TIDAL Rising: Sammus
Sammus is sprawled on her bed — a simple mattress on the floor covered in mussed white sheets — binge-watching Netflix documentary series Captive when I arrive to chat with her on a sunny Good Friday. She’s a major fan of shows like these, true crime: low budget, big budget, she’s in. Next door, a child determinedly climbs the steps to a brownstone, balancing two cases of soda in her arms. Trees flower on the sidewalk, a sign post bears a poster for an upcoming school carnival, and, from Sammus’ window, you can hear the faint laughter of kids finally set from the drudgery of school.
She pauses the show, the screen frozen on the face of a very serious-looking cop, and sits barefoot on her bed. She’s dressed in spandex exercise pants, black ball cap and a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of her hometown of Ithaca, where she will be performing come September as part of the Cayuga Sound Festival, an event dreamed up by Sam Harris of X Ambassadors, another Ithaca native. The Roots are also set to perform.
“It’s going to be at this place called Stewart Park, which a lot of us went to when we were teens,” Sammus says as the computer screen dims to black, her birth name, “Enongo,” bouncing across the screen-saver. “So I think it’s so unbelievable to have these internationally recognized artists come to this little town which, at least when I was younger, I didn’t really think anyone outside of Ithaca cared about. There’s a lot of neat stuff going on, but nothing on the scale of this festival.”
Sammus was born Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, her rapper name taken from the main character in the video game Metroid, one of the few such female characters she knew. Her mother is Ivorian and her father is Congolese, but Sammus is Ithaca bred. There, she grew up on a steady diet of music and video games, those two elements mixing and melding in her own work, the most recent record being Pieces in Space, released in 2016 on Don Giovanni records. It’s a record that refuses to remain in the background, replete with odes to anxiety (“Nighttime”), pleas for strong, black, female role models in pop culture (“Perfect, Dark”) and ruminations on the academic life, among other things (“1080p”). Sammus is currently pursuing her PhD at Cornell — all while writing beats and touring with the likes of Sadie Dupuis’ Sad13.
Read on for what Sammus and I chatted about during that break in her Netflix binge.
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On family and inspiration… My older brother [Disashi Lumumba–Kasongo] is the guitarist in the band Gym Class Heroes. He taught me everything I know about music. I think he was more invested in it — I won’t say ‘professionally’ but just in terms of the amount of time and energy he devoted to it. I just looked up to him and wanted to follow behind him and basically be his little protégée.
It wasn’t until middle school that I started to develop my own musical taste and that veered a little bit from my brother’s — in the sense that I liked electronica music a little bit more; I liked instrumental music a little bit more. So I started fashioning myself as a producer, whereas he wanted to be in a rock band. In high school, that was the first time I heard Kanye West and I was like, ‘Oh, I want to make hip-hop beats.’ That’s where my head is.
On learning from teaching… When I graduated from undergrad [Cornell], I moved to Houston, Texas, through Teach for America and I taught there for two and a half years. During that time, music became a priority — mostly because I was depressed about teaching. I didn’t expect to face as many challenges as I did. Just seeing the education system from the inside was such a mindfuck.
I taught third and fourth grade math and science and just seeing some of the things that my students were dealing with — it was hard for me on a personal level. I cannot believe that we’re in this country where there’s such a gap between the ways that people learn.
So I was sad and I would stay in my room all the time and make beats on my computer. And then I thought: ‘My students are not super inspired by what I’m doing. What if I made hip-hop songs about how cool it is to be a geek and maybe that will entice them to want to listen to what I’m talking about?’ They had such amazing recall of music, of songs.
I found that a lot of adults actually resonated with what I was saying, so that was neat. It was fun to do. It was a release. And this was also a perspective that I hadn’t heard that much of in hip-hop.
On feminism and activism… The further along I get, the less I feel like there’s any standard for what constitutes a proper activist or a proper feminist. Maybe a few years ago — and this is a change that I’ve seen even in the content of my music — I think I was coming from a pretty righteous standpoint where it’s like, ‘I know what’s right.’ A lot of conscious hip-hop artists fall into their category where it can be very preachy, like, ‘These are the ills of society, now listen to me.’
Since that time I’ve become a lot more introspective and in that process I’ve been thinking about how complicated some of these labels and terms really are. I always tell people, I told people right after the election: ‘Marginalized people should not feel the need to perform wokeness at this moment.’ Right now it’s about taking care of ourselves at the level of mental health and not about being out at every protest or throwing one hundred percent of your energy into what’s going on right now. Because it’s untenable. I think an older version of me would be much less generous about folks who are prioritizing themselves at this moment.
In terms of being a proper feminist, I don’t think that that exists. My awakening from that has been from folks being like, ‘I really like your music, Sammus, because you don’t talk about sexuality. You don’t talk about your body like Nicki Minaj.’ Being pitted against other women MCs has made me come to a place where I’m like, ‘That’s unacceptable.’ I don’t want to be complimented because I’m doing something that they perceive to be unacceptable for a woman to do. I don’t think any woman should be penalized for talking about sex or their body or whatever the fuck she wants to talk about. So that’s when my worldview about feminism started to open up — when I saw how it was being weaponized, in a sense, and used to shame other women for making different choices.
On new music… I’m thinking about a collaborative project with my homie. I don’t know how much I can talk about it yet, but I’ll just say I’m working on a collaborative EP for fall. In terms of my own next project, I’ve been working on some new music, but I really want to let the last record sit for a little while, because one of the things I’m trying to do is to have a video for each song on the project. I’m hoping that in 2018 I’ll have another full-length project.
Soundwise, I think I’m moving toward music that’s a little more chill. I think my music has reached a point where it’s really tense and really tense to perform. I want to write some tracks that are a little bit more laidback, because that’s what I’m feeling — I feel OK. I’m in a place now where I’m not as affected by people’s opinions as I think I used to be when I was a little bit earlier in my career. Of course the Internet is scary; it’s a scary place. But I think I figured out ways to engage with it from a healthy distance.
On making music in 2017… I’m teaching a class this semester at NYU that’s about science and pseudo-science and most recently we read a book about different theories around how dinosaurs went extinct. But the bigger, overarching question for the class is: ‘How are facts formed? How do we believe a thing to be true?’ I think that that’s a really interesting question at this moment. Definitely now more than ever.
I hope to engage with some of the weirdness of making sense of things in this moment in my upcoming music. How much confusion I’m feeling. With my last record, it was all about a sense of clarity, clarity about realizing that I had a lot of issues to work through in the context of mental health. Or clarity around, ‘Oh, I’m a smart person, I can call myself a genius.’ But I think, moving forward, even though I’m in a more chill place sonically, I think the thing that I want to engage with is confusion.
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