live review: Sampa the great @ rough trade
Having spent her life moving: starting in Zambia, then Botswana, before studying in the USA and settling in Australia, it’s inevitable that confusion of identity and rootlessness are the key themes throughout Sampa The Great’s mixtapes and debut album, The Return.
The band entered to huge cheers: three singers; the drummer; and SilentJay.
A key member, he manages everything from percussion, to sax, to production,
for Sampa The Great. It was a humble assembly. They began with jazzy, choral
intros whilst the crowd eagerly awaited Sampa's entrance. Then the fire exit
beside the stage opened, and out came tiny Sampa The Great. She stood
shoulder-to-shoulder with us, giving her full attention to the band, bopping her
head emphatically to the music before leaping on stage to join them. She
asked, "Bristol, are you feeling free?".
Opening the night with ‘Mwana’, a traditional Zambian song featuring vocals
from Sampa’s mother and sister, set the intimate evening. Though Sampa is
the frontwoman, the relationship between her and her fellow musicians
remained the same throughout the gig; Sampa taking the reigns when the
song asked for it, and stepping aside (either by getting lower or facing the back
of the stage) to let the musicians have their time. They performed with mutual
respect and admiration. It was joyful to watch.
As soon as she entered the stage, Sampa’s energy commanded the room.
Looking directly into the lenses of cameras and phones for every photograph; the entire room was silent as she shared private insights and wisdom in the interludes. Describing the night as “a little church session: helping each other to be happy”, she talked of near-death experiences, beauty ideals, political standards and searching for home. In between spitting her badass lyrics, Sampa’s empathy shined throughout; half-way through she asked Big Jeff and other tall people to step aside so the small people (“like her”) could get a good view.
Sampa talked of how in a journey of the self, self-love should be top of the list. She explained that she'd written ‘Black Girl Magik’, from her mixtape BIRDS AND BEE9, for her sister to help her define her own kind of beautiful. Sampa then asked all the black queens in the room to make themselves known and to shout 'I am beautiful' together, repeatedly, before playing the song. I was standing beside three of these queens and they were visibly touched by their singled out celebration. They were not the only ones, though. I feel the whole crowd was moved by these moments; some to the brink of tears.
Mixing her story with straight up bangers, Sampa struck a balance between meaningful engagement and electrifying party that I've never experienced in a gig before. She had middleaged men and women throwing their hands in the air and getting down like bad B's to hip-hop beats, totally free of inhibition. You would have never known it was a Monday night. This wasn’t just watching a band play music you like: Sampa demanded you look inwards, demanded you love yourself, demanded you sing louder and demanded you dance harder. She ended the gig with ‘Oh My Gosh’ and ‘Final Form’, jumping into the crowd to dance with us.
2019 has been a tough year for me personally, having to rebuild a self and a life following a long, upward battle with events outside of my control. Sampa The Great's performance provided something for everybody to connect with; personally, I finally found identity and understanding in an intense period of rootlessness. It was a unique night that I will hold close to my heart for a long time.
Having fought hard to find a way of celebrating herself in environments at odds with her existence, Sampa has managed to create a space alongside herself in which all people can be free. So in answer to her opening question from myself, and everybody else who attended that gig, yes, Sampa. We're feeling free: thank you.
Photographer: Jade, @4yino on Instagram/Facebook