Software finds a heart and soul in the lyrical lexicon of rapper Sammus
NORTH ADAMS — Mixing technological fluency with emotional accessibility, Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, better known as Sammus, is the epitome of a 21st century rapper/producer. For proof, look no further than arguably her most acclaimed song, "1080p." The track details Lumumba-Kasongo's struggles in graduate school and a relationship gone awry. Google can regularly prompt the latter's agony.
"The first letter of your first name / Makes your name emerge when I search things," Sammus raps in the 2016 single.
For much of the song, Sammus' suffering presides, bordering on suicidal. But the track closes on a triumphant note: Sammus expresses her appreciation for therapy and repeats that she now sees the world in "1080p," a reference to HD TV. Onstage, she has been known to shed some tears while progressing through the song's verses. When the 32-year-old Ithaca, N.Y., native plays "1080p" at North Adams' Design Lab on Thursday night, audience members may also find themselves having to dry their eyes. It's a song that resonates.
"Yesterday, I received a message on Instagram. Somebody told me, 'Thank you. This song changed my life,'" Sammus told The Eagle by phone on Monday in advance of the rescheduled MCLA Presents! Margaret Hart Concert, which annually honors the first student of color to graduate from State Teachers College at North Adams (now MCLA). "Two days before that, somebody tweeted me and said, 'This song gave me the strength to leave a job that I was miserable in.' Folks really have a visceral reaction to it, and that's so meaningful to me."
Sammus hasn't always been able to reach that emotional depth in her music. Her roots are in production, making beats using Reason, GarageBand and now Logic.
"Basically, all of these softwares, you can plug in a mini keyboard. You might have a sound bank of different sounds, lots of different drum sounds or synth sounds. You can draw from that and play those melodies or beats out manually. Or, you can click through and place them where you want to place them, but you're just building a composition," she said.
The production side used to dictate her lyrical lexicon. Every week or two, she would create a new beat. The words would be built around it.
"It was things that piqued my interest or big, broad topics that piqued my interest. So, I might talk about racism in U.S., but then I might talk about how much I like video games and shift back and forth between those kinds of ideas," she said.
Sammus has been associated with nerdcore, a hip-hop subgenre that frequently alludes to video games and other interests for the academically inclined but, perhaps, socially unrefined. The rapper's name, for instance, pays homage to Samus Arun of the Nintendo video game series, Metroid. And "1080p" includes a reference to the Nintendo character Mario.
Sammus is certainly a bookworm. Though she is based in Philadelphia, she is currently working on a doctorate degree in Cornell University's Department of Science and Technology Studies. She graduated with a bachelor's degree from Cornell in 2008 and subsequently taught in Houston for two years as part of Teach for America. She then returned to the Ithaca institution for more studying.
Taking an academic approach to her lyrics early on, however, wasn't the best course.
"I feel like I was almost a little robotic at some points because I was so concerned with, 'OK, [I have to] have the best references and have it be really intricate,'" she said.
During Sammus' second stint at Cornell, school didn't come as naturally for her as it had in the past.
"I felt like everyone was smarter and knew what they were supposed to be doing, and I was the only person who didn't really feel connected or grounded," she said.
She was also coping with a "really tumultuous relationship" that eventually ended.
"There was so much emotion. I couldn't make my way out of it, so I ended up dealing with suicidal ideation and feeling like I had no way out. And ultimately, through that very painful process, I ended up speaking to a therapist," she said.
The therapist advised her to write down her thoughts, leading to the lyrics for "1080p." She released the song in 2016; it's now part of her most recent full-length, "Pieces in Space" (2016). It was a departure from her gaming-inspired earlier works.
"More recently, my process is much more embedded in the personal, extremely personal, so I cry a lot," she said. "I cry a lot whether I'm happy or sad. When my eyes start to get teary-eyed, I say often, 'Oh, something's happening, let me kind of excavate this and think about why I'm having this emotional response.'"
Sammus' influences include Kanye West, Bjork, Open Mike Eagle and her older brother, Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo, who is a member of Gym Class Heroes. He has offered advice about the importance of advocating for one's artistic vision. In "100 Percent," her most recent album's opening track, Sammus asserts her musical ambitions while chastising those at a recent South by Southwest festival who abandoned theirs.
"I remember going to see certain artists — bigger artists — and their performances seemed so lazy. I was really, really irritated by that because it was like, 'You have this amazing platform. You have thousands of people to listen to you, to hear what you have to say. And it just seems like a one-off thing,'" she recalled. "I wanted to make this song about giving your all, giving your all to what it is that you do and the importance, [the] necessity of that."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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