CHICAGO — The night before Lollapalooza opened, a crowd gathered at Schuba’s, the intimate live music spot in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood, to see one of the iconic music festival’s big acts perform on a smaller stage.
Sampa Tembo, who is known as “Sampa The Great,” is an international hip hop artist, who was one of the musicians noted on former president Barack Obama’s summer playlist.
Lollapalooza draws 400,000 from around the world and is a bucket-list event for musicians and fans alike, but “Sampa The Great” also enjoys more compact settings.
“I love intimate shows,” Tembo said. “We’ve been playing festivals, which is really cool, but it’s really nice to get down to connecting with people on an intimate level and people who are coming specifically for your music, I turn our shows into like a little talking session and we’re just there having therapy sessions.”
Tembo, 28, spoke with WGN in the Schuba’s green room, and explained why she chose to call herself “The Great,” a moniker usually reserved for Kings and Queens.
“I’m going to put a goal for myself to be the greatest version of myself,” she said. “So ‘Sampa the Great’ is a goal that I set for myself to be the greatest version of me every day.”
She was born in the African nation of Zambia but moved with her family to neighboring Botswana at the age of two.
“I was raised in a family that was very loud,” she said. “It’s still loud. Loves making people laugh. Loves telling stories.”
Her own story, however, is complicated by a search for identity. The constant travel between the Zambia and Botswana left her feeling like she had two homes, and two cultures. She discovered her identity, she said, in music.
“I was 9 or 10 years old,” she said. “I walked into my cousin’s room and I remember hearing Tupac for the first time and I remember hearing Tupac changes. As a kid I found it really dope that it sounded like he was speaking and there was music involved. And that intrigued me, because I was very into writing into my diaries and words, and from then, I fell in love with hip hop.”
She studied music in San Francisco and Los Angeles and is now based in Australia. She has a legion of fans – among them President Obama. She said she was inundated with messages when the former president included her on his annual list of favorite songs.
“I look at my phone and guess who’s on Obama’s summer playlist?” Tembo said. “Like tagged by friends, like ‘Sampa, you’re on the playlist!’ I was like this is wild because we just flew into Chicago. This is his – this is his ends. This tops 2019 when Michelle Obama put me on her summer playlist. So the household of the Obamas is listening to Sampa the Great. That’s dope.”
She said playing at Lollapalooza, and in Chicago, is a dream come true.
“Every time we come to Chicago, I’m super excited,” she said. “I love the music that comes from this city. The artists that come from this city, and so it just feels like we’re more musically inclined when we’re in Chicago – it’s like ‘We’re sharing our music in Chi-town.’”