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Upfront: Sampa the Great on being her own hero

Watch her crowd inspiring Laneway performance of 'Everybody's Hero'

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Sampa the Great is a multi-talented artist—singer, songwriter, poet, rapper—and it’s fair to say that she’s had a pretty monumental couple of years. She released her debut album The Great Mixtape in 2015, supported Kendrick Lamar the following year, and most recently was in Red Bull’s Paris studios recording with Rahki and Estelle for her EP, HERoes Act 2. For Sampa, the self-belief she’s developed following this rapid rise through the ranks of Australian hip-hop has been integral to the new music she’s creating, and HERoes Act 2 embodies her evolution both as an artist and person.

Acclaim: How would you describe HERoes Act 2?

Sampa: Very self-explanatory and a step towards a new phase in my life, where I’m looking at new music, growing, sharing the growth, and moving forward.

Being your own hero is an empowering concept. What exactly does being a hero mean to you?

Being a hero in this context, is being who you wanted to be when you were younger, being the person who told you that it was okay to be you, and that you were enough. And so, in reflecting that onto yourself and being that, then you’re being your own hero.

You collaborated with Estelle and Rahki on all three tracks on the new EP, can you tell me about the recording process and what it was like to work with them?

Oh, it was surreal! I reached Paris and went straight to the studio. I thought I’d have a day to get ready, to get my mind ready to meet Estelle and Rahki. But yeah, met with Rahki and then Estelle came by and I was just like, “Oh.”

For the first two days I was really, really shy, I could feel myself shrinking because of who they were, and I wasn’t even offering any of my opinions. Estelle was like, “you’re gonna have to feel uncomfortable.” So I asked Rahki to give me a beat so I could write…and I started writing. I remember going back early in the morning before everyone. They walked in mid-session, started listening and were like, “Yeah!”

I really had to just convince myself. Sometimes you have to until your mind actually gets it— that you are enough—that I was enough for that studio session. As soon as I put that away and remembered who I was… I just started expressing myself.

So much has happened in a few short years for you. Looking back, how do you think you’ve evolved as an artist since The Great Mixtape?

I’ve only recently caught up with everything because as it was happening I was trying to get it through my head. It’s thanks to the team I had at the time for that amazing push. In retrospect: I didn’t really know the direction I wanted to go—I just knew that I wanted to do this. I didn’t really know what type of artist I wanted to be, I didn’t know what sound I wanted, and I didn’t really have the confidence in myself. Now I’ve got the confidence that I didn’t have and I have the experience. Now I have a hunger and passion for the experience of going on the stage and seeing 1000 people and being like, ‘Okay let’s do this’ and just really experiencing it.

At Laneway this year you gave an awe-inspiring performance of ‘Everybody’s Hero’ where you were wearing a cape and it was passed into the audience. Can you tell me about how you came up with the idea for that performance and what it felt like to actually perform it?

It came from this discussion between Red Bull Sound Select and myself about how we can push the idea of everybody being their own hero. The cape came along, because I’m always wearing the cape, and that’s when we thought it could be a metaphor for wearing your own talents on your back. I wear my own talents and remind myself that I am enough, so how do I help other people do that? The idea of giving a whole cape to the audience so there’s no difference between the artist and the audience. The idea of bridging that gap and also making sure everybody takes away something from that experience feeling like they can do anything.

You found your voice as an artist by not listening to everyone else and spending a lot of time alone. Do you think you come up with your best work alone or in collaborative situations like on your new EP?

I’d say collaborations because now I know how my voice sounds and I know what I’m good at. For months I’ve just been collaborating with people and I’ve been blown away by what everybody else can do and what that pushes me to do. I feel like some of the best work comes from that push and being uncomfortable and that only comes from collaboration.

The music industry is known to be a boy’s club, have you encountered sexism and how have you dealt with it?

I think that’s where the confidence kicks in because it is very boys club—especially if you’re in a genre that is very boys club. Very much having the confidence to use my voice and say no when it’s something I don’t want and yes when it’s something I want. And feeling that my reactions are valid. It’s easy to be spoken over and having a team that can say no if I’m not being heard, because obviously there still is sexism. As loud as your voice is, you also need a team that will back you up. Sexism’s still there but I’m more confident in my voice to say “this is not what I want.” I have to work hard for them to listen even though if a man had said the same thing it would have been different.

You’ve just kicked off on a co-headline national tour with Remi. You’ve collaborated previously on the single ‘For Good’, what’s your creative relationship like?

Very supportive with both of them, very family orientated. I could go to them with anything that I’m nervous about, especially talking about starting out and it all being a whirlwind, they were sort of the first people that came to me and said, “I understand.” I feel free to communicate about anything especially with Remi himself because we have a lot of similarities being African. Just their advice and their love, that was something that was very important to me growing as an artist, and also an atmosphere that we wanted to share with the community.

You seem to be going from strength to strength, where do you see yourself five years from now?

Going global—not only for me but for people who have grown with me. My goal in five years is to make studios back home and get kids in the studios to release music because a lot of people lack the opportunity. And also to grow myself as an artist and as a person. Musically it’s just global, to reach everywhere and to be able to express myself freely. So they’re very simple ones [laughs]!

Sampa the Great is playing Acclaim x Paradise Melbourne Music Week party with Fortunes, The Harpoons, Spike Fuck, Marcus Whale, Anuraag, and Wahe. Tickets are available here.

Sampa the Great’s HERoes Act 2 EP if out now with Red Bull Sound Select.

  • By: Cait Emma Burke
  • Photography by: Justin Nacua
  • Additional photography: Supplied

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