Sampa The Great finds freedom in a new medium

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Sampa The Great finds freedom in a new medium

Sampa The Great
Words by Augustus Welby

In a Melbourne International Film Festival exclusive, Sampa The Great will perform live alongside Céline Sciamma’s 2014 film, Girlhood. The Melbourne-based hip hop prodigy will unveil an original reinterpretation of the French film’s score. “It’s the first time I’ve done a live score, which is exciting,” says Sampa.

The Zambian-born, Botswana-raised Sampa Tembo has just announced her debut LP, The Return. For listeners who’ve been hooked since The Great Mixtape came out in 2015, this will seem a long time coming – especially seeing as her follow up mixtape, Birds and the BEE9, picked up the 2018 Australian Music Prize.

The Return will be with us in September and Sampa says the four-year build-up has been essential for developing an artistically and personally satisfying album.

“I feel very free in the moment when I create music,” she says. “Nothing else matters. Even the insecurities start to shed off and you get to the point where it’s like, actually, my soul’s just speaking. It’s just absolute freedom.”

Fashioning a live score is a separate undertaking to making a record, however. Preparations for the one-off Hear My Eyes event required that Sampa become deeply familiar with an existing film. Although Girlhood already includes a score, she’s primarily been influenced by Sciamma’s emotionally stirring narrative, which focuses on a group of young African-French women growing up in the Paris projects.

“It was definitely sitting down with Liam McGorry – who’s in Saskwatch and he’s the MD for this project – and just going through the movie as a whole and figuring out the emotions behind certain scenes and translating the music to those emotions,” Sampa says.

The score will include selections from Sampa’s back catalogue along with new works, a spoken word a capella and various interludes devised to accentuate the feel or emotion behind particular scenes.

“It was basically sitting down, going through everything scene-by-scene and being like, ‘what emotion is this giving you and how can we make the audience feel that musically?’” says Sampa. “It has been such a beautiful learning experience for me, so I’m really excited to show this work.”

The film looks at youthful rebellion and the efforts of its lead character, Marieme, to discover an identity and resist being told what to do. Getting to know the film, a number of things resonated with Sampa’s own experiences growing up.

“There’s definitely a lot of things in common with this story,” she says. “I’m just excited to be able to translate that into music and add my two cents to the story and the experience, because it’s definitely a diasporic experience, a coming of age story of this woman.

“It’s just really finding your way through life and your identity, which is also something everyone resonates with. It’s a beautiful story and her courage throughout this story is inspiring.”

Sampa was particularly inspired by how Marieme continually redefined herself over the course of the film.

“I think sometimes we feel like we have to just be this one person throughout our lives and that we’re not allowed to grow, change, have different mindsets and perceptions to who we were maybe two years ago,” she says. “And she’s able to do that. She’s like okay, this is the state I’m in, this is how I can survive and this is the character I’m going to take on for this part of my life.”

Sampa’s no stranger to inspiring videography. Her two latest music videos, for ‘Final Form’ and ‘OMG’, are stunning pieces of work. It’s not always the case that a video enhances the impact of the song – often they’re little more than promotional tack-ons – but the Sanjay De Silva-directed clips give extra dimension to Sampa’s songs.

“I really enjoy sitting down with [Sanjay] and just really fine-picking how we’re going to translate this visually. And also sitting with Ntombi, our stylist, and just figuring out how we’re going to translate this with colour and style and just going above and beyond to be edgy. It all came together really well.”

Sampa takes great pride in the film accompaniments to her songs, regarding them as a means to sharpen her messaging and the representation of her identity. Of crucial significance is the fact these latest clips were shot in Zambia, Botswana and South Africa.

“I think one of the key points of doing it at home was being able to show you my own story rather than have it being told for me,” Sampa says. “With all the different perceptions of home and what people see here and there, I was able to show you my home, specifically for me, so that you know the story behind the person who makes the music. And visuals are a whole different language. I really appreciate the art form and it’s something I want to now constantly add to.”

Hear My Eyes: Girlhood + Sampa The Great happens on Saturday August 3 at Plenary 2 for MIFF. Tickets are available via the festival website. The Return arrives on Friday September 13 via Ninja Tune.