'The Return' - Understanding Sampa the Great
Updated: Aug 19, 2020
A child running through parched grass, overgrown, but not rough; a shaky frame, disorienting, almost pivoting off the girls movements; dark, electric blue clouds wafting in from the distance- this is the establishing shot for Sampa the Great's short film of her latest album, the Return, a project that maps the artist's journey of what it means to find 'home'. This establishing shot provokes so many questions. Who is the girl? Where is she? What is she running from? To ask these questions is to interrogate the same concepts Sampa grappled with on the album and by the end of the video you realise that the girl is not running from something but running to somewhere. It's a neat little abstract for the central themes of both the album and the film.
'Still in transit, lost in translation'
The video, detailing behind the scenes footage and more dramatic shots, spans two continents and three countries; Australia, Botswana and Zambia and yet one thing remains constant. At some point across these diverse locations Sampa is always in a studio. It's a soft allusion to the comfort and intimacy of making music, of the connection between pure creativity and freedom that Sampa herself articulates in narration. The consistency of Sampa's recording represent music as a technology of survival, there is always a mic, whether she is recording in the high tech studio in Melbourne or with a skeleton set up in Zambia. It is no accident that scenes of the studio are cut among intimate moments with family. This is what visually and sonically threads together all three countries and yet the constant geographical shifts introduce one of the main conflicts- 'still in transit, lost in translation'. In between wholesome shots of Sampa's family, bonus scenes goofing around and cyphers at high schools there is something lost in the gaps. In the final narrated scenes, Sampa talks about collecting trinkets of home, of her mother and sister, of their laughter and keeping them in her soul. Whilst this is a beautiful reminder that home is an aggregate of intimate experiences and is not necessarily limited to a physical space, the image of the trinkets contributes to a sense of fragmentation, of displacement. Sampa and her family are constantly 'in transit' and never quite whole; there is something lost.
'Here I can breathe, here I can feel free.'
When vocally directing Mwanje and the Sunburnt Soul choir, Sampa gestures with both hands out from her chest telling them to 'sing out'. It's a subtle but noticeable reference back to the idea that in order to sing about returning home you must look inside yourself, open your lungs to release those trinkets. This is what Sampa means when she says, 'here I can breathe, here I can feel free.' The studio is a place where freedom can really be felt. In the short, artists can be seen breaking down, embracing each other and are given the berth work outside the strict boundaries of the lyrics. Sampa understands that home, creation and freedom are intimately connected and the short film visualises this relationship in the studio. To remember what it means to create is to be free and the joys of creation are clearly on display throughout the short. With the driving beat of Final Form in the background we are taken on a journey through Lusaka where we see Sampa dancing around with her friends through the streets and on the set of the music video. In Sampa's home in Botswana we find her busting a move in the living room and the kitchen to the OMG hook with utter joy. This is what Whosane meant in his improvised spoken word verse on the title track about returning to a 'happy self.'
But this journey is a process and Sampa reminds us that the journey home is not one without self doubt and questioning. At around the half way mark there is a shot of Sampa in her childhood home in Botswana. The camera is looking in through an open door and the exposure only allows us to see Sampa's silhouette against the window consumed by large blocks of negative space. The girl from the establishing shot re appears against the electric blue backdrop and growling thunder. Here, Sampa is showing, not telling us that finding home can be a 'lonely' journey. In a Q&A on Youtube before the premier of the short she revealed that 'there was a moment during the process of the album where I felt displaced and not accepted by my own home.' Perhaps those shots are a reflection of those difficult moments when Sampa found herself between two worlds.
'So what's it to ya?'
It is fitting that the song and image that ends the short film is one of Sampa performing to an adoring sold out crowd with 'Freedom' playing in the background. What she has given the audience throughout the course of both the album and the short is the uncompromising expression of herself, navigating a hostile and predatory music industry that often seeks to take advantage of, and not celebrate, black art. 'Sally selling six figures wearing Bantu knots', 'they want your sauce', 'the house nigga of this country', Sampa does not pull punches; she may have given collaborative artists the scope to interpret the themes but what Sampa presents to us is a very coherent message. The Return is healing. It gives voice to a people who find themselves wandering airport spaces by the tall windows, who find comfort in the dissonant rings of an international dial tone; it is a psalm for those who perhaps can never truly return home. The album, in conjunction with the short film, navigates the complex field of hybrid identities, diaspora narratives and leaves us pondering the connection between home and freedom. It is an odyssey, a journey we have the privilege of sharing with Sampa and by the end she has but one question for us.
Don't forget to check out the short film for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECKnDjuxU1Y