LLast Saturday, taking to the Glastonbury stage, Sampa the Great made history. A vision in bright red, the Zambian rapper/songwriter, whose birth name is Sampa Tembo, addressed the crowd with a sly smile on her face: “I’m standing on this stage with the first Zambian band to perform at Coachella,” said. “The first Zambian band to perform at the Sydney Opera House… and the first Zambian band to perform at Glastonbury!”
Being first It was never his intention, but it comes with the territory. “When we first went to Coachella, our thought process wasn’t ‘we want to be the first band from Zambia,’” he says. She’s talking to me moments after her performance, still wrapped in red latex and a plush red padded jacket, translucent gold eyeshadow visible behind her sunglasses. “Zambian bands don’t always tour internationally, they don’t always get hits. We want to be able to live our dreams and what came with that was being the first Zambian band to do that. It feels good to show younger Zambians that you can do this too.”
I caught Tembo during one of his biggest tours, a run of 12 European festivals that includes Barcelona’s Primavera Sound, Denmark’s Roskilde festival and, of course, Glastonbury. Earlier this year he performed throughout the United States. And he still found time to return to Australia, his home from 2013 until the start of the pandemic, to debut An Afro Future, an immersive live show, at Vivid and Rising. In the midst of it all, she was preparing for the release of As Above, So Below: her second album and, she says, her most authentic expression of herself to date.
Set for a September release, As Above, So Below continues a journey Tembo began with 2019’s The Return. On that album she was beleaguered and emotionally conflicted, worn down by the toxicity of the australian music and he is constantly asked to represent the African diaspora. As Above, So Below, he is freer, more agile, less weighed down by that weight; the result of Tembo’s return to Zambia, is an album that attempts to bridge the gap between who her family saw, who saw her on stage, and who saw herself in the mirror.
“Every time I left Zambia, everyone said, ‘She’s going back to Australia to do Sampa the Great stuff.’ She made me very funny that they differentiated me from Sampa la Grande, ”she says. In Zambia, she says, it’s rare for music to be seen as a full-time career, as opposed to “something you do in the west.”
“I am always Sampa Tembo, Sampa el Grande, we are the same person. That [name] It was an inspiration to be the best version of myself, I wasn’t meant to be an alter ego or persona.”
When the pandemic hit, Tembo moved to Zambia permanently and started working with musicians there. The disconnect he once felt began to fade: “Now I am Sampa the Great in Zambia.” He was finally able to enjoy his success as a musician at home, where his dreams of being an artist began. “That person is a whole, and he is doing what he does professionally in the Western Continent. He filled a huge void.”
The resulting album is Tembo’s best work to date: a vibrant DIY of hip-hop, trap and spoken word from Kalindula and Kwaito, Zamrock and R&B. It represents the first time that Tembo feels free to express all the influence that the music of South Africa has had on her. “This album is not made from the context of an African artist in Australia trying to be seen, trying to defend my culture. It’s made by Zambians in Zambia, surrounded by Zambians. It’s mostly about now, releasing an armor, releasing that weight that came from being an ambassador to everyone else.
“As my story started to grow in Australia and I was called ‘Australian,’ I felt like I really had to stand up for Zambia, and Zambian music and culture, the fact that I grew up in Botswana and listened to this music while they raised. raised fell by the wayside.”
Made in just two weeks, it is the first album Tembo credits herself as a co-producer on, along with Mag44, a Zambian producer whose music Tembo grew up listening to. Working with him, whose real name is Magnus Mando, was a full circle moment. “I heard Mag’s songs when I was about 10 years old, and it was like, ‘Oh, we can think of ourselves as more than just Zambian artists or African artists, we can do this globally,'” she says.
Working with Mando was an eye-opening experience for Tembo, in part because he no longer had to introduce his collaborators in Melbourne to the sounds of Zambia he was trying to reproduce. They quickly put together a record showcasing a new generation of artists from the African diaspora, including Tembo’s cousin Tio Nason and his sister Mwanjé, as well as pioneers like Beninese legend Angélique Kidjo and Zamrock forefather Emmanuel “Jagari”. Chanda, from the band. WITCH.
Paying tribute to Zamrock was important to Tembo, in part because, shortly after returning to Zambia, his father revealed that one of his uncles was a founding member of WITCH. “I was like, ‘I really could have used this information when I was starting out!’ I assumed that no one in our family had ever made music professionally. He was going in really scared that he might fail, and he didn’t have an example from anyone. [who had done it before]. And all this time, my uncle was making music and no one told me.”
Never Forget, the album’s final single, pays tribute to the Zamrock musicians who paved the way for artists like her. “I felt it was very brave, as artists from Zambia, to take on psychedelic rock in a country where what you are doing is not considered a profession or a career, and now you are building this great movement that is known globally.”
If Never Forget looks to the past, Let Me Be Great, the album’s closest funky anthem, finds Tembo with his eyes firmly set on the future. Featuring a chorus sung by Kidjo, it is the pair’s second collaboration, after Tembo appeared on Kidjo’s Grammy-winning album Mother Nature. Tembo speaks of Kidjo with wonder and admiration; when I talk to Kidjo about Tembo, the feeling is mutual.
“What he exudes is confidence in owning his own music, making it and defending it,” says Kidjo. “Anything that comes out of Africa in that light, I will support it, because my whole career has been about building bridges, but also encouraging young women to come into this male-dominated art.” The combination of simplicity and depth that she sees in Tembo’s music, she says, reminds her of when she started out. “As a girl born in any country in Africa, the best thing that can happen to you is to have a good marriage. We cannot reduce ourselves to that. So Sampa, in her royalty, her attitude, her unapologetic talent, that’s what I’ve been fighting for.”
For Tembo, it feels like she’s finally beginning to be understood, both by the outside world and by her family. In The Return and As Above So Below, the vision she saw of herself as a teenager is finally becoming a reality. “I think as parents, you always want your kids to do something that can sustain them when you’re not around,” she says. “For them, I always felt like I was chasing a hobby. For them to see this come to light, but also to see that I was using my music to show how proud I am of my culture, it gave them a lot of pride. They finally understand: this is who I am.”
As Above, So Below is out September 9 (Loma Vista Recordings); his new single Never Forget, featuring Chef 187, Tio Nason and Mwanjé, is out now.