sampa the great explores the meaning of home on her new album 'the return'
The Australia-based artist talks about her creative process and how her music became a family affair.
Photo by Barun Chatterjee.
When Sampa Tembo was 10 years old, her parents forgot to pick her up from school one day. As the middle child, she was used to her parents forgetting about her, but this time it led to something profound. “I sat down, I had my little diary, and I just started what became my first song,” she says from her home in Melbourne, Australia.
From that moment on, Sampa knew that she was great. However, her parents weren’t so easily convinced. “Not a lot of people in our family had done that before,” she says, explaining why they were anxious about her wanting to pursue working as an artist. “My parents were like, ‘[being an artist] is all well and good, but you’re going to need a plan B because we don’t know if that’s going to work out for you.’” To put their minds at ease, Sampa agreed to go to college and study music and engineering; first in San Francisco, then in Sydney, Australia. “Our middle ground was for me to do sound, but also do engineering, so I merged the two together,” she says.
But Sampa’s artistic tendencies didn’t dissolve, so, without informing her parents, she started working on her first mixtape alongside her studies. “When [The Great Mixtape released in 2015 by Wondercore Island] finally came out, I was like, ‘this is a school project,’ but it ended up on radio, so then I had some explaining to do,” she says.
The story is an important prelude to The Return, Sampa’s debut studio album for the UK label Ninja Tune (Coldcut, Kelis, Peggy Gou). Her mom and sister sing on the opening track “Mwana,” and both her mom and dad appear in the music video for “OMG.” “That was full-circle for me,” Sampa says.
“Coming from a point where we had to compromise for me to start doing music, the full-circle element is them saying, ‘what are you writing now?’ or ‘what show are you playing?’ They’ve become really invested and interested in my music. Dad actually came home from work early to be in the music video. It’s one of the most significant moments of my life and my career.”
African rhythms, storytelling-inspired rap verses, and rich gospel harmonies flow through all 19 songs on The Return, which lands somewhere between Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Freedie Gibbs and Madlb’s Bandana, and Solange’s A Seat at the Table. Each song on The Return represents a different chapter in Sampa’s journey to find meaning in the definition of “home.” Born in Zambia and raised in Botswana, Sampa explores the African diaspora through themes of identity, spirituality, homesickness, and community.
“There are a lot of people that call Australia home, but they can't go home. So I was like, what is my small sense of displacement compared to people who can’t actually go home? And why is my homesickness affecting me so much, that regardless of all these great things that are happening in my career, there is still that longing for home?” From there, Sampa began to explore and find elements of home within herself.
Read more of i-D’s conversation with Sampa The Great below.
Did you discover what home means to you while making this record, or are you still figuring that out?
A bit of both. With actually physically going home, I came to discover that there are elements of the people [in Botswana and Zambia] that I’ve always carried with me. I took a couple of friends [from Australia] with me and they were like, “now we get why you like this.” Home for me is where I grew up, it’s where my family and my people are. Then there’s the home which is myself — that’s a new discovery. What the album was able to give me was that your soul creates a refuge, and whatever elements you carry within you, that is also a home.
There are 19 songs on the album. How much time did you spend perfecting the tracklist?
It was important to the story. “Mwana” starts it, and “Mwana” is all in Bemba, which is my mom’s language. My mom and my sister sing [on that song], and I thought it was a beautiful element for what the words are (“mwana wandi ikala panshi ndi naiwe”). What they are saying is, “I’m with you, sit down, I’m always with you, you don’t have to search for an element that is within yourself.” Now let’s dive into what that means. It reminds me of fire storytelling, where everybody comes together and we sit down and are like, “welcome, welcome, welcome into my home,” now let’s tell a story about what we are about to discover.
You’ve included voicemail recordings that some of your friends left you. What is the significance of those?
Throughout the album you will hear references to people not being able to get in touch with me. As a metaphor, whenever you’re diving into and dealing with finding yourself, there’s usually the saying, “you won’t find me here, I’ve gone off to look for myself.” I wanted to make that known, because that is what happens whenever I’m making an album or if I’m searching for myself — people can’t contact me. So I thought that was an appropriate element to add into the album because when you go on these journeys it doesn’t include other people, it’s just about you.
It preludes a song called “Times Up,” where you and Krown rap about the music industry killing the dreams of black artists. How did your own personal experience inform that song?
It’s sort of a summary of walking into the industry and thinking, I came into this so excited and now I feel like I’m in a corner by myself, trying to fight to show who I am and where I’m from. It’s a really in your-face song. We’re saying that we are black people who are in this industry and we want more than just magazine covers now. We’re talking about how the industry runs and what it looks like, and when it doesn’t look like you there’s a conversation to be had.
The rhythms on “OMG” are a highlight of The Return. Can you explain the origin of those sounds?
It’s a style of music we call Kwaito. I always dance to that music when I’m home, but it’s not something that’s really been reflected in my music. I told this to Kwes Darko (known for his work with Slowthai), who produces my music, and he was like, “let’s actually do this.” That’s what I love about this album, unlike my other projects, with this one we were like, “wherever we want to go, let’s give ourselves free range to go there.” I never thought I’d make a song that sounds like home, and yet, there it is.
It must have been nice to perform at home, and for your family to see people reacting to your music.
Oh my gosh, that really bridged the gap. I started my artistic career as Sampa The Great in Australia, so I had this separation where people in Africa didn’t know me. It wasn’t until I actually went home and heard my music playing on radio stations that I used to listen to when I was young [that it hit me]. There is a relatability, where you’re like, “I used to listen to this station when I was 18 and now I’m being played on it.” It makes it more real to you.
There is some amazing fashion in the videos for “Final Form” and “OMG.” What can you tell us about that?
That is from Ntombi Moyo, who is an amazing stylist and a good friend of mine. Visual media is just as important as music, so we wanted to merge those worlds and make sure the video was as good as the music. And I think we did that, I think we were able to show how vibrant and colorful fashion and visuals from home can really be.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about the The Return?
It’s been a beautiful process to make this album, and it’s been a more assured process. I never thought that I would go home, perform shows, and create music videos. It feels like a complete 360. I know it’s not the final form, I don’t want it to be the final form, I want things to continue as we go, but it’s more of an assurance of myself and I do recognize that, and I hope people recognize that.