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Sampha's 'Process' and the Necessity of Vulnerable Black Masculinity

In his new album 'Process,' Sampha makes sculptures out of his skeletons.

Sampha is no stranger to the shadows on his walls. In fact, they may be his very best friends. Within the dark silhouettes and murky voids, he finds a glimmer of possibility and solace.


Here, words and sounds are constructed into fully realized ballads, contemplations on complicated memories, musings and moods that most of us are reluctant to confront. Sampha specializes in making sculptures out of his skeletons.

“You know Sampha, even if you don’t know him,” I told a friend over the phone this afternoon. This statement is true for you as well. You may have heard his whispery echoes in Beyoncé’s “Mine”, or noticed him, more blatantly, in several of SBTRKT’s songs (“Temporary View”, “Something Goes Right”, “Hold On”), his duets with Jesse Ware, or, most recently, identified him as the soulfully elated harmonizer in Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair.”

When Sampha lends his voice to another's music, he sprinkles magic dust onto the tune, evolving the track into an intimate experience—reminiscent of the recently viral Salt Bae’s grace with stocky, crimson cuts of meat. It is a finishing touch, the glitter that completes a masterpiece.

Yet, if you have never heard his voice, you may realize you know him simply by listening to one of his songs. Between his achingly soft, yet immensely stimulating voice and candid lyrics, you will find him describing emotions you didn’t know you knew. That is how you know him—because he already knows you.

Although Sampha’s collaborations are ecstatic, multidimensional and romantic, his own music is unselfconsciously vulnerable and contemplative, flowing with a sensual and enchanting essence.

The album cover for Process alone reveals his meticulousness, amidst his unrestrained creativity: perfectly symmetrical freeform locs crown his head, simultaneously resembling a halo and devil’s horns. He is a pure reflection of humanity’s mystery: finding the balance between good and not so good, embodying the excellence of being imperfect.

Where Dual, Sampha’s 2013 EP, ends, Process begins. Very few artists can say that their music flows seamlessly from one album to the next, yet, with Sampha’s Dual, it feels as though we are reading the opening chapters of an immense, engrossing novel—one that acts as a consolation for our most vulnerable thoughts. We are not alone.

Process is Sampha’s greatest musical declaration so far: a meditation on heartbreak, regret, homesickness, loss, self-image and love, and where he fits within all of these competing emotions and identities. It is also a fantastic and necessary declaration of one of the many faces of black masculinity: one where vulnerability and self reflection are expressed candidly and unapologetically.

The opening track, “Plastic 100ºC,” is a metaphorical anthem on travel, launching, what we leave behind and who we become when we exit familiarity. The setting is space, made abundantly clear by the clever Neil Armstrong sample, leading to the assumption that Sampha is melting from the sun: “It's so hot I’ve been melting out here/ I’m made out of plastic out here.”

However, it can also be read as melting from the discomfort of being away, a feeling I knew all too well the first time I went abroad and left behind my Ghanaian family. The weight, guilt and insecurity of leaving sometimes does not measure against the liberation of being on one's own. The plastic metaphor is also reminiscent of Ghanaian musician Moses Sumney’s usage in his song “Plastic.” There, his wings are made of plastic—and as wings are used for flight (or to signal one’s deity), the connection is palpable.

Home and family are reoccurring themes within Process, which Sampha, who is of Sierra Leonean descent, describes in various degrees. “Kora Sings,” which, audibly alone, feels optimistic, is actually a lullaby of loss and love.

Sampha’s mother battled cancer for several years, before passing away in 2015. In “Kora Sings”, there are moments of hope—“you don’t know how well you are, or just how strong you are”—followed by his pleading that she, his angel, doesn’t disappear. Followed by “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano,” which describes the piano in his mother's home that served as sanctuary while he cared for her during her illness, these songs ring deeply in the ears and heart of those who’ve lost someone.

In “Take Me Inside,” Sampha displays his gorgeous talent for crafting seamless, exciting transitions. The song evolves from a sensual, alluring piano tune to a former lover, into a hypnotic, electric, invitation to reunite once again. Meanwhile, “Reverse Faults” describes the downfall of a slowly receding romantic relationship—and the destruction lovers can cause to hurt themselves, and inevitably one another. The poetic starkness within this song is a quality Sampha is praised for: his ability to take you there, before you realize it was a place you needed to visit in order to heal.

Every song on Process hits a unique chord within me, touches a spot on my soul that I hadn't realized existed, and thus, I must presume may have been neglected this whole while. Yet, “Under” is enticing in a seductive way: persistent repetition of the word under, intertwined with thunder, reminding us that a woman's spell is as striking as a crash of thunder against the earth’s surface.

The closing song, “What Shouldn’t I Be?” with all of its questioning and doubt about returning home, about confronting self and others, plays like the inner, conflicting thoughts that gnaw at our brains. The product: a stunning finale that does not leave me unsatisfied, nor yearn for what’s next. Instead, I appreciate the experience so much more, and am I excited to replay, to relive it again. You can always come home.

Process references a tenderness in black masculinity that has been recognized and honored with greater validity as of late. For too long, black men have been stereotyped as aggressive, violent, misogynist, problematic beings, who are taught not to confront their emotional pain, mental health, and essentially, to hide behind a mask of nonchalance and strength.

Moving narratives such as Moonlight and musical contributions from Daniel Caesar, Moses Sumney and Blood Orange, push back against these notions, presenting pop culture with diverse depictions of the black male. Sampha’s music is a welcome addition to this syllabus, a graceful, honest and beautiful salve that massages the mind and spirit.

Sampha is no stranger to finding the light in dark atmospheres. There, he extracts unpredictable instrumentals, sporadic yet equally harmonic beats, soothing melodies and tender tones. He submits to his emotions; they are his compass through the dark.

Photos
"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

This Photo Series Is a Much-Needed Counter to Violent Images of the Black Body

"Infinite Essence" is Nigerian-American photographer Mikael Owunna's response to the one-dimensional narrative we tend to see of the black body.

This beautiful, thought-provoking photo series affirms what we already know—that the black body is magical, no matter what odds are against us.

Nigerian-American photographer, Mikael Owunna, touched base with OkayAfrica to share his new photo series, Infinite Essence. The series is Owunna's response to America's issue of police brutality, like the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Walter Scott, and the viral and violent images of the dead black body we've seen as a result.

"It has become frighteningly routine to turn on the television or log onto Facebook and see a video or image of a black person either dead or dying, like images of Africans dying in the Mediterranean," Owunna says.

"With this series, I work to counter these one-dimensional narratives of the black body as a site of death and destruction with imagery capturing what I see in my friends, family and community—love, joy, and ultimately, magic."

Owunna worked on Infinite Essence for the past year, and says his creative process began with a feeling. As he notes further, it's was a process of trial and error.

"I was beginning to explore my own spirituality and journey and learning about how black, queer and trans people in particular were respected for their magical abilities in many pre-colonial African societies. I was meditating on this idea of magic and how I can capture that in my work, harkening back to the 'Final Fantasy' video games and anime series I grew up on. How could I capture all of this? I did two pretty disastrous test shoots using long exposures and lights, that did nothing for me artistically.

It had none of the feeling I was looking for. So I went back to the drawing board. I pulled up Google image search results of magic in Final Fantasy and kept scrolling and scrolling and staring at images that had that emotional tug, that spiritual capture of magic and transcendence that I so wanted to bring into the work. As I was staring at the works, a voice in my head told me glow in the dark paints, and then from looking at that I found the world of UV photography. As soon as I saw some sample works in that space, I knew that was the direction the project would go and it was all steam ahead."

Shooting this series was the first time Owunna collaborated with makeup artists Karla Grifith-Burns and Davone Goins to bring his vision to life. "It was powerful and inspirational and brought so much structure to my feeling and thought," he says.

Owunna settled on the name of his series after reading about Odinani, the Igbo traditional belief system.

"Seeking to understand the basics of that, I came across brilliant writing by Chinua Achebe wherein he used the phrase 'infinite essence' and that clicked everything around it," he says. "When I can name something, it brings it to life in my head in stunning color."

Click through the slideshow below view Owunna's series, Infinite Essence. Read his artist statement for the project, where he speaks more in depth of Achebe's work on infinite essence here. The series is also on display at Owunna's solo exhibition at Montréal's Never Apart Gallery from today until April 7, 2018.

"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

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