Sampa the Great, ‘An Afro Future’ @ Forum Theatre, Wednesday 1 June
All photographs shot by Ian Laidlaw

The buzz around Sampa the Great’s many-times-rescheduled An Afro Future shows shimmied down Australia’s East Coast following the multiple ARIA Award-winning Zambian-born singer, poet and visual artist’s lauded performances at Sydney Opera House, as part of VIVID Live last weekend.

The only artist to win the Australian Music Prize twice (for 2017’s Birds and the BEE9 and 2019’s The Return), Sampa the Great previews a lotta new material from her soon-to-be-announced forthcoming album this evening, interspersed with the occasional familiar song such as the sublime Black Girl Magik, which was written for her divine l’il sis Mwanjè: “I wanted my little sister to know that she is beautiful just the way she is.”

During tonight’s opening slot, Mwanjè showcases neo-soul brilliance. Her voice is perfection on record (see: 2022’s Seasons EP) and you could be forgiven for thinking studio trickery was involved, but in a live setting Mwanjè proves this ain’t the case. Backed by a pair of singers/dancers plus two musicians, Mwanjè live is all about movement and farshun on top of vocal prowess. She’s coming into her power, it’s a joy to witness, and there’s a magical shift in atmosphere following her too-short set.

On backing vocals duty during her sister Sampa’s set, Mwanjè shines brightly through her many featured parts and while performing her own Wildones (featuring Sampa the Great). If you’ve ever been lucky enough to catch Leon Bridges live, you’ll know just how much his longtime back-up singer Brittni Jessie adds to the show’s overall appeal, and we’d go so far as to say that Mwanjè is equally essential to the Sampa the Great live experience.

Sampa is all about empowering those in her orbit and she generously shares her spotlight with the Zimbabwe-born, London-raised, Melbourne-based singer Kye. She’s also on support duty tonight, and Kye is afforded the opportunity to perform her own song Gold (featuring Sampa the Great) during the headliner’s set as well.

“By the way, everybody on this stage is a Zambian!” Sampa extols to the approving roar of the crowd. “First Zambian band to play Coachella, first Zambian band to play the Sydney Opera House, first full Zambian band to play the Forum!” Later on in the show, Sampa proclaims, “We may be the first Zambian band, but we’re not the last!”

The 15-strong, all-Zambian band – musicians and dancers – that Sampa has assembled certainly bring it and with Sampa’s cousin Tio Nason also on BVs, it’s definitely a family affair. “When I envision An Afro Future, I envision seeing people who look like me on stage,” Sampa later explains.

Throughout An Afro Future, Sampa Tembo (the genius behind the moniker), gives us some insight into the creation of her upcoming record within between-song banter. After her father was struck down with COVID, Sampa returned to Zambia to make sure her family was okay. Then ongoing border restrictions prevented her from returning to Australia. While stranded, Sampa got philosophical (“Now I have to think about where I am, what it’s teaching me, and what I gotta learn where I’m planted right now”), reconnected with her roots, and rediscovered she has “people who back me up and who love me” in her homeland as well as here in Melbourne – her “second family.”

Young woman on stage with back-up dancers

After admitting that she realised she had some “armour” to shed upon her return to Zambia, Sampa shares: “I got to experience Sampa the Great at home. I felt so free, so happy, so empowered. And I wanted that feeling for everyone who’s on this stage right now. So as we make music for us, by us on this stage and feel our freest, please feel that love and bottle it up and take it home with you, because it’s coming from the heart.”

We already know she excels at creating ‘turn-up music’ – the closing slam-dunk of OMG and The Final Form, resplendent with Sampa joining her dance crew’s formation and cutting sick (mad props to choreographer Tiana Canterbury), hits our sweet spot – but tonight Sampa acknowledges it’s through performing her more vulnerable songs and revealing the “human being behind the music” that she finds “the most beauty and value.”

Sampa first met Denzel Curry when he performed at the Listen Out festival here a few years back, and the American rapper features on her latest single, Lane. Also included in tonight’s setlist is Gabriel Garzón-Montano’s Agüita (Sampa actually contributed a new verse for a 2021 remix of the title track from this American singer-songwriter’s 2020 album).

In terms of yet-to-be-released material, the audience is treated to Never Forget (featuring Mwanjè plus Zambian rapper Chef 187) and Let Me Be Great, which features Angélique Kidjo. Sampa still sounds awestruck as she recalls the pinch-yourself moment when Kidjo reached out to request a collaboration after clocking her NPR Tiny Desk concert – Sampa features on Kidjo’s song Free & Equal (off her 2021 Mother Nature album) and had the foresight to request a return feat. for her own upcoming album.

Referencing her Birds and the BEE9 cut Can I Get a Key, which explores the misguided need to ask supposed gatekeepers for permission to create art, Sampa enthuses, “We’re not asking for keys no more; we’re breaking doors down!” Post-show, the crowd’s vigorous stomping feet threaten the Forum’s foundations as we show our appreciation.

An Afro Future finds Sampa the Great stepping into her light and fully embracing her cultural identity.

Discover Sampa the Great at JB Hi-Fi.