Sampha’s Search For Magic
The Londoner lent others his voice and made their good songs great. Now, it’s his own story that needs telling.
The FADER Summer Music Issue 2016
Photo by: Francesco Nazardo
There’s a lump in Sampha’s throat and it won’t go away.
When he first went to have it checked out in early 2012, the doctor sent him home without a proper examination. “They were like, ‘It’s nothing. You’re too young,’” the 27-year-old remembers. “I had to go back a couple of times and be really stern.” We’re sitting in an East London studio, a windowless space that’s right next door to the office of his record label, Young Turks. He tells me he wishes there was a technology that could identify pain and convey it. Like: look, that’s how I feel. He was eventually given an endoscopy, so that the doctor could see what was going on. They found nothing.
In person, Sampha can be a little shy. But when he sings, his voice gives everything away. It cracks mid-range and frays into a whisper when he reaches for his falsetto. It’s almost like his emotions are so close to the surface that they’re bruising his vocal cords. On “Plastic 100ºC,” a delicate ballad from his long-awaited and still-untitled debut album, Sampha candidly details this recent brush with his own mortality: Usually I’d run home/ And tuck the issue under/ Oh, sleeping with my worries, yeah/ I didn’t really know what that lump was.
The lump had appeared in 2011, a couple of months after Sampha had joined a tour with his frequent collaborator, SBTRKT, real name Aaron Jermone. One morning, Sampha woke up with a cold, a fever, and a strange, painful feeling in his throat. He got better, but the lump remained. It bothered him, but he had too much going on. He put it to the back of his mind. He didn’t want any more bad news.
In 2010, his mother, Binty Sisay, had been diagnosed with cancer. Since Sampha was the only member of his family still living at home — his father died from lung cancer in 1998 — he’d become her primary caregiver. At the time, he’d been working hard to get somewhere in music because, much to his mother’s dismay, he’d dropped out of university a couple of years before. (He’d been studying music production but wasn’t really connecting with the course.) So when the chance to tour with SBTRKT arose, Sampha’s brother Ernest — who had moved home shortly after their mum’s diagnosis — and his cousins Maggie and May stepped in to help look after Binty.
Her cancer went into remission in late 2012. In the relief-fueled year that followed, Sampha’s career blossomed. He flew to Toronto to work with Drake on Nothing Was the Same tracks “The Motion” and “Too Much,” then to Ghana to work with Solange on music for a forthcoming project. A few months later, he traveled to both Los Angeles and Italy to work on early sessions for Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, resulting in the vulnerable-sounding “Saint Pablo,” which Kanye added to the album four months after its release.
By the end of 2013, Sampha had moved out of the family home and was living by himself in East London. The plan was simple: hit pause on collaborations and start focusing on his debut solo album. But plans often go awry. His mum’s health was up and down, and in late 2014, her cancer returned. Sampha moved home to be with her in the South London suburb of Morden. Some weeks, she was in and out of the hospital every couple of days. This past September, she lost her life to the debilitating disease. Understandably, Sampha is still reeling from the loss. “There’s not ‘the grieving process,’” he says quietly. “It’s like a dream you never…” He pauses for a second. “It’s never gonna feel real.”
Sampha is the youngest of five brothers by over a decade. His older siblings — Junior, John, Sanie, and Ernest — spent their formative years in his parents’ hometown of Kenema, Sierra Leone. But in 1982, his dad, a diamond evaluator named Joe, got a new job and moved the family to London, where Sampha was born a few years later. They settled in a semi-detached house in Morden on the edge of the countryside. The move was a chance to provide more opportunities for his sons, and to escape the corruption in the diamond trade that was wreaking havoc in his home country. A few years later, a decade-long civil war would break out in Sierra Leone, killing over 50,000 people and turning hundreds of thousands into refugees.
Sampha was 9 years old when his father died. “I wonder what kind of things I get from him,” he tells me in a gentle tone. “I always find it weird that you have [inherited] things about you that are not just physical: the things you think, the things you feel — the epigenetics or whatever.”
His mother and older brothers did their best to shelter Sampha from the trauma of his dad’s death, but nevertheless it left a void. In the years that followed, Sampha’s emotional world became entwined with music. His dad had bought a piano from their elderly neighbor when Sampha was 3. It was supposed to provide a “productive alternative to watching TV,” his brother Sanie tells me later, over the phone. And it worked; Sampha was always playing it. Later, he discovered music production as a young teen, after Sanie, who’s 16 years older, built himself a makeshift home studio in his house around the corner. But his real introduction to the music industry came second-hand via a London producer named Kwes, who he’d met on Myspace in 2007.
Back then, Sampha jokes, he thought “people in the music industry could far enough be aliens with huge blue hair and red eyes.” Kwes helped put things in perspective, though, and went on to introduce Sampha to Young Turks, which, at the time, was an offshoot of XL Recordings. But it was Kwes’s actual music — scratchy, bubbly tunes that defied conventional structure — that Sampha says changed his life. “It made me feel more okay with the songs I was writing,” he says. Through Kwes, Sampha met a community of like-minded artists, including Ghostpoet, DELS, and Micachu, whose music strived to make new, irregular shapes at a time when seamless, glossy pop like Girls Aloud and Sam Sparro was dominating the U.K. charts. Sampha would upload tracks to Myspace, and he says the response he got from his peers was liberating. He felt understood.
That moment of understanding — of pure sonic communication — became something he actively sought out; it eventually resulted in Sundanza, his debut EP of intricate instrumentals released on CD-R by Young Turks in 2009. It was an exciting time at the label: The xx was enjoying debut album success, and expectations for Sampha were high.
He tells me about the “very unspoken connection” he had with SBTRKT while working on the London producer’s 2011 debut, for which Sampha wrote, produced, and sang. Later, when Drake received a .zip file of Sampha’s music from Young Turks in 2012, the first thing he showed interest in was a mid-tempo beat. Drake didn’t end up using it, but the choice was still mind-blowing for Sampha: one of the world’s biggest rappers recognized his skills as a producer. Rick Rubin also spotted something in Sampha’s music, and invited him out to L.A. to work with Kanye. The place where they met looked like a bungalow in the side of a hill, Sampha tells me, but opened into an underground mansion. He got nervous when Kanye was “really responsive” to the embryonic album tracks he played. “I listened to College Dropout religiously,” he says, still in awe even now.
On a sunny afternoon in early May, I meet Sampha outside the Willesden Green tube station in northwest London, a mostly residential area that has the fingerprints of gentrification all over it. He’s lived around here with Jojo, his girlfriend of three years, since his mother passed away. There’s hardly a cloud in the sky, and locals are sitting on metal chairs outside a nearby cafe. Sampha pulls up on a bicycle that, with a tug of a few levers, deftly folds down into a manageable carry-on size. We catch the tube from Willesden to Waterloo, then change to the Northern Line to travel down south to Morden, which is right at the end of the line. Grubby issues of the free morning paper are scattered around the traincar, their front pages emblazoned with a headline that gives away the tabloid’s bias for the right-wing Conservative candidate in the local elections. Two days later, though, the win goes to the Labour Party’s Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim politician to be elected mayor of London.
From Morden station, it’s a short bus ride and a stroll to Sampha’s brother Sanie’s house. On the walk, petals fall like snow from blossoming trees. We bump into a middle-aged family friend on the way; he’d spotted Sampha out the window and wanted to come give his well-wishes.
Sanie’s house is the hangout spot around here; friends and family drop by, listen to music, and swap stories. Today, Sanie’s at the Southbank Centre seeing a play, so we’re greeted by his other brother Ernest. He’s a tall, broad-framed man who, save for his shaven head and the silver in his stubble, is Sampha’s spitting image; they even have a similar laugh. Sampha’s best friend Hassan, a visual artist with a beard and blue suede boots who lives nearby, is here too. Sampha and Hassan slip inside to catch up while Ernest and I sit outside for a moment, soaking up the sun. As we chat, a tiny red-breasted robin, its beak stuffed with flies, makes multiple trips to a nest tucked away on a shelf above Ernest’s head.
Ernest tells me that Sampha was like a meerkat when he was little; his head would pop up whenever he heard one of his brothers playing music. As he got older, Sampha soaked up his family’s wide-ranging musical interests like a sponge: Stevie Wonder, U.K. garage, rare groove, and sounds from Sierra Leone. It was an education in the breadth, depth, and wide-ranging influence of black music. “We used to get irritated after a while: ‘You ask too many questions,’” remembers Ernest, laughing. “I used to explain how we have certain sounds because of the way they’d been produced. So Sampha’s going on and on, experimenting with deep stuff, then he went off and found himself. I think he’s done well. He’s found his sound.”
Like he always has, Sampha’s been bringing around the tracks he’s been working on for his album and playing them for his brothers and friends. “Sampha’s quite open,” Sanie tells me later. “He’ll come in and play his stuff and be prepared to listen to anyone. That’s the only way you can really develop.”