We all know Wakanda is a fictional place, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Seeing it come to life on the big screen in motion pictures evokes a feeling that one didn’t even know was there. It makes you want to visit the African continent, to see the peoples of so many great nations, to visit the birthplaces of civilization as we know it. So much of education and history is told from a European point of view that the great accomplishments, cuisines and cultures that aren’t part of it get treated like fiction no matter how real they are. That’s why even a place that doesn’t exist can stir your soul, because it can authentically reflect a real story that isn’t told about real people and places often enough.
Zambian artist Sampa the Great evokes those same feelings on “As Above, So Below.” It’s no accident that she has a song on the album called “Never Forget,” but it’s not just a title that makes a point. The chanting, the drums, the chords and the vocals come together in a way that does injustice to the term mesmerizing. I don’t want to say this lightly or understate this point — this is what Kendrick Lamar would sound like if he was from Zambia. The sense of pride and heritage that pervades the song is inseparable from the music and powerful in its beauty. It’s hip-hop but it’s so much more.
It’s no surprise that Joey Bada$$ are lining up to work with her for tracks like “Mask On.” The mind blowing part may be that when she spits bars instead of singing or reciting spoken word poetry, she sounds more like Nicki Minaj — or I think it might be more accurate to say Nicki sounds like her. Perhaps that’s to be expected given Trinidad and Tobago became part of the African diaspora, not by choice but by force, and like so many of the things stolen from the African continent those seeds grew to become strong trees with their own cultural branches. Just as we wouldn’t have hip-hop music and culture without Jamaica, we wouldn’t have reggae or dancehall without the Middle Passage. The export of music and culture doesn’t justify crimes against humanity and never can, but it’s the silver lining to the darkest of clouds.
Much like those incredibly complicated stories you can’t sum up Sampa by simply saying she’s from Zambia. She credits that heritage for her inner strength and for her creativity, but she has also resided in San Francisco, USA and Sydney, Australia for extended periods of time. Sampa the Great is also a modern day musician who is plugged in to the world and vice versa. “Imposter Syndrome” featuring James Sakala can thus sound both like cutting edge present day rap and still have a spiritual sound as old as human history itself. She doesn’t need to choose either/or — Sampa can be all things at once.
The obvious concern would be that Sampa’s recent ascent into more wide stream recognition isn’t exploitative, or that she isn’t playing up her culture and exaggerating it to people who wouldn’t know the difference. Authenticity is almost a taboo subject when it comes to music. If you come from the middle class or wealth, do you have any right to sing or rap songs about “the streets” you never knew? Some would say no and that viewpoint has merit. Others would say that a great storyteller can tell the tallest of tales and if they sound believable and you were entertained, what does it really matter? This too has merit. I can tell you that “Let Me Be Great” featuring Angélique Kidjo transcends the argument. The song is great. PERIOD. Zambian, Australian, American, whatever. Good music is good music.
That’s the power of “As Above, So Below.” Sampa the Great may be defined by where she hails from, but she also defines herself by making heartfelt songs with a universal appeal. Although this new album is my first chance to listen to her, I somehow feel like I’ve been listening to her my whole life, and that kind of magic is to be treasured even if the music industry is inherently exploitative. As long as Sampa is getting what’s rightfully hers, and from the strength of character she possesses I don’t think she’d sign her life away for “a box of Newports and Puma sweats,” then this album is worth celebrating.