The first time I saw Sampa the Great was slightly unusual. She was one of the artists featured at the TEDxMelbourne event in September 2017 at the Melbourne Convention Centre.
The musician’s message was very fitting for the theme of the whole conference, which was “Rebels, Revolutionaries & US”. And even though she performed just one song then, her artistic moniker was instantly imprinted in my memory.
So when I found out that Sampa the Great was performing at a festival I was eyeing in Europe this year, she was one of the main reasons I decided to attend it in the end.
Before publishing this post, I did wonder whether it would even be relevant to the blog’s theme. After all, in recent years, Sampa the Great has been focusing much more on her Zambian roots than the connection to Australia. But I did get to know the artist Down Under, and her career took off there, too.
To be honest, Sampa Tembo’s background is as rich as her music journey.
She was born in Zambia and spent her early years there, and in Botswana. She comes from a family where music is no stranger. Her mother is a dancer, DJ-ing is one of her father’s stints, and she had piano and singing lessons as a child. Before Australia, Sampa also spent some time studying music in the US. And when she moved to Sydney in 2013, she learned about audio engineering. Five years later, she changed her residency to Melbourne.
Many things have changed for the artist since I saw her on that TEDXMelbourne stage. Because of her eclectic style, she received well-deserved ARIAs (The Australian Recording Industry Association’s Awards) in 2019 (for Best Hip Hop release) and 2020 (for Best Hip Hop, Best Female Artist, and Best Independent releases). Her gigs slowly started attracting bigger crowds. And, somewhat unwillingly, she became a spokesperson “for anyone who’s of the diverse world” Down Under.
June 29th, 2022 was the first time Sampa the Great performed at the Open’er Festival. In fact, she stressed during the gig that her Zambian band was the first one ever to play Coachella, the Sydney Opera House or Glastonbury (in April, May and June 2022, respectively). “Not many people, who are from our country, get to do what we do. It’s a blessing for us to be able to play internationally”, she said. She also expressed hope that it wouldn’t be the last time.
In Poland, her set time at one of the smaller stages was a tricky one. She was “competing” with Måneskin (an Italian glam rock band that skyrocketed to fame after the Eurovision Song Contest win in 2021), who drew a huge crowd at the festival’s Main Stage at the same time. Nevertheless, she attracted a good mix of devoted fans (greets to the guy in front of me who boogied like there was no tomorrow to every. single. song.) and curious punters.
The artist kicked off her set with “Energy”. After that, she introduced herself and the band saying “There’s only one rule for the show: feel free, feel free to dance around”. And bounce is what people did. Because Sampa’s music is simply irresistible, you’ll find yourself vibing with the beat in no time.
The show itself was a celebration of African culture, as per its name, “An Afro Future”. Drum-heavy rhythms, chants, dancing and other ethnic elements dominated the set. That’s because, as Sampa mentioned, “We love sharing our culture”. A good example was a funky rendition of the Fugees’ “Fu-Gee-La” banger from 1996.
Throughout the set, the singer mentioned her country of origin numerous times. She reminisced that during the pandemic she’d travelled to Zambia “to find a new sense of self and reconnect with my roots back home”.
That spiritual journey was definitely reflected in the tracks she shared with the audience. “Black Girl Magik” was written for her sister to remind her she’s beautiful. “Let Me Be Great” is a collaboration with a Beninese singer and activist, Angélique Kidjo, about any artist’s struggles to always try to do their best. “Never Forget” refers to being aware of where you’re from and where you’re going. There was also a yet-unreleased “Self-Love Song” from the upcoming album dropping on September 9th.
Music was the most important element in Sampa the Great’s performance that day, without a doubt. The special effects were scarce, limited to lighting only. The whole focus was on the art. As the musician put it herself, “I love the vulnerability [in the music] the most. Even if we play in different languages, it makes you feel something”. So the band also threw in a song with Spanish lyrics, called “Agüita”.
Interestingly, the artist’s backing singers are her sister and cousin. And there were moments during the set when they played first fiddle on stage, letting Sampa’s raspy voice rest between the raps. They also accompanied Sampa in some choreography throughout the show, i.e. in the closing bangers, “OMG” and “Final Form”.
But why am I even writing about a Zambian artist’s gig that happened in Poland on a blog focused on the Australian music scene? Because it is an excellent example of how music transcends borders, regardless of cultural, economic or socio-political differences. Let me try to explain that better.
Sampa’s gigs in other parts of the world might not be a novelty anymore. But the Open’er Festival’s public is mostly young, white and primarily influenced by American and British pop culture. And even though the artist performed at the Alter Stage, which – as the name suggests – presents fewer commercial acts, it was uplifting to see punters truly connect with Sampa’s message.
I just wasn’t aware that she was recognisable in Europe to that extent. Some festival-goers even knew the lyrics by heart, and – in my humble view – Sampa’s rhymes and style are not the easiest to follow or imitate. The Polish press also described her performance as “interesting” and “energetic”. While the artist herself was dubbed “a rising star of the young generation of hip hop”.
The one-hour set was a good overview of the artist’s journey so far. The mix of hip hop, spiritual neo-soul, poetry and ethnic African elements was also a fresh addition to the festival’s otherwise commercial 2022 line-up. And I’m fairly sure that the next time I’ll see Sampa the Great it will be in an arena.
All footage from the festival is my own
Sampa the Great
Open’er Festival, Gdynia – Kosakowo, Poland
Wednesday, 29 June, 8.15 PM
- “Leading Us Home”
- “Never Forget”
- “Rhymes to the East”
- “Black Girl Magik”
- (Unknown) (New song)
- (Unknown) (New song, called a self-love song)
- “Let Me Be Great”
- “Fu-Gee-La” (Fugees’ cover)
- “Agüita” (Gabriel Garzón-Montano’s cover)
- “Final Form”
Listen to Sampa the Great’s new single here:
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