Sampa the Great Transcends Genres While Paying Homage to Her African Roots

The Zambian-born, Botswana-raised artist is set to drop her sophomore album soon after a recent string of high-profile TV features.

Photo by Constance Spence
Photo by Constance Spence

Sampa the Great had her playful 2019 track “OMG” turn up in Michaela Coel’s stellar HBO series, I May Destroy You, and her soulful “Freedom” remains high atop the official playlist of The Michelle Obama Podcast. But the Zambian-based rapper, singer, and poet’s prime placement in the final season of Netflix’s hit series Ozark is the one that caught fire. There’s a scene near the show’s end when Ruth Langmore, a fan-favorite underdog and hip-hop head played by Emmy Award-winning actor Julia Garner, is on a plane to Miami, finally feeling her evolution from trailer trash to savvy businesswoman, and the hype song blaring in her headphones is the head-nodding tribute to female resilience, “Energy.”

The more introductions to Sampa the Great, the better. The Zambian-born, Botswana-raised artist is big in Australia, where she’s the only artist to win its prestigious Australian Music Prize twice (Indie darling Courtney Barnett only has one). In the States, she has a presence but no breakout hit, but with prominent features like Ozark notched under her belt, that may come soon. “My sister watches the show and she was like, ‘Yo, this is huge,’” says Sampa the Great, whose surname is Tembo. Even her peers offered their congratulations, like Ghanaian-American singer Moses Sumney, who DM’d her. For weeks, the comments on Tembo’s social media read like an exciting guestbook. “We got a whole new group of people engaged who had never heard about me or my music,” she says. “Like, ‘Wow, I'm here from Ozark, but this is really dope.’”

Tembo moved to Australia in 2013, where she adopted the moniker Sampa the Great and dropped her first recording, 2015’s The Great Mixtape, the same day she received a degree in sound engineering. A deft freestyler and dexterous MC still honing her style, Tembo quickly noticed the locals didn’t regard her as an individual artist, but as a kind of identity ambassador—a ready-made proxy for South African Black women. “I felt like people wanted me to be a Viola Davis character,” Tembo says, cracking up with a half-serious, did-I-go-there laugh. “I felt like everyone, as they do with Black women today, expected me to just be everything: Be the nurturer, the protector, the ambassador. That was a lot for me, and a lot of weight to carry.”

That responsibility only intensified as her profile rose. With increased visibility, she felt constant pressure, as if every action wasn’t just her own, but a statement on behalf of Blackness. In 2019, she won the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) award for Best Hip-Hop Release in the overdue category’s inaugural year and delivered an acceptance speech calling for more Black art diversity in Australia—but her plea was conveniently cut from the awards’ national telecast, which doubly proved her point. “As an African woman, you're always fighting with people’s view of what an African woman is,” Tembo says. “Were those [stereotypes] broken and people represented during the process? Yes. But were there a lot of battle scars too? For sure.”

As an African woman, you're always fighting with people’s view of what an African woman is.

Sampa the Great

So, when the pandemic drew her back to Zambia, the relocation offered a sense of creative relief. “It felt like, ‘Oh, it’s just time to represent Sampa—I know how to do that!’’ Her time spent sitting still functioned as a kind of chrysalis and a new aspect of her identity emerged, one Tembo has dubbed Eve and integrated into spoken word and songwriting. “If I'm going to break these generational expectations of what women can do—I'm touring around the world, I'm never home, I'm never cooking—I'm gonna be the first [of all that], I'm the Eve.” In other words, if Sampa the Great’s redefining what it means to be an African woman, she might as well give that emerging ideal a name.

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Returning home had always been part of the plan, but COVID-19 fast-tracked that timeline. “My long-term goal has always been to come back to Zambia, bring the knowledge I've learned from all these different industries, and make something at home with it.” With producers in Australia, there had been an inherent learning curve. “A lot of the time, it was me telling the producer about a sound from Zambia or Botswana that I wanted them to recreate.” When she wrangled South African talent to produce her new album—executive producer Mag44 and co-producers Sam Nyambe, Sammy Masta, and Solomon Plate—they not only understood her reference points, they didn’t know life without them.

Finished in just two weeks, the result is the forthcoming project As Above, So Below (out September 9 via Loma Vista Recordings), Sampa the Great’s second proper, full-length, and fastest-completed album to date. With appearances from New York City rapper Joey Bada$$, British-Ghanaian hip-hop artist Kojey Radical, and a dream-come-true collaboration with Beninese doyenne Angélique Kidjo, the album is “hybrid music,” Tembo says. True to form, her engagement with different genres has always been porous, chatter-rapping over masterfully swirled elements of hip-hop, jazz, ’90s R&B, soul, gospel, spoken word, vocal harmonies, traditional African music, and more. The first single, “Lane,” featuring labelmate Denzel Curry, continues with this theme, with Tembo refusing to be pigeonholed over a gospel organ and trap beat.

Photo by Constance Spence

As Above, So Below also digs into her country’s cultural history with “Never Forget,” a reverent ode to Zamrock, a short-lived ’70s genre that fused traditional Zambian music with late-’60s psychedelic rock. Less than a decade after the country’s 1964 liberation from Britain, a community of self-taught musicians inspired by the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix sprung up, making garage-rock singles and three- or four-chord proto-punk jams until curfews and blackouts made the logistics of performance impossible. Tembo had never heard of the movement until she moved home and met one of its few survivors, Emanuel "Jagari" Chanda. “How do we as Zambians not talk about this?” she says. Maybe that will soon change: Chanda’s seminal group WITCH also makes a cameo on the album.

In other ways, Tembo has conscientiously used her platform to elevate her country’s creatives. For an early 2022 string of North American performances, she assembled an all-Zambian live band that’s been touring with her ever since. Just a few months ago, they made history as the first Zambian band to play Coachella and Glastonbury. “Being the first Zambian band to play those festivals is just like, ‘Wow!’”

Looking forward, she’ll spend the rest of the summer hopscotching around North American music festivals, like Osheaga in Montreal, Newport Jazz in Rhode Island, and Outside Lands in San Francisco, before embarking on a European tour this fall—something she feared might be an impossibility just two years ago. “To be on stage again and see people singing back? It’s like, ‘Oh! You still care about my music!’” she says happily. “We almost all had an asteroid moment and when my music still resonates, that’s dope.”

But first comes Sampa the Great’s Lollapalooza debut in Chicago later this month. “We’re excited to do Lolla,” she says, promising “a really cool performance” that’ll include unreleased tracks from As Above, So Below and a cast of dancers. Her advice? “Bring a lot of energy.”

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