Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez
Sampa the Great on Building Bridges Across Generations with Angélique Kidjo
Sampa the Great talks to Okayplayer about her relationship with musical legend Angélique Kidjo and the importance of building bridges across generations.
Sampa the Great has been on a creative spree as of late. In just the last month or so, the Zambian artist, born Sampa Tembo, has dropped an album, toured the U.S., and opened for Billie Eilish in her adopted home of Australia. When I called her on Zoom for this interview, the second trailer for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever had just dropped. It features her song “Never Forget” and I could hear faint cheers of celebration coming through the walls as she answered. (“Overwhelmed with gratitude” was how she described the feeling.) Now, her spree continues with the release of the video for her song “Let Me Be Great” with one of the world’s greatest musical legends: Angélique Kidjo. The visuals for the closing song on Sampa’s latest album, As Above, So Below, takes us into a futuristic world that pays homage to Kidjo’s GRAMMY-nominated, groundbreaking 1994 video for “Agolo.” It’s a powerful song. Expansive and momentous — a call to arms for anyone doubting that they should be exactly what they are: great.
The pairing of Sampa and Kidjo happened rather organically. Kidjo saw Sampa’s striking 2021 NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concert and reached out to have her on her 2021 album, Mother Nature. Then, Sampa returned the favor and asked Kidjo to be on her album. In September, for NPR’s 1,000th episode, Kidjo performed her own Tiny Desk and brought out Sampa. Their chemistry and respect for one another is evident through the screen — amplified by their complementary colored outfits (peep Kidjo rapping at 8:04).
Here, Sampa talks about relationship with Angélique and the importance of building bridges across generations.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
It’s wild that an Instagram DM from Angélique led to so many collaborations. What was it like when you were getting ready to actually perform with her for Tiny Desk?
Sampa The Great: I remember the day before that performance, how nervous I was. Shockingly nervous. I remember texting my best friend and being like, “Yo, I have to get this right.” I think part of that pressure came from what Angélique means to me — and what she means to my family. My parents are huge fans of her and what she's done for bringing our music to the world stage. And we even say “our” — knowing that she's from Benin. But she's ours as Africans. And bringing that to a world stage is something that is so historic and so important. I can't get this wrong. I have to make sure I'm walking into this legendary sphere correct.
What was it like walking in, actually?
I go straight to Angélique's room. She's there doing her own makeup and laughing. And here I come carrying all these nerves and she literally is just like, “Oh, this is going to be so fun. Oh, these are the vocal warmups you should do. What color are you wearing?” She just made it a girl's hangout.
It became this beautiful interaction of music mama and child. Talking about how far we've come with our stories, where we met and how beautiful this is that the story continues.
After having you perform on her Tiny Desk Concert, Angélique ends with a tribute to her mentor: Miriam Makeba. One concert with three Black women from three different generations from all across the continent. I thought that was so beautiful that she shed light both on the past and what she sees as the future.
She's just very prophetic in her actions, very genuine in what she does. She’s intentional in showing: “this work that I've done, it was for you.” It wasn't for nothing. Opening doors for the younger generations, that's what we need.
I have friends, especially artists in hip-hop, who feel the ones who came before didn’t teach them. So they make the same mistakes. For you, what is that like having not only a legend, but also an elder?
My biggest music inspiration doesn't really mesh with the industry: Lauryn Hill — this is the person who I faceted my whole music career around. Her and Tupac.
The two artists you mention in “Let Me Be Great,” directly.
Yes, I mention both Tupac and Lauryn Hill. “She showed me I could conquer any hill.” That's my lyric, and that's true. I think as a young upcoming artist, I dreamed of her being my mentor and all that. But because of the experiences she has had in the industry, that wasn’t really going to happen. And I get that.
What we as upcoming artists really value is guidance. But guidance with the knowledge that things will change. I think sometimes we are struck by legends who are like, “This is how it should be done, don't change.” And that's not to say they can't give us direction in growing the music or making it greater or even giving their honest opinion. Angélique has been so gracious at giving me advice as both a mentor and a fan. Same with Mr. Jagari from WITCH [vocalist for the legendary ‘70s Zamrock band]. My experience has never come across as negative. I'm hoping that we are able to work with our legends more where the gems that they give us will push the genre forward. Versus it being thought of as the new is taking away or replacing the former.
It’s fueled by a scarcity mindset. A new one pushes out an old one. But in the digital age, things really can exist within reach forever. People can discover you much more easily forever.
The threat of being replaced is really huge. It takes away from us really learning from each other and passing gems. Oral history is huge. Passing information down from one generation to another is how we survived. That's how we told our stories when our libraries were burned: through songs, through rap, through poetry. And that missing connection could be detrimental to us if we continue to think in terms of replacement. As OGs, we need to embrace that we may not eat from the fruits that we labored for, but they have progressed our culture. It's a very important topic.
I can only express my experience. And the little experience I've had in the context of moving to Australia is that I knew that I probably won't see the benefits of what I was doing at that time. I just knew I had a strong passion to make sure African music and Black culture was seen in the mainstream of Australia. I never saw it on TV and never really heard it on the radio. Me and my community, our main goal was: you're going to see it. Everything that came after that just…came after that.
Screenshot from the “Let Me Be Great” video
But your goal was just exposure?
Yes. That's it. Some of us released albums thinking it was career suicide. Just that the goal was to see these faces, hear these stories. We thought we would only be blessed to have youngins who follow us to be like, “Nah, because of you, this is why this has happened.” I think a lot of our legends need their flowers — especially in hip hop. A lot of our legends are passing away without getting the proper accolades. That turns into a very hardened, bitter relationship with the new generation.
For me and my music, never forget Zamrock. In any space I step in, I make sure I acknowledge those who've paved the way for you. I wasn't raised in Australia, but I acknowledge those who came before me. My OGs are N’Fa, Jones, Remi and Sensible J. I'll always acknowledge them because they're the ones who paved the way for me to even be able to express myself. It’s the same in Zambia. They're the reason why I get to do what I do. And I know how it feels to feel like you haven't been appreciated for your work, especially work that causes the immense amount of trauma and stress that our work does.
Who is the creative team you brought with you for this video?
Rharha Nembhard. I'm so glad I met her. Just even talking about generational joys, one of my goals for this album was my “Eve Era.” It involved healthily showing the range of an African woman. Within music, but also sensuality. Being able to claim that beautifully without any traditional, cultural or religious shame. Which I think is embedded in our culture. That's one of the things that I've had to fight in my career, especially for the woman that I am and the love of my femininity.
Rha guides me through that and makes sure I feel as comfortable as I can in transition from this hard rap tomboy chick, to still that and more. Standing in the power of my femininity. That, to me, is a generational joy. So I am really glad I met Rha. And I'm glad we're continuing this whole journey together.
Your creative skills, the three of you — Angélique, Rha and yourself — they all harmonize very well to tell this story.
They do, they really do. I'm just happy to be able to be part of this journey of just, again, like you said, this is a generational past, present, future thing. It's been a joy. It's been one of the most memorable years of my life. And yeah, this one is huge.
Nereya Otieno is a writer, thinker and ramen-eater currently based in Los Angeles.