Rapper and songwriter Sampa The Great (born Sampa Tembo) has forged a successful career in Australia's music industry, but it hasn't been without its challenges. One of the biggest misconceptions has been around the artist's identity — while people often call her an Aussie singer, she's Zambian-born and Bostswana raised and this distinction is important to her.
"It's always been quite strange to see the whole Australian artist narrative being pushed, especially with it being a country I went to for university," Sampa tells Refinery29 Australia over Zoom.
Sampa moved to Australia in 2013 to complete a degree in audio engineering. Along the way, her music career took off and she scored several ARIA awards in 2019 and 2020.
But moving back to Zambia during the pandemic has been one of the best things she says she could've done. Her upcoming album, As Above, So Below reflects her reconnection with her roots, while also communicating to listeners that her love for music was born out of an upbringing in Africa.
"It's just making that transition into actually just being very adamant about the source and inspiration behind the music," she says. "It's Zambia and me growing up on this side of the world, and I'm making sure I give props to where the source of the music is coming from.
"All those dreams of being an artist began from home and to come here [to Zambia] professionally as Sampa The Great is a full circle moment for me."
Having enlisted family, friends and Southern African creatives to produce the album, Sampa's new work will reflect an array of African musical genres including Zamrock, Amapiano, Kwaito hip-hop and more.
A personal highlight during production was collaborating with people she grew up admiring in Zambia's music scene.
"My executive producer is someone who I watched when I was younger in high school, where I was like, 'That's what I want to do, that's who I want to be'. To actually work with him and create our own music together is such a huge full circle moment."
As Above, So Below also aims to reveal Sampa's "highest version of herself, without a mask or role to play". While living in Australia and creating music, she earned accolades for her work. She was named the Best Female Artist at the 2020 ARIA Awards and also became the first artist to win the Australian Music Prize twice (in 2017 and again in 2020). As successful as her career was, there was often an unspoken responsibility or role she felt compelled to play as a Black artist in the Australian music industry.
In 2019 she became the first woman of colour to win the Best Hip Hop Release category at the ARIA Awards, but her powerful acceptance speech — in which she spoke about diversity and representation in music — was cut from the live TV broadcast. The following year she won in the same ARIAs category, and also called out systemic racism in the music industry during her awards show performance filmed in Botswana.
"There's definitely a time where I felt like I had to be a certain way because I felt like I had to be an ambassador," she explains.
"I think around the time The Return (her album in 2019) was coming out and even a bit prior, we were seeing a lot of amazing Black artists in Australia being acknowledged for their work being seen internationally — your Kaiit's, Remi's, Sensible J's — and it was just a thing of, 'Oh, we're not underground anymore', or 'You can actually see us or you can see a side of Australia that was always here'.
"It's a pivotal moment to put out your work and show people that you were here. But it was also a moment where you were having your first Black artists to win or your first Black artists to do this, and with that came a lot of pressure — because you were the face of a community or race or agenda."
Sampa says that by having to behave a certain way and "be perfect", she felt like she removed a sense of who she was and in turn, it affected her music.
Now having been back at home in Zambia and created music that sings truest to her, she's looking forward to returning to Australia with a new outlook and sound.
As Above, So Below releases on Friday, September 9.