Dec 17, 2015 2:54PM

Rapper Sampa The Great More Than Lives Up To Her Name

Ray of sunshine.

Zambian-born, Sydney-based artist Sampa the Great comes from a big family of dancers, performers and DJs. With creative genetics clearly on her side, it should come as no surprise that the singer/rapper/songwriter more than lives up to her name.

The talented multitasker is currently up for two FBi SMAC awards (for "Record of the Year" and "Next Big Thing" just casually), so we caught up with her in Sydney to chat about her extensive travels, her soulful family and how she started out rapping — and found out she's the most fun person to be around ever.

Amrita Hepi: Tell me about your travels — how did you end up in Australia? 
Sampa Tembo: I was born in Zambia, my whole family is from Zambia, and when I was two years old, we moved to Botswana. When I finished high school, I went to San Francisco for two years, and east of LA for a year studying art, music and visual media. I also did athletics; I actually wanted to be Hussien Bolt, for real. I couldn't work with the food structure of an athlete though, I was like, "It's too strong, I need freedom, guys!" Then my sister left the US and came to Australia. I didn't want to be on that whole continent alone so I left and I came too. I've been in Sydney for two years. 

So you studied art and visual media, as well as music — how did you make the choice? 
I was in it for live sound engineering, and also just so I could get the degree to make my dad happy, but it's always been songwriting. It's always been about singing and all that jazz, so when I finished my degree, I was like, "Daddy, I've done with you need. Imma do me now and give this artist thing a go." So I started jumping up at shows and when our music got not discovered but found, it was like, "OK, now we're gonna start doing this professionally!"You were telling me before about how you come from a family of performers…
The funny thing about this whole music thing, and getting my parents' approval — 'cause it was a struggle — was that my mum was a dancer and my dad was a DJ. But for some reason I can't do music [laughs]? I come from a family that loves to laugh really big! Like, "HA HA HA, everybody be happy!" Like theatrical, but not overdone theatrical, just everybody come and join us and have fun. I see that in performers that I like on stage — they're trying to connect and encourage everyone to have a good time, and I see that in my family. 

My little sister and brother both sing and do theatre. Everyone in my family is musically inclined, especially with the way that Zambian tradition is — always singing traditional songs, being loud and theatrical. It grows on you. And all of that soul, I can't separate it; it's all part of me. How did you start rapping? 
Well, rapping was not the first thing I was going do. I started writing songs; I was and am a songwriter. I would listen to other people's music and voices, which kind of delayed me finding my own voice in some ways because I would be like, "I like what you're doing, I'm gonna do exactly that." I would listen to the people I was writing for, or what was being played on the radio, but it was never really my voice. And so slowly I got out of that phase and started singing for myself.

Then I stumbled across slam poetry, because I was dealing with a lot of lyrics. One day in high school there was a group of boys doing a rap show, and after the show I was blown away and went up to them and said "Omg, can I rap with you?" and they were like, "No, you can't rap because you're a girl."

Fuck that! 
Right! It just didn't make sense, so when I went home I just started practising. Lauryn Hill came on and I was just like, "Ahhhh!"

You spoke about being "found" rather than discovered before. Can you tell me a bit about that? 
After my producer Godriguez and I released the mixtape, we started taking it around to different people, and we just didn't really feel like it was right the fit. So then we started throwing the mixtape around everywhere, even to the unreachable people. The Erykah Badus, everybody. And then Si from Wondercore Island, manager to Hiatus Kaiyoteresponded and was like, "This is really good, what's your plan?" He really opened the door in terms of questioning what we wanted to do with it. He would ask me questions like, "Where do you wanna go with this? What kind of artist do you want to be?", and asking those questions really opened up my mind. From then on it was a good team — we got together and Sampa the Great has been happening ever since!

How did you find your feet in Sydney?
I found this place called The Foundry 616 on Harris Street that plays jazz and hip-hop, and I took my friends along with me to see this rapper named Mateus. We went along and my sister pushed me up on stage and I did a rap, and I didn't know how it would be received, but people liked it. So I kept coming back. It wasn't at a professional artist level but it did make me realise I could perform.

What do you envision for the future? 
Growing more musically, growing more as a person and growing more spiritually. Just growing, man. I used to set plans on how my music would be, but I realised it didn't always work like that. In the new album, I'm focusing more on my singing. 

And how did the name Sampa the Great come to be? 
It was not always Sampa the Great — I'm still working on being a courageous person. Going on stage is tough, even now. Yeah, I'm a performer, yes I come from a family of performers, but sometimes I still have thoughts like, "I'm still human, and there's other humans looking at me. Ah!" So the name came from thinking about what I thought I'd never be, and that was "great", and so I put it next to my name to inspire me to actually be that. 

Catch Sampa the Great at the FBi SMACs Festival on Sunday 10th January at Carriageworks. For more info, click here

Photography: Alexis Aquino 
Fashion: Charlotte Agnew 
Hair & Make-up: Tracy Terashima 

Amrita Hepi