"Joining Big Dada to release her new mixtape, Sampa The Great’s "Birds And The BEE9" is a record that’s both deeply personal and outward-looking. The tape’s points of reference are poised between her closely-held roots and an internationally-minded musical outlook. An assured picture of herself, she carries her identity through the many-sided musical influences which she draws from. Working with a close circle of producers to help realise her musical vision - including Kwes Darko, Sensible J and Alejandro ‘JJ’ Abapo - spanning spiritually-minded gospel and chants to neo-soul and hip-hop, it’s intertwined with a clearly-defined, no-holds-barred political outlook, and speaks a message of healing after her own experiences of hurt and pain.
Born in Zambia, raised in Botswana, her upbringing continues to bear an influence on her music. Moving to Australia four years ago, the connections she made there have propelled her to where she now stands. Living in Sydney when she first arrived, it was the shock of losing a close friend which prompted her to take the leap to try to become an artist. Going to the city’s weekly Jazz Hip-Hop Freestyle sessions for the first time, she went onstage to join the band and continued to go there each week, building up a network of likeminded music heads.
"Birds And The BEE9" arrives after a mixtape and series of EPs and singles which have attracted an increasing swell of support in Australia and beyond. Meeting through that freestyle night, it was with producer Dave Rodriguez (Godriguez) that she made 2015’s “The Great Mixtape”. She linked up with Godriguez again for the 'Blue Boss' single, followed by 2016’s "Heroes Act 2" which she worked on with Estelle and Rahki as part of a project with Red Bull Sound Select.
Expanding the scope of her collaborators for this release also meant honing her idea of what she wants to create. “I’ve only been doing this for two years professionally,” she says. "It was important for me as things continued to grow to take a little time to step back from everything and say, ‘This is what I want to do with my music.’ Music is the way I express myself, the way I reflect on life, reflect on the things that I’ve experienced."
A trio of different producers have helped her realise her vision for ‘BBEE9'. First up, there’s Kwes Darko who’s put out his own critically-lauded LPs for Black Acre and R&S. There’s Justin Smith (aka Sensible J), who is the producer and drummer for Melbourne’s much-touted REMI. And finally, there’s Alejandro ‘JJ' Abapo (aka Silentjay), another Melbourne-based producer who’s put out in-demand EPs for Rhythm Section and been in the band for Australian trailblazers Hiatus Kaiyote.
This new mixtape showcases the qualities which were already evident in those first releases. Boasting an unhurried, assured delivery, it’s the perfect foil for a self-aware, spiritually minded perspective. In 'Can I Get A Key', for instance, she shines as both a singer and MC while bemoaning the gatekeepers who maintain the rarefied, exclusive nature of the art world. Set against a backdrop of rumbling sub-bass, she sings a defiant chorus – in harmony with an earworm-like, softly-played sax refrain – before diving into ridiculous, tongue-twisting lyricism set down with her customary offhand delivery.
'Black Girl Magik' sees her reflect on the contribution and strength of black women, often unappreciated and overlooked, the track serves as a celebration of black womanhood. Against a loosely-built, pared-back beat, pairing steady drums with gently-played melodies, she flips from references to Yoruba to making puns on the language of spiritual consciousness: “Yemaya told me in a dream I was conscious / No I was not woke I was live in a concert.”
Taking in influences from disparate different corners, it’s an attitude that reflects her worldly perspective. Having lived in both Sydney and Melbourne in Australia, she’s also spent time studying in both San Francisco and LA. As such, it’s no surprise to hear the mixture of sounds that filter through the record. Be it the undercurrents of gospel and neo-soul which accompany reflections on her identity in 'Bye River', or the spiritually-minded chants and claps of ‘Healing', it’s an album that makes those sorts of connections seem effortless."
- Ninja Tune