One of the most essential hip hop records released this year comes from a 23-year-old Botswana-raised, Zambian-born, Melbourne-based female rapper. Those facts are not what make Birds To the BEE9 so impressive though, nor that the artist does not even consider it a proper album, releasing it as a mixtape. Though precisely what the difference is in 2017 is open to interpretation.
Rather, Sampa Tembo, AKA Sampa The Great, has made a record that successfully blends a variety of sounds that have influenced her throughout her life, African rhythms and chanting meld, with jazz and electronic elements to create a unique sound that feels completely natural.
“Gaining more confidence as an artist, knowing more about what sounds and what music works for me, and not limiting myself to what I can explore,” says Tembo of the factors that contributed to the mixtape’s realisation. “Which working with different people has opened up – now I’m not just doing what I’m really good at, I’m also doing what I’m bad at and working on that, and also doing what I’ve never known I could do and working on that. It’s broader now, it’s opened up those musical abilities.”
Tembo collaborated with three main producers on BBEE9, Kwes Darko from the UK as well as Melbourne friends Sensible J (REMI) and Alejandro Abapo AKA Silentjay (Hiatus Kaiyote), with each adding a different flavour that equals a cohesive whole. “Collaboration is growth to me. You don’t know what you don’t know how to make, and collaboration opens that up,” she says.
“That’s why it’s more important to work with people who do things totally different to what you’re used to – so you’re growing more on your weaknesses than your strength, and that is obviously what producers have to do well. I’m an artist who likes doing different things – poetry, singing, chanting, rapping – and I didn’t want to stay in one lane, I wanted to broaden my musical ability and I feel like these are people who could do that because they do things differently. We had the ability to sit down together and talk about life, talk about where we are in life, and talk about how we express ourselves and put that into music.”
Indeed, it seems that Tembo has poured herself into these new songs in a much deeper manner than on her previous mixtapes and singles, focusing lyrically on the world from her viewpoint, as well as musically. “I wanted a lot of percussion from home,” she says.
“I wanted a lot of drums, I wanted a lot of claps in there, and I wanted some minor tones. I want it to sound warm but I also wanted the songs that needed to take you on that journey of brokenness to sound how that sounds. The main themes were more percussive, which allowed me to sway from rap to poetry and chant because that is where chants live.
“I didn’t know that I could do poetry and rap and sing in one song until I did ‘Bye River’,” she says of the mixtape’s standout track. “I always thought that you had to just do one thing. I guess the process has changed and the mindset has changed, where however the vocal chooses to express itself, whether it’s rap, sing, chant, whether its jazz, blues or rock, that would be the feeling, but as far as the expression is concerned I don’t limit that. I just let the voice do what the voice does.”
BBEE9 also contains some non-English vocals, including Nyanja spoken by her father, Bemba spoken by her mother, Swahili, as well as Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara – an Indigenous Australian language. “I thought it was very important to not only acknowledge where I am, but also to acknowledge that two cultures are meeting musically in a project,” says Tembo. “And I wanted that on an instrumental that was from where I was from, with vocals from where I am, so those two worlds can meet.”