backstories

The Hidden Family History Behind Sampa the Great’s ‘Never Forget’

Photo: Courtesy of Loma VIsta Recordings

Zamrock has always been in Sampa Tembo’s blood — even if she didn’t know it. In fact, the Zambian rapper known as Sampa the Great only recently discovered the subgenre, which was her home country’s biggest musical export in the 1970s. Its blend of psychedelic rock and traditional Zambian music, specifically nimble kalindula-style melodies played on electric guitar, took off as the country was finding its postindependence identity. But only after discovering Zamrock on her own and drawing on it with a song, “Never Forget,” did Sampa learn that one of her uncles, George “Groovy Joe” Kunda, was part of an early lineup of Witch — one of the genre’s biggest bands. “That little spill of encouragement was all I needed,” she says, noting that she previously thought no one in her family had pursued music. “I still wish I had that in the beginning of my career! But to just know that gave me more of a bond and connection with Witch.” She would further solidify her link with the legends after meeting Jagari Chanda, the original singer of Witch, and inviting him to perform on her new song “Can I Live.”

Getting support from Zamrock royalty has been especially meaningful to Sampa, who was born in Zambia and grew up in Botswana but built her career away from the continent — in Australia. Her 2017 mixtape, Birds and the BEE9, won the Australian Music Prize (the country’s national music award; similar to the Mercury Prize) and gave way to her debut album, The Return, released in 2019. Both fed a slow-burning breakout in the U.K. and the U.S., while back home, The Return earned her three ARIA Music Awards (Australia’s equivalent to the Grammys) — including Best Female Artist and Best Hip-Hop Release.

Sampa’s follow-up, As Above, So Below, is even more musically rooted in Africa than The Return, due in part to Sampa moving back to Zambia during the pandemic. It’s not just Zambian music either: The album features “Bona,” a tribute to Sampa’s upbringing in Botswana, and “Let Me Be Great,” her second collaboration with legendary Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo. “Being able to do well in this, then come back home to the place where the dream was actually birthed is a huge full-circle moment,” she says. That feeling is particularly central to “Never Forget,” a sonic homecoming with a message about carrying on African legacies.

Zamrock came up early in Sampa’s discussions about her new album’s sonic palette with producer Mag44, since she was in Zambia. “At the time, I had just discovered Zamrock, which is wild, because people outside of my country knew about Zamrock,” she says. “What stuck out to me is these young kids from Zambia were dabbling with psychedelic rock and traditional Zambian sounds and creating this new genre and the world loved and appreciated it.” She saw parallels with her own career, blending African music with American-born hip-hop. Then one day, Sampa’s guitarist, Sammy Masta, began playing a kalindula melody over a beat Mag44 was working on, which would become “Never Forget.”

With the song shaping up to honor Zamrock, Sampa decided she wanted to focus on African history in her lyrics as well, rapping about the continent’s contributions to fashion and music in a cool, near-spoken cadence. “We often forget the stories of people who have created things, or we often forget our own stories, because they’re usually rewritten for us. African histories are often wiped out,” she says. “The verse became a factual reference to what was made and created on the continent.”

Sampa’s band includes her singer sister, Mwanjé, who was in the studio with her working on the song. Mwanjé started fashioning the pre-chorus from a phrase she thought of while recording her April EP, Seasons: “future ancients.” “This is building within the frame of, like, five minutes,” Sampa says. “The beat is dropping. Sam is playing the guitar. We’re like, ‘Oh damn, this is about to be a situation!’” They then showed the song to Sampa’s cousin, Tio Nason, who has been a singer in Zambia for more than a decade. He tried singing a chorus in Nyanja, a regional language in Zambia; it roughly translates to “Your skin lights up the earth / You are a king today. Never forget that.” He was unsure about the take, but Sampa remembers, “We were all, like, eyes open, mouth open, shocked.”

Sampa makes sure to stress that while she is Zambian, she can’t speak for musicians who came up in Zambia. “Being an artist from the continent, it’s so hard to get resources, to get platforms that push our music, that it looks like gold where I’m standing,” she says. So when she wanted to add a Zambian rapper, Mag44 recommended Chef 187, who was ascendant in the country’s scene. He raps in Bemba, another common language in Zambia, about Africa’s contributions to the world.

Sampa sees each section of “Never Forget” as focused on a different era: She and Mwanjé speak about Zambian history, and Nason addresses young Zambians in the present. Chef’s verse, then, filled a gap. “Chef definitely took the future view of what ‘Never Forget’ is,” she says. “We’re leaving a mark. We are the ones that are gonna take it forward.” Mag44 concludes the song with African drums, a signature touch of his. “You hear the essence of Africa at the end of the song,” Sampa says. She wanted the music video to convey the same idea of bridging time, which proved more difficult than expected, requiring two attempts with two different creative teams. The final product ended up as its own tribute to Zamrock, using found footage of Zamrock performances in the 1970s alongside the four performers.

Despite the lofty history coursing through the song, it’s personal for Sampa — the sort of music she has always tried to make. “It doesn’t feel like a weight at all,” she says. “It feels like I’m just representing myself and representing the things that I love about who I am and where I’m from, which I’ve always wanted to do.”

Named after a type of guitar, kalindula is a Zambian genre with rhythmic, upbeat guitar lines played over dance rhythms on percussion. It’s the Zambian root of Zamrock.
The Hidden History Behind Sampa the Great’s ‘Never Forget’