Sampa the Great admits that she was already several recordings into her career as an acclaimed hip-hop artist before she learned about another Zambian artist who had reached a global audience: WITCH (We Intend To Cause Havoc), the rulers of the psychedelic ‘70s Zamrock sound.
At the time, Sampa, who grew up in Botswana, went to college in San Francisco, and launched her career in Australia, was in the process of moving back to Zambia and became curious about the country’s musical past. “I was talking to my executive producer and Zamrock came up. I said, ‘This is amazing and great, and how do I not know about this genre that people around the world know?’”
Sampa was in for an even bigger surprise when she asked her father about WITCH, and he casually mentioned that her uncle had been a founding member of the group. The current incarnation of WITCH, led by original frontman Emanyeo “Jagari” Chanda, is one of many Zambian guests on Sampa’s recent LP “As Above, So Below,” which deftly bridges Zamrock with Sampa’s musically rich Afrofuturistic hip-hop.
One of the album’s tracks, “Never Forget,” is an ode to Zamrock, and the importance of keeping a cultural heritage alive. Last fall a version of the song was used in the trailer of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
“Zamrock had been described as one of those genres that our parents used to listen to. After ‘Never Forget’ and ‘Black Panther,’ everyone said, ‘Wait, we can do this music that can be seen globally in our own style,’” says Sampa. “African music has skyrocketed — Afrobeats from Nigeria, Amapiano from South Africa — and we’re looking for what our sound is as Zambians.”
Sampa is especially proud that the song made its way into the trailer for “Black Panther” after a music supervisor saw her perform in Los Angeles. “She saw me touring with an all-Zambian band and talking about what ‘Never Forget’ means to me. It’s even more beautiful that she experienced the song and its story live and thought it fit with ‘Black Panther.’ ”
Born Sampa Tembo in Ndola, Zambia, the 29-year-old first became interested in hip-hop when, as a young girl, she heard 2Pac’s “Changes.” “The storytelling, the connection to a culture, the community within music, those are the elements that drew me to hip-hop when I was around age 8 or 9,” she says via Zoom from a West Coast tour stop. “For this middle kid who didn’t know how to express herself, I was able to listen to a song where the artist was sounding like they were reading you a poem and expressing their inner thoughts to you. It was spiritual. So as soon as I latched onto it, that’s been my outlet.”
While living in Australia, Sampa scored the 2018 viral hit “Energy.” But she had a complicated relationship with the country’s music industry, something she addresses in the song “Mask On.”
“It’s about not putting on a facade. Being based in Australia I had to put on armor. I was showing this audience and industry something they’d never seen before, an outspoken young African woman doing hip-hop. In the beginning, it was met with a lot of friction, but I never toned it down or put on a prettier mask of something more palatable. So this whole record is about coming back home and being more fully myself in that place where the dream began, so now there’s no mask anymore.”
Another track, “Imposter Syndrome,” tackles the subject of its title. Asked whether she still feels inadequate, despite her success, Sampa says, “Actually this song is one of the medicines of healing that imposter syndrome. I think one of the causes of imposter syndrome is feeling survivors’ guilt: Why am I the only one who got out and can live the dream? But coming back home and working with Zambian musicians and connecting them internationally shows why I had this opportunity.”
Sampa jokes that her band, which includes her sister and a cousin, are “like the Jackson Five.” They’re featured in a live version of “As Above, So Below,” as well as on a tour that comes to Royale on Wednesday. On June 9, she’s in Vermont at the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival — which just happens to have scheduled WITCH the following day. The Zamrock legends, who played a memorable show at the Crystal Ballroom in Somerville last October, have a new single out that features Sampa.
The cross-generational collaborators have more than just their Zambian heritage in common. Both can change a listener’s preconceived notions about what African music sounds like. “That was one of the points that really connected me to WITCH,” says Sampa. “What I’m trying to do with hip-hop, Zamrock, and soul music is show the music I’m inspired by and add in a bit of where I’m from, and that’s what they did too.”
SAMPA THE GREAT
With Haviah Mighty. At Royale, 279 Tremont St. June 7 at 8 p.m., $22. bowerypresents.com
Noah Schaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.