CALGARY – Ithaca-raised rapper SAMMUS (Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo) is known for her strong views on identity and womanhood, but her infectious rhymes and soul-stirring rhythms have made her a much-sought-after MC and facilitator who is capable of uniting all fronts. A verbal assassin and videogame anti-damsel, SAMMUS has attracted hip-hop fans from some of the web’s furthest corners and lit up the stage with her fiery dialogue and forthright delivery. Conveying her message across with intelligence and intent, she rarely fails to establish a tone of equality and respect when performing live. Something she attributes to her desire to lift up the oppressed while remaining solidly rooted in her own sovereign philosophy.
BeatRoute: How do you handle the pressure of being tapped to anchor a festival like Femme Wave?
SAMMUS: I think I’m really blessed in that this is a feminist festival, it already looks so cool! Whereas, if this was just a general music festival I would be nervous about putting together a set that covered an array of different topics. I definitely feel at my most comfortable in an explicitly feminist basis. I’m preparing for this festival by just trying to figure out what from my catalogue will make folks feel the most affirmed, like communities that are the most marginalized, to make them feel affirmed in that space. And to address some of the complicated and complex relationships that we have with ourselves and each other.
What kind of atmosphere do you try to create with your performances and what can Femme Wave attendees expect from your live show?
SAMMUS: It depends on the audience. I did a performance last night at an art museum and I had a nice area to run around, so I was all over the stage and getting in people’s faces and that kind of stuff. I really like to be in and amongst the audience as much as I possibly can, getting off the stage, moving into the crowd and shaking hands. I also have some tracks that are call-and-response, my goal with those is to get people engaged and feeling like the experience isn’t just something that I’m generating, but one that we’re generating together.
How does your performance style today compare with what you were doing a year ago?
SAMMUS: I recently got off of a tour and a lot of folks who saw me said “Wow! You’ve become very refined in your performance.” They said they’ve noticed that my personality has increasingly come out in my performances. Earlier on, or even just a year ago, I was really intent on having people listen and getting the words out, so the it was pretty intense. Now I’m comfortable on the stage and the fact that I’m a silly person, or that I like to make jokes and laugh, comes out a lot in my set. Obviously, a lot of the stuff that I talk about is very serious, but I feel like that seriousness was the only thing people were seeing about in past performances. Now it’s more of a fullness of what I like and who I am.
You have a rather impressive curriculum vitae. How have your academic accomplishments and career as an educator benefitted your pursuits as an underground rapper and social activist?
SAMMUS: One of the things that I’ve been able to take away from my time as a grad student is how to shift through something and really analyze it. In the process of creating a song what is important is to me is focusing on one theme, or one idea, and pulling it apart, or stretching it, or thinking about it differently. The other thing I’ve learned being in the Department of Science & Technology Studies (at Cornell University) is the ways in which knowledge is structured and socially produced. My music talks about how identity can be socially constructed and how there are a lot of assumptions about what it is to be a woman, or what it is to be a black person. Musically, I’m trying to resist and push back against that and show the ways that those identities are a lot more malleable than we sometime see. I think those are the two ways in which my academic background has helped.”
How do you forge a connection with your audience and make sure your message is being heard?
SAMMUS: I’ve been made fun of because I talk a lot in between my sets. I always want to people to understand what I’m talking about, but I don’t’ want to be that person in the ivory tower using all this language and then not actually providing an access-point for people who aren’t familiar. I want to avoid being someone who uses a cool vocabulary, but doesn’t try to bring people into the conversation. My worst fear is to be completely disconnected from the people I actually want to speak to the most.
Do you ever have reservations about becoming a lightning rod for political and personal outrage? How do you handle that sense of responsibility?
SAMMUS: Sharing so much of my life, dealing with issues such as my mental health, has meant that a lot of people have disclosed things to me at shows, and via email and in texts, and it’s really beautiful and powerful that folks feel so connected to me. But I also feel a little stressed out sometimes, because I wish I could help or I’m not sure what to say. And I’m not a trained professional, so I want to make sure I’m directing people to resources that can help them. I very much understand and feel the weight of being an artist who talks about these things now more than ever.
What is your messaging around sexual assault and how do you draw a frame around such a pervasive problem?
SAMMUS: I have a song on my most recent album called “Song About Sex” and in it I talk about some of the toxic messages that I think a lot of women receive around sex and what sex is supposed to be. The song finishes with me talking about my own traumatic instances with feeling unsafe. It took some time for me to even process some of the things that have happened to me, or even recognize them as falling under the umbrella of sexual assault. It’s very easy for people to say, “Why didn’t you say anything before?” Or, “Why is this just coming up now?” But it’s so difficult and people need to assess the safety of the situation. They have to assess whether they’re ready to be the target of the inevitable backlash that comes with hearing abuses that somebody perpetrated.
What is the source of your artistic impetus and what compels you to continue reaching out to new audiences with your music?
SAMMUS: There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing than creating or sharing art. I feel so happy to be a part of communities that are consistently producing amazing thoughtful, beautiful, sincere works. I get so much joy from just being there and seeing people who are excited to be there. It gives me hope for the future. I think sometimes being online, or on Twitter, it can feel really dismal and bleak like there’s no way to fight back against this crazy administration or there’s way to improve the quality of our lives. But being in these art spaces reminds me that resistance sometimes takes place in the streets, it also takes place in community spaces and venues and DIY areas and that people can change and grow and learn just from hearing a song.
SAMMUS performs at Femme Wave Fun House November 18 at The #1 Legion [Calgary].Femme Wave, Femme Wave Fun House, SAMMUS, The #1 Legion, womanhood