Sampa the Great taps into music of her African childhood on new album

The Zambia-born artist is currently in the midst of a North American tour, promoting her second full-length album, ‘As Above, So Below.’

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Sampa the Great poses backstage at the 2022 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival in Indio, California. The singer headlines Chicago’s Thalia Hall on June 14.

Sampa the Great poses backstage at the 2022 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival in Indio, California. The singer headlines Chicago’s Thalia Hall on June 14.

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Sampa the Great was 23, and only in her second year as a professional musician, when she and her band found themselves opening for rap superstar Kendrick Lamar, in March 2016 at an arena in Sydney, Australia.

The Zambia-born, Botswana-raised poet, rapper, songwriter, singer and producer was based Down Under at the time — more on that in a bit — and she considers this outsize event “the first huge thing that happened in my career.”

Hugeness has happened repeatedly ever since. The first two-time winner of the prestigious Australian Music Prize, Sampa the Great returns to Chicago June 14, headlining Thalia Hall with her full band. Her previous appearances here include last summer’s Lollapalooza, and she played Coachella and Glastonbury, also, in 2022 — the first Zambian artist to grace those three mighty music festivals. Both Barack and Michelle Obama are avowed admirers, placing Sampa the Great’s music on their high-profile playlists.

sampa the great

Sampa the Great

With: Haviah Mighty

When: 8:30 p.m. June 14

Where: Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport

Tickets: $20-$300; 17+ over

Info: ticketweb.com

Sampa is currently in the midst of a North American tour, promoting her second full-length album, “As Above, So Below.” The 11-song collection, released last September, is a glorious mélange of hip-hop and neo-soul, lushly interwoven with African music both contemporary and traditional. This duality is reflected in featured guest performers, from innovative rappers Joey Bada$$ and Denzel Curry, both 28, to legendary West African singer-songwriter, actress and activist Angélique Kidjo, the 62-year-old grande dame of Beninese vocalists. Kidjo’s full-bodied contralto turbocharges the album’s commanding finale, “Let Me Be Great.”

Sampa the Great recorded “As Above, So Below” in Zambia during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she and her younger sister, Mwanjé (a recording artist in her own right, who sings on the album), were unable to return to Australia.

In a recent Zoom audio interview, Sampa related how she’d gone home to Zambia when a family member caught COVID-19, “to make sure they’re OK. And then the borders closed up; we tried two or three times, but we couldn’t get back.

“ ‘So now,’ ” she recalled thinking, “ ‘what kind of music am I going to make, now that I’m here?’ ”

With Sampa’s career to date having developed in Australia — where she’d initially gone to earn a college degree in sound engineering, at Sydney’s SAE Institute — she now felt an irresistible urge “to dive into the context of my childhood, the slang we used, the music we listened to when I was being raised.”

That music comprised the sounds of Southern Africa — Zambia, Botswana and the country of South Africa. Hip-hop entered the mix when Sampa Tembo’s age had just hit double digits.

“So, 10-year-old me was a little kid who hadn’t really known how to express herself, except in a diary,” Sampa recollected. “Poetry now became that outlet of communication.” And then one day, “Ten-year-old me walked upstairs to my cousin’s room, and the first thing I hear is a cassette of Tupac’s ‘Changes.’ And I hear someone who can express themselves in poetry — through music.”

So taken was she by the classic track from the late Tupac Shakur, Sampa “sat in the corner listening, and then I’m like, ‘Rewind that, play that again!’ ” She seems to recall demanding encores “three times: one for the feel, one for the actual words of the song, and one just to vibe.”

Galvanized, Sampa ramped up her own poetry output, finally working up to writing her first song. Its inspiration was her irritation at being left at school one afternoon because her father had forgotten to pick her up. “I was in the car park, and I started writing lyrics about how I felt about the situation, to a melody that I made up,” Sampa detailed.

Writing songs became her passion, eventually resulting in high-profile mixtapes like 2017’s “Birds and the BEE9” (Sampa the Great’s first Australian Music Prize winner) and, in 2019, her debut full-length album (and second AMP winner), “The Return.”

Sampa’s actual return to Africa (she is now based in Zambia) came at an opportune time. She’d recently learned of the existence of Zamrock — her birth country’s early-1970s musical genre that welded traditional indigenous music to psychedelic rock, garage rock and hard rock.

Sampa’s “ode to Zamrock,” the track “Never Forget,” was put to highly atmospheric use in the film trailer for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

“I think this was meant to be,” she reflected. “I think this is the path I’m supposed to take.”

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