Sampa the Great: From Healing to Healer
For Sampa the Great, making music was never about fame or fortune. In fact, the singer, rapper and poet could have never imagined that she’d be writing and performing songs as a career. Born in Zambia and raised in Botswana, Sampa only began pursuing music professionally upon her move to Australia, where she attended university and now lives. Today, November 10, she delivers Birds and the BEE9, a mixtape that attests to her organic relationship with her craft and the raw perspective that makes her one of today’s great poets.
What makes Sampa a standout artist is her ability to explore areas that are often ignored or overly embellished. And, like Birds and the BEE9, she take a no-frills approach. “I think we make healing pretty,” she tells TIDAL. “We have birds and pictures of flowers around healing, but I don’t think that’s the true depiction of healing, because every time I’ve healed something, it hurts.”
On the mixtape, Sampa throws herself into this acutely personal space — and her candor translates. From its first song, “Healing,” to its last, “Healer,” the artist’s growth is palpable — and quite sonically beautiful, at that.
In her interview with TIDAL, Sampa the Great shares her story: from the time she wrote her very first song after her parents forgot to pick her up at school to today.
Did you start making music in Australia, or did you start prior to that?
Never anything professionally. It was always a fabled thing or a dream to be able make music, but never anything in reality until I started making music here. I studied audio engineering, so we had facilities at school to produce music. So that was the first time I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this professionally.’ I started making the mixtape, and as soon as it got out and it started gaining attention, I realized that this was something I could do.
What is the music scene like out there in Australia?
I’ve just done professional music for three years, but it’s very vibrant and young. It’s bubbling. I think every time you’re in a space that is growing in music, especially hip-hop, different influences come from different ends. There’s a huge underground, and I think that’s just waiting to burst open.
Can you bring us through your upbringing and how music played a role in that?
My upbringing was pretty normal in the sense of being an African kid. We watched TV, mostly American. We listened to music a lot. My family sort of has this musical background. Everyone in my family sings or writes because it’s done very traditionally at home. It’s never considered something professional. We sing around our relatives, we sing around each other, but no one in my family has ever done music professionally until now, so it’s kind of scary.
When I was younger I loved writing. At nine years old, I walked into my cousin’s room, and he was listening to 2Pac’s ‘Changes,’ and I was just like, ‘Wow.’ He’s amazing because the storytelling was so amazing. It was like poetry to me.
I remember one time, my parents left me at school. They forgot to pick me up, and I was like, ‘Oh, they hate me. I’m a little kid, this is what I get blah blah blah,’ and I just started writing on the playground. And from that came this little song I showed to my cousin, who was like, ‘No, you didn’t write that.’ I was like, ‘I definitely wrote this,’ and he was like, ‘Nah.’ I was fascinated why he wouldn’t believe that I wrote that.
My childhood was very musical, very interactive. It wasn’t until after high school that I started messing with rapping. That was because of Lauryn Hill, a female like me. There was that representation there that this could be an actual thing that I do, so I started writing more and rapping more and considering myself someone who does music professionally.
My siblings took on music as well. My dad was like, ‘Ah! Nobody will be an accountant,’ and they started listening to music as well, but it’s something very into our tradition. Anything from coming of age ceremonies to weddings, everything is infused with music. It wasn’t until seeing that I could do this professionally and doing this as a degree when I started going for music as a profession.
This song ‘Rhymes to the East’ is such a great track. I read that you recorded it in one take?
The energy. Sometimes you lose the energy or the initial feel if you try to make it perfect. I was like, ‘Nah, we just have to record it in one take and get every breath every frustration and then it will be real.’ So we strived to do it in one take and we got the take.
Can you walk me through what the track is about and what it means to you?
It’s one track out of the whole project that I’ve been doing for the past five, six months. ‘Rhymes to the East’ is the opener for what the project is about. The song is about breaking out of any obstacles that stop you from reaching where you want to go. And these obstacles can be before you or obstacles that you have made yourself.
When you’re starting to grow as an artist you come across these obstacles a lot. This artistry has a lot to do with self belief. When you’re pushed, not pushed but at a very great speed, now you’re releasing songs that are stories about yourself to the world and now people know who you are and they are digesting you and dissecting what your songs are about, it’s very confronting to continue to release music that is so vulnerable. You get to a point that you think, ‘Maybe this is a lot. Let me close this off.’ You start making roadblocks for yourself to express yourself.
I think ‘Rhymes to the East’ is coming to that confrontation and being like, ‘It’s actually good to express yourself, regardless.’ Obviously if it’s true to yourself and not hurting anyone. But don’t block yourself from that expression because of fear. It’s about confronting that fear, confronting that road block and pushing that away and continuing to grow
When do you think you were really able to start doing that?
It was not too recently that I was able to do that. I guess it’s a mix of procrastination as well as being very nonchalant to the fact that this roadblock can affect what happened in the future. You come out expecting that and then you edit it so much that it doesn’t look like it in the end, and that’s not good for anything in the future. It would get to a point where it was like, ‘I’m not actually even expressing myself.’ It was time to confront what this was. I think only until recently I was able to say, ‘You have to confront this .If you want to continue music, if you want to continue expressing what’s true to you, if you want to continue collaborating or connecting with people with this thing, you had to do it 100 percent.’
Can you tell me about Birds and the BEE9?
[Birds and rhe BEE9] is basically a project expressing what it is to go from a person who is healing to a healer. I think we make healing pretty. We have birds and pictures of flowers around healing, but I don’t think that’s the true depiction of healing, because every time I’ve healed something, it hurts. So that just goes for the physical, too. Like if you break your leg, the process of healing is quite hard.
I think if we just show the pretty part of what healing is about, then we’re not showing healing. We’re showing what happens after you healed. It was very important for myself to show the whole process of healing and how you do come up of this whole journey at the top, and then you show the pretty pictures and the birds, but you have to show the wound before that.
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