as crazy as just ‘the Australian artist,’” she explains, visibly frustrated. “It gets to a point where it’s not just an innocent factual inaccuracy – people are doing it purposefully. And you want to get to the root of why they’re doing that. Because the songs, the music, the stories, were all inspired by Zambia – why erase Zambia from the story? It quickly became this thing where I had to constantly remind people who I am and where I’m from.”
Tembo increasingly felt the burden of being unfairly positioned as a spokesperson for the entire African diaspora. “I think Australia’s only just learning how to be a welcoming place in a broader sense to immigrants, and just being a Black artist in Australia – trying to bring our stories and culture to the mainstream – that took a huge toll. It’s just not the same pressure your peers get. Because not only do you have to represent your art, you also have to represent your community, your country. It becomes this huge source of pressure, making sure you do everything perfectly.”
"What you see is what you get. I owe it to myself to show that range, especially as a woman in hip-hop. There’s not just one way to represent me"
That weight was lifted almost instantly when she returned to Zambia, freeing her to explore “a lighter Sampa” and to examine the multiplicities that exist within her, as exemplified on Shadows, where she spits “I can be hard/ I can be soft/ I can be everything under the stars” over cascades of marimbas. Introduced later in the same track – during a spoken word passage performed in Bemba by Gabbi Chansa Lamba – is the character of Eve. A recurrent motif on both the record and in its accompanying visuals, Eve is less an alter-ego than a physical manifestation of the woman Tembo intends to be.
“I’m working up the courage to be that woman, whether that’s a more confident Sampa, or a more sensual Sampa. It’s about releasing that armour, removing those masks and being my most transparent self. What you see is what you get: as above, so below. I owe it to myself to show that range, especially as a woman, and especially as a woman in hip-hop. You know, there’s not just one way to represent me.”
In the spectacular, longform music video for the Denzel Curry-starring lead single Lane – set in a remote underground cave in South Africa – Tembo appears as the present-day Eve, cocooned in jade silk alongside two actors cast as the younger and older incarnations of the character. Through this snapshot of generational differences, directors Imraan Christian and Rharha Nembhard underscore the idea of legacy, one of the key lyrical preoccupations of the project.
This theme is most squarely addressed on anthemic album closer, Let Me Be Great, which, in a wonderful piece of synergy, features one of Tembo’s musical heroes, Beninese singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo. After meeting at Womadelaide festival in 2016, they’ve collaborated once previously on Free & Equal from Kidjo’s acclaimed 2021 album, Mother Nature.
“She sings in this very beautiful, almost ancient tone that we’re so used to hearing from the continent,” Tembo enthuses. “If you talk about [Malian singer-songwriter] Salif Keita and all the legends that came before, that’s the tone that they use, and it almost feels like they’ve been here before. So when [Angélique] added her vocals to a song about legacy, it just fit so well, because she’s created a huge legacy for women like me to come through.”
It’s a tradition that Tembo is determined to continue. “A huge goal of mine is to open up studios and use my platform and resources to help young Zambians – pay it forward. Everything that I’m doing now is off the back of someone who opened the doors for me, whether that was Zamrock or Mag44.”
As uncomfortable as many of her experiences in the Australian music industry were at the time, it was in the process of facing down those challenges that Tembo gleaned a deeper understanding of the artist she is. “I don’t usually do the pat-on-the-back thing, but looking back at my career journey in Australia, I realise how much courage it took to go to a different continent, a different industry, and try to challenge it. Because it was always about learning and taking that knowledge back home.”
She pauses and then continues, suddenly quite serene. “Now I’m no longer yearning to be home, like I was on The Return. I am home. And I’m at peace now.”
As Above, So Below is out now via Loma Vista