Hip Hop Levels Up: Sammus & Pieces in Space

Editor’s Note: Today we are graced with another guest post by the peerless Robert Jones, Jr, (aka Son of Baldwin), this time bringing to light a voice that carves a place of her own in the contested space we call “hip hop,” resisting the narrow commodified framework that claims there is only one way to be “real.” While in the past Robert has shared his thoughts on comics and comic-related properties, we now get the privilege of seeing the results when he turns his critical lens to music.

sammus-powerupI grew up in hip-hop culture.

I was there from the very start, growing up in the projects of Brooklyn during the mid-to-late 70s, at the epicenter of it.

I love hip hop, but if I’m honest, I must admit that I’m required to sleep next to it with one eye open.

That’s because at any moment it can assault me with the celebration of blaqueerantagonism (the hatred, disdain, disapproval, stereotyping, or blanket negative judgment of black queer people), misogynoir (the hatred, disdain, disapproval, stereotyping, or blanket negative judgment of black women), or profound hatred turned inward (thanks to white supremacy), leading to the promotion of an outward violence seen as normal, desirable, and needed to establish dominance.

Often, the endorsing of these dangerous philosophies is excused as being necessary to secure and maintain economic stability for its creators who were once denied such security (that is, this content, however vile, sells because the societies to which it’s marketed share its core values); or is regarded as authentic (that is, since this, according to the creators, is how life manifests itself in the streets, putting it in the art is merely a neutral, innocuous reflection of the “real”) and, therefore, above reproach and beyond the reach of critical analysis from critics dismissed as “politically correct.”

The promoters of this type of material argue, essentially, that art simply imitates life, but wholly ignore that the relationship is reciprocal and that life, too, imitates art. Human beings are not unchanged or unmotivated by the media they consume. Many of us—artists, academics, and activists alike—tend to shy away from such realizations because it puts a burden of responsibility on those who would rather reap benefits only. We’re also afraid that confronting the truth about how the artistic depiction of harm can inspire actual harm will constrict the imaginations of artists and result in art that isn’t art at all, but just some dull, limited, empty replication. Never mind that much of the said content is already dull, limited, and repetitive.

So the question becomes: Is it possible in this day and age to create hip hop that isn’t reliant on blaqueerantagonism, misogynoir, and epic hypermasculine posturing to make its point or its money? The answer is yes, of course, and can be found in the form of rapper/producer/songwriter Sammus.

power-ups

Sammus, whose real name is Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, is a native upstate New Yorker born to Ivorian and Congolese parents. She is the great niece of the late Patrice Lumumba, the former Congolese prime minister who was assassinated for his stances against Western colonialism and white supremacy. The familial link through such a resistance becomes quite obvious upon listening to Sammus’ music.

Sammus (photo by Zoloo Brown)

Sammus (photo by Zoloo Brown)

A former teacher, Sammus holds a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies at the same institution. Influenced by her older brother, Disashi, a member of the alternative/trip-hop band Gym Class Heroes, gamer culture (Sammus’ name is inspired by Samus, the hero of the classic video game, Metroid), academia, and rappers like Kanye West, she began her career in hip hop in 2010 with the release of the EP, Fly Nerd. Rather than going the traditional route and attempting to sign a recording contract with a label, Sammus released her music on Bandcamp. Her efforts took off with the release of her 2013 album, Prime, which holds the distinction of being Bandcamp’s all-time bestselling rap album.

Political from its base, and politicized as a black woman creating within spaces openly hostile to her presence (academia, hip hop, and so-called gamer culture), Sammus’ music is a bold, transformative experience informed by traditions of struggle and triumph, as well as an attempt to forge new, grander possibilities in an afrofuturistic location. This is seen clearly on tracks like “Power Ups,” from the album Another M (2014), in which she incorporates geek elements (also known as nerdcore) to tell her life’s story in the context of a video game. This engagement with nerd culture sometimes serves as a lighter counterbalance to the heaviness of the social justice issues she engages, like on, “1080p,” from the album Infusion (2016), an examination of what it means to be a black woman in academic spaces designed for and dominated by white men.

Her latest album, Pieces in Space, however, leans toward the political even in its moments of revelry.

Immersed in break rhythms, smooth R&B, 70s soul, and quirky cosmic bleeps that would make Parliament/Funkadelic proud, Sammus embraces the kind of freedom afforded to grassroots, independent artists who don’t have corporate overseers menacing with strange gazes and mandates to sellout. Her voice is loud, brash, and confident. She glides over dope beats with the same swagger that makes MC Lyte legendary, and keeps in mind that there is much more to rapping, good rapping at least, than just rhyming words. You also have to tell a compelling story.

piecesofspace-mdOn the soulful “100 Percent (feat. L.Atasha A.Ichindor),” she spits: “My mom say/never cut a corner/that’s the wrong way/the cost ain’t worth it/if you wanna make it perfect…” and it doesn’t come across as moralizing, but rather as a link to the matrilineal wisdom that’s a staple in Sammus’ testimonies. The underscoring soul sample of a woman singing the words “on our way, on our way back home again” only serves to drive the point, well, home. With “Childhood,” she snatches back black childhood from those who question young black people’s ability to be children, singing, “Let’s go away for a while/I’m a child/it’s a strange and distant land/where we only speak the truth….” It’s both a love letter and eulogy for children like Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Tamir Rice, and a balm for the children still with us.

One of the most powerful tracks is the album’s first single “Song About Sex,” an anti-patriarchy jam whose hook is: “This is a song about sex/in which I do not condemn women/for the realities in which they are living.” That it’s said so plainly only reinforces how rare such messages are in media and how desperately the message needs repeating (particularly in regard to black women)—and if repeated to the laid-back, jazzy, “yeah, and?” beat Sammus uses, then all the better.

The album ends on a blue note, as Sammus shows her strength by wearing her vulnerabilities on her sleeve, asking, on “Qualified (feat. Open Mike Eagle and Arch Thompson),” “Am I qualified/Qualified/Hell if I know” after meeting a guy and telling him that she’s not always into men and waiting for the negative response she’s sure will follow. It’s a haunting song, crafted over a dark rhythm, and one of the most original rap songs ever written.

In Sammus’ world, #BlackLivesMatter isn’t simply a hashtag; it isn’t limited to only a particular category of black person, and isn’t even something that needs to be stated outright because, in her plane of existence, it’s a self-evident default. Pieces is an intelligent work that assumes the intelligence of its audience. It doesn’t pander or condescend, but rather uplifts and informs. It wants you to dance and be mindful, prance and be loving. Most of all, it wants to carve out a space for you to be, perhaps, your better self.

And it leaves room for you to do that in peace.

—-

Finally, here are some standout songs from Sammus’ sizable discography for you to sample:

“Back Stabbers” (from the album Infusion): A funky track where Sammus attempts to broaden the definition of Blackness to include black people who don’t fit the limited, stereotypical notions associated with race that are authored by white supremacists and oftentimes, perpetuated by the victims of white supremacy. She raps aggressively here, stating plainly that just because her “umi’s umi’s umi’s umi never rode no slave ship,” it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t experience our shared condition of oppression via an anti-black social structure.

“A Woman” (from the album, M’other Brain): Sammus tackles taboo subjects in black communities, including colorism and misogynoir. On the track, she spits slow at first, then in double time to convey her anger at being the target and the urgency with which we must address these sins. When the hook repeats “I am a woman,” it’s a demand as much as it’s an existential fact.

“DL” (from the album, Prime): This track explores the so-called down-low phenomenon of black queer men in a way that is much more layered and nuanced than mainstream media conversations on the subject. That is, it doesn’t demonize these men or place an undue burden on them for the actions they feel forced to take. Rather, it indicts the society that pathologizes these men, created the closet, and pushes them into it. Sammus breaks with the tradition of queerantagonism in hip hop to produce something both catchy and deep.

“Mae Jemison” (from the album, Another M): An upbeat, joyful ode to the first black female astronaut in which Sammus calls out “fake” (read: white) feminists, cultural appropriators, and those whose grasp of intersectionality is lacking. All of this done over a beat that recalls 80s video games at the arcade.


Robert Jones, Jr. is a writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He earned both his B.F.A. in creative writing and M.F.A. in fiction from Brooklyn College. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Gawker, The Grio, and the Feminist Wire. He is the creator of the social justice social media community, Son of Baldwin, which can be found on Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, Medium, Tumblr, and Twitter. His first novel is in the revision stage and he’s currently working on the second.

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