Some wrestle with it, some deny it, and many just accept it with scant investigation, but your cultural heritage defines who you are. The places, language, and traditions that you grew up with invariably stay with you, shaping your values and beliefs, whether you grew up in Lusaka, New York or Plymouth.
Born in Zambia, raised in Botswana and now based in Melbourne, Sampa the Great understands better than most what it means to be a young, black, southern African woman trying to forge a music career in 2019. On her debut album The Return, she embarks on a defining, introspective journey that sees her steadily chiselling away at personal, professional and musical barriers. In the process, she has challenged herself to understand her cultural heritage through her music better.
However, embarking on such a journey comes with its costs. For Sampa, it has also meant isolating herself from friends and family to comprehensively examine her identity and evaluate the presumptions and values she has about herself, and her personal connections. Unsurprising, then, that this is an album that ably shows profound artistic and personal insight.
Musically, The Return is a genre-defying blend of hip-hop, jazz, and soul, all with a light sprinkling of southern African rhythms. The musical scope on the album is at times dazzling, with songs frequently darting down unexpected musical alleyways. To accompany her on this musical trip, Sampa has enlisted an impressive group of collaborators. Featuring the London jazz collective Steam Down, Ecca Vandal, Jonwayne Silentjay, Thando, Krown, Mandarin Dreams, and others.
Over clipped Afrobeat, and gliding wind instrumentation like a cacophony of twittering birds, opener “Mwana”, feels like a musical celebration of her southern African heritage. When it comes, her electric flow illuminates the track with syllables dancing together in perfect harmony.
The stunning, “Freedom” initially canters in on a classic Motown-esque, languid groove before Sampa firmly wrenches it into 2019. Her breezy, soulful vocals give way to tenacious, rapped couplets that detail the obstacles and fundamental sacrifices a black, female artist has to make to succeed. “From the beginnin’/ we never winnin’/They want our image/ we the spark/ You want my art/ what’s hot, what’s not.” This theme continues into “Time’s Up.” With its minimalist hip-hop backing, Sampa and South Sudanese rapper Krown pull no punches on a bold evisceration of the music industry. With each syllable hitting the target like a sniper’s bullet, Sampa and Krown aim squarely at the way the music industry has chewed up and spat out so many embryonic careers. “I see the industry kill dreams of a dreamer.”
The gorgeous “Grass Is Greener” is a little more comforting with its neo-soul meets jazz backing. Meanwhile, the punchy “Dare to Fly” marks the point where the album really starts to kick. With stuttering drums and edgy synths, the production has a little more sonic sting in its tail. The stomping “OMG”, sees Sampa in fierce form as she celebrates blackness in all its forms. “Never underestimate your highness/ Dripped in melanin/ Galaxy’s finest.”
With its maverick approach to splicing genres and finding the perfect sample (“Stay Away From Me” by the Sylvers), “Final Form” is probably the closest you’ll ever get to Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, and Janelle Monae jamming in a room together. It takes all her promise and undoubted talent and turns it into one, stone-cold, instant classic. It’s the kind of song that defies time; sounding like a lost gem and a modern marvel all at the same time.
The jazzy “Don’t Give Up” featuring Mandarin Dream, coasts in on a smooth wave of late-night trumpets and a slinking double bass line. It finds Sampa in comforting mood as she implores the listener to stay strong even at their lowest ebb. It concludes with a spoken word answerphone message that suggests that she has finally worked her way to a better understanding of who she is and where she comes from.
As the drifts to its conclusion with the summery soul of “Made Us Better”, Sampa relays the lessons she has learned along the way. In the end, the struggle was worth it. Also, you should never hold a grudge, and that, however dark life gets, there’s always someone who can point you towards the light. The listener is left with the suggestion that she has finally fit all the pieces in the right place and can now see the bigger picture.
The Return is both a willfully enigmatic and deeply revealing album. Sampa veers from moments of profound vulnerability to unwavering self-confidence as she details the battles she has won and lost. Musically, it is an often breathtaking listen as she straddles various genres with consummate ease. It serves as a dazzling celebration of her cultural and musical heritage that will resonate for years to come.