Hip hop isn't usually known for being emotional. Angry, sure. Powerful, definitely. But emotive, and sad, and heartbreaking is almost as rare as Sammus herself— a renowned nerdcore rapper who's working on a PhD in her spare time.
Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo is better known by her stage name Sammus. She took the name after a character in the video game series Metroid—a woman who, like her, tries to exist and thrive in a highly male-dominated world. For Sammus, the rapper and the student, that world is music, where she is one of the few black women writing, producing, and performing her own work. She's popular enough that she's self-funded two albums on Kickstarter.
Sammus doesn't shy away from any topic in her art or her research. She is personal and political, strong and emotional, uplifting and heart-achingly honest. On her most recent album Pieces in Space, which came out October 28, Sammus gets even more raw and personal than she's ever been before.
I chatted with Sammus over email about her new album, getting her PhD, and being a black woman sitting in the producer's chair.
When did you realize that you wanted to make music?
I’ve enjoyed making music since I was a small child. My older brother taught me how to play the keyboard and guitar informally when I was in elementary school. In high school he taught me how to use the beat-making software, Reason, and I also independently began using the beat-making video game MTV Music Generator to make songs.
I became obsessed with making original compositions, with the goal of eventually developing a soundtrack for either a video game or a cartoon series. I made the decision to try my hand at making hip-hop beats after hearing Kanye West’s College Dropout just before starting undergrad.
Did you think that being a musician was a realistic dream? When did you realize it would become a reality?
To this day I’m not sure that being a full-time musician is a realistic dream. Thanks to the Internet and the development of incredible platforms like Bandcamp, the landscape of indie music has certainly become more habitable for many people. But it still takes a tremendous amount of ingenuity and patience to just break even sometimes.
That said, life as a musician does feel more accessible to me than it used to. Part of this realization has come from my personal triumphs—landing more and more well-paid gigs, touring successfully a few times, and getting support from a reputable label.
Why did you decide to pursue your PhD?
I love learning! It really wasn’t more complicated than that. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after I finished my two-year teaching appointment through Teach for America, and I had always enjoyed school. A PhD seemed like a good choice.
What are you getting your PhD in? How does that play into the art you're creating?
I’m in the Science & Technology Studies Department at Cornell University. My PhD research focuses on the politics of studio spaces, an interest ignited by my desire to make music. But for the most part my PhD work and my art don’t interact all that much. In some instances I’ve been able to access a research site by leveraging my identity as a rapper and producer, and sometimes my identity as a PhD student has become content for different songs as in the case of “1080p” or “Pity Party.”
Your song "1080p" is really emotional! How do you integrate feelings into a genre that really isn't known for that?
I think the tide is starting to change regarding conversations about mental health across many genres. Although there is a often a lot of posturing to be found in hip hop, I would say that many artists have been willing to get vulnerable and open for some time, Kanye West being my primary example. Perhaps, the thing that’s different about “1080p” is the subject matter of the song. Depression, particularly in the context of academia is not necessarily a topic that has been broached, particularly by a woman MC.
"1080p" also deals intimately with depression and suicide. Are those feelings you've experienced? How have you recovered?
Yes, these are feelings I’ve experienced. Towards the end of 2014 I had hit a real low point—I was certain I didn’t belong in the academy, I was dealing with the end of a five-year relationship, and I was fed up with my chronic respiratory issues. As the song articulates, seeking therapy was what allowed me to begin healing. I had to speak my pain into existence before I was ready to confront it and dismantle it. “1080p” was me articulating all of the things I’d been too scared to say out loud.
Fewer black people than white people seek help for their depression and suicidal tendencies. Did you feel that disparity in your own experience? How did you overcome them?
I definitely felt conflicted about seeking therapy. I think it’s important to note that many black people have a healthy mistrust of medical institutions, given the abuses and dehumanization of black people throughout the history of medicine. The Tuskegee syphilis experiments point to one such example, but even more recently, a University of Virginia study found many white doctors still believe that black people feel less pain than white people. I think because of these histories, cultural perceptions about our need to appear strong, and the difficulty in finding people who really understand how to talk about racism, it can be a real challenge for black people to seek help.
I overcame my anxiety about seeking help out of necessity. I did it to save my life and to preserve my sanity. I knew that if I didn’t talk to someone about my state of mind, things were going to end very badly.
Production-wise, some of your work is really hard to pin down. How would you describe the sound you're trying to achieve through your work?
My boyfriend and I recently spent quite a bit of time coming up with a description for my newest album, Pieces in Space, which dropped on Friday, October 28. The project ties together all of the sonic elements I’ve been cultivating over the past few years so I think although it specifically discusses my album, it works as a description for my overall sound:
“the album weaves raw confessions, pro-weirdo anthems, and clever musings on modern life into a unique story about black womanhood. The sound of Pieces is just as eclectic as its story: Sammus’ production swings from laid-back and melodic to bright and bouncy. While her flow is just as varied, it’s her unrelenting urgency that ties Pieces together.”
It seems like black women are having a kind of renaissance in hip hop in 2016. Do you agree with that? What do you think is causing it?
Yes, it does feel like there’s a real renaissance with black women in hip hop right now. I think it’s a combination of more women getting out there and doing their thing, and more publications taking an interest in sharing our work. I’ve been rapping since 2010, and a lot of women I know have been at this for some time. It’s great to see mainstream publications paying more attention to us now.
As for why this is happening, I think it has a lot to do with the mainstreaming of feminism as a concept. Artists like Beyoncé have certainly made feminism a part of their identity. Across all platforms and mediums women are no longer accepting the idea that women can’t excel in male-dominated spaces. I think this change also has to do with the power of the Internet to connect and build communities around particular interests and identities.
Personally, I’ve felt empowered to continue rapping about my identity as a black girl nerd largely because I’ve been able to connect with many black women on the Internet who validate my experience. Through engaging with them online, I’ve recognized that my story is an important one, worthy of being recorded and shared.
Very few women produce their own music. Why do you? Do you think it's important that more women produce?
I used to think that very few women produced their own music, but as I’ve had more opportunities to tour and perform, I’ve learned that there are many women who are making their own music. My music network is largely comprised of women who do everything from making hip-hop beats to writing synth-based pop ballads. Just last October I helped organize a conference with a group of women producers to showcase our work in a safe and encouraging space. So while I do agree that we need more women behind the boards, there are already quite a few who are doing a great job and publications need to make sure to highlight their work.
I became a producer mostly because making music was fun for me. I didn’t think about it in gendered terms until men started making me feel strange about being a woman who makes beats—they questioned whether I was really the one making my production or they’d ask if I’d had assistance. I began to wear my beat-making prowess as a badge of my feminism, because it allowed me to push back against the idea that women are technically illiterate.
Finally, yes, I do think it’s important that more women produce not just because of the great music they’ll create, but also because there is a power dynamic that they can subvert when they don’t have to rely on anybody else for their music. I’ve never had to wait on anybody to send me a beat. I’ve never had to negotiate with anybody about a piece of production because I just make it myself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Sammus will be performing at Fusion's Real Future Fair on November 15, 2016 at the Oakland Museum of California.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.