ITHACA, N.Y. — Walking over to the second level of Autumn Leaves Used Books from the Seneca station, I realized that it’s a store that I’ve been to many times, but didn’t know the name that graced its front. As a local, it was simple for the rising star (and my interview subject) to find the cornerstone. Her name is Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, known by her rapper title, Sammus. Our location houses union offices, more books and a small cafe.
We sat in front of book cases, and directly behind me were music biographies. Even when we were surrounded by music from a variety of genres and time periods, Sammus was keen to point out one of her biggest musical influences: Kanye West. For Sammus, Kanye’s verse of “Lock yourself in a room doing 5 beats a day for 3 summers,” on the track “Spaceship” are lyrics that resonate with her.
“It’s unbelievable to me that anyone besides my mom pays attention to me. It’s still strange, but it feels like it’s the right moment for that,” she mentioned in our interview. A function of her artistry is the transparency of it. Her beats penetrate the issues that affect us as humans.
I spoke with Sammus ahead of her Pieces in Space CD Release Party at The Haunt. To celebrate the new release, she’s performing at places, ranging from Brooklyn to Cambridge, on The Weekend Warrior Princess Tour. And a collaboration with two local Ithaca producers is in the works.
Harrison Malkin: Besides Sammus being a cool rapper name, can you tell the story of its origin and why it holds great importance to you?
Sammus: So, I picked the name Sammus for two reasons. The first is that I grew up playing a lot of video games, so for those that don’t know, “Metroid” is a game that I used to play. It’s a pretty famous Nintendo game, and there’s been a few video games that have come out of the franchise, and the main character for that video game is named Samus (Aran). And so playing the original game, you beat the game and then the armor suit that Samus wears comes off, and you learn that it’s a woman. And that was a really kinda remarkable moment for me as a kid seeing that. Like ‘oh wow’, that character that I naturally assumed was a man isn’t.
And the game isn’t making a big deal out of it, so maybe you know I shouldn’t make a big deal out of that. So, that was kinda my thought process at the time, and when I got a little older and started producing beats, I often was asked if I made my own beats, if I had help, like all these questions that I thought were really weird because I would articulate that ‘I made this!’, ‘I made this!’. So, it was weird to me that people kept questioning my beat making skills, so I picked the name Sammus because I feel like both Samus and I push back against gender norms, in the sense that we’re doing things that aren’t traditionally thought of as women’s work, and there’s this element of surprise, for some folks, when they realize that I’m the person who’s producing the beats.
HM: It says on your website that your following comes from “activists, hip-hop heads, punks, and self-proclaimed nerds and geeks,” and a lot of your work has focused on the intersection race and culture. What were some specific inspirations behind the style and tracks on the album?
S: I would say kinda musically speaking, I’ve been inspired by a lot of rappers who have very well-defined voices, so there are a couple of indie rappers that I’m really a fan of. Most of them have been to Ithaca at some point: (Open) Mike Eagle, Homeboy Sandman, and they’re rappers that the way that they rap is the way they talk in real life. And I think that that’s important to me, that sort of authenticity and clarity and that has helped to guide me as an artist. I seek to have that clarity of voice in my own work, that I want people to hear a song to be like ‘that’s something Sammus would say,’ or ‘that sounds like something Enongo would say.’ So those are the things that have been motivating me going into this next album.
The things that I’ve been talking about, a lot of people have been talking about, and I think it’s the perfect storm. So, that’s why a lot of publications are kinda attuned to that: mental health issues, racial politics. All of that stuff is at the center of our discussions, I think, these days. So, I become a kinda conduit for people to talk about that stuff.
HM: I’ve read that you started to write rap verses after seeing your students love for it while teaching in Houston. What are the roots of your love for the genre?
S: My relationship with hip-hop really started in high school. I grew up in Ithaca, and I didn’t really listen to a lot of rap growing up. I mean I saw what was on MTV and my older brother would bring stuff home sometimes, but mostly I listened to a lot of rock music. And in high school, friends would give me albums from artists here and there. But, I really connected with Kanye West. He was the guy that transformed me from someone who was a casual listener of hip-hop to someone who wanted to actively hear it and produce it. And I think a big part of that again is his vulnerability, the fact that’s he’s open. I think it was around that time that I fell in love with the art form, and saw it as something that, like an identity that I could have, that it wasn’t just for rappers that I saw on MTV. That I could rap about going to school, my problems were on the table for discussion.
HM: With new venues, digital means and more opportunities independently, how do you think that this has impacted your rise and music?
S: I’m so happy to be making music in the era in which I’m making music. I think that even 10 years ago if I had started, it would’ve been a very different journey for me, and it would’ve been a struggle. I can send something out to someone in LA and have the same traction as an artist coming from New York City, or I can be in a small town, and still feel like I’m able to reach audiences with varying streaming services and bandcamp and stuff like that. So, I’m loving the kinda state of music right now. There’s a lot of fresh underground stuff that’s coming up. And one thing that I never thought about as a kid is that the way I conceptualized being successful in music was like ‘you’re Mariah Carey or you’re broke.’ Like, there’s no in between. One thing that this era of music has opened me up to is the possibility of artists that are somewhere in the middle. They’re not millionaires or billionaires, but they’re definitely living a good life through the music they’re making.
HM: You’re a PhD student in the Department of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell and an Ithaca based artist. How do you think the dynamic local music scene has developed during your time here? How do you think MegsRadio could impact the music scene?
S: Growing up here, I went to a lot of punk shows. So, my older brother, he’s a guitarist and he started a band here and I would go to his shows. And people in my classes, they were performers, so I would go to a lot of rock stuff. And it was cool, but it wasn’t anything representing a scene to me. In my mind, it was ‘I go see my friends, I see my brother and that’s it’ and as an undergrad student (at Cornell), I wasn’t engaged in musical endeavors. My re-engagement with the Ithaca music scene came when I came back for grad school, and I was trying to figure out how I could integrate myself in it. Where does a girl like me go that wants to rap about video games and all the things I’m talking about? And in that exploration, I realized that there is a scene here and it’s been growing, but that hip-hop was not a priority for them. I do think Ithaca Underground is making a committed effort to bring hip-hop into the fold as a central element of the kinds of music they’re sharing.
I think that the kinda key thing with MegsRadio that’s cool is making the connections between local artists and national artists. So they can see that the music being created here isn’t in a bubble. We’re making political, thoughtful music here. It can go alongside whoever is making dope pop music right now. This is kinda the only platform that I know of that makes that explicit connection.
Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and shortened. It was originally published on Oct 29, 2016.