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.

Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

Nadia Nakai Explains Why She Never Used to Work With Women Rappers

"Because I would have never shined as Nadia Nakai. I would have shined as another female rapper."

South African rapper Nadia Nakai is gearing to release her debut album. She recently did an interview with the website Slikour On Life in which she spoke about, among other things, squashing beef, the work behind her album and the importance of dressing up for her performances.

She also spoke about why she has always been opposed to all-female collaborations, especially those whose selling point is that they are all-girl collaborations.

"There's a reason why I did what I did when I didn't do those female remixes, when I didn't jump on those songs, when I was okay that I wasn't on the 'Baddest' remix," she told Slikour.

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Photo: courtesy of Natsai Audrey Chieza

100 Women: Natsai Audrey Chieza is Changing the World One Petri Dish at a Time

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textile manufacturing.

The bold jewel tones of OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree Natsai Audrey Chieza's silk scarves aren't the product of hazardous chemicals or silkscreen printing. Instead, they are the product of bacteria. Specifically coelicolor, a strain of bacteria found in soil that happens to excellently synthesize organic chemical compounds. Working in the trade for six years, the Zimbabwean materials designer quickly came to understand why the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Knowing that the most harm occurs during the process of dyeing fabrics, she decided to take action.

Chieza has worked with leading brands such as Microsoft, Nissan, and Unilever to usher in a new approach to science and design. Through her creative R&D; studio Faber Futures, the design innovator uses the process of creating with bacteria to assist in moving mankind away from our fossil fuel dependency. As the biopigment expert put it [last year during her TED talk "Fashion has a pollution problem—can biology fix it?"], in the future we must make sure that we are not "mirroring the destructive legacies of the oil age."

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked spirited conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textiles. Here, Chieza expounds on her start, the pros and cons of creating something new and the urgency of change.

The following has been edited for length and clarity

Akinyi Ochieng for OkayAfrica: STEM and the arts are often conceptualized as separate worlds. However, in your career, you've managed to find the overlap. How did you, a materials designer, end up dabbling in biotechnology?

Natsai Audrey Chieza: I've always really wanted to work within the creative field. I used to work in architecture where I really enjoyed my education in a systems approach to designs and designing for multiple contexts. But I wanted to explore a different side of the design world, so I began exploring the skill and context of material flows, and how technology and futures fits within this framework of how we design.

For my own work and my practice, not having a scientific background made me try things based on what I understood about materials and what I understood about the interactions in which those materials existed in society. I'm interested in a political lens, an economic lens, and how textiles perform in reality. That's not necessarily the approach that a scientist would have taken. Now that's not to say that science isn't important—it's vital. But innovation can occur in that intersection.

Did you go into this thinking, "Oh, I'll figure it out. There must be a path to make this work"?

To be honest, when I started off, the field was not defined. I think I found something really interesting, which was about how biology was becoming a realm of design, and I just explored that as best as I knew how as a designer and non-scientist. It just so happened that around me there was a context that was imagined but enabled me six years later to say, "That's the industry where this work belongs" and stakeholders who give me a space to further my work in a creative and experimental. The path was never anything clear at all. I learned as I grew.

There's a phrase that is often repeated today: "You can't be what you can't see." But you have really created a niche for yourself. What are the benefits of entering an emerging space?

I think what's amazing is not having anyone or anything telling you that what you think is impossible. If you're carving a new territory then you must trust in your instinct and vision to effectively push where the work can be and where it exists. You're not asking permission to do anything. Of course the flip side of that is you have to bring people with you, and so part of you being able to do the work is convincing people that your vision has legitimacy and it's worth exploring, worth taking a risk to look outside of that box.

It's often quite challenging to figure out how to find the strength to push something that hasn't been done before. There's no precedent or rulebook to my work, but sometimes it's really nice to have a rulebook. [Laughs] However, I think it's made me a person who doesn't see challenges as obstacles that are in the way, but more as problems that can be solved. And I think that's the good thing.

Much of your work is about biopigments. What color excites you?

It's not really the colors that excite me. It's color as a cultural context that really fascinates me. I'm really interested in if a microbe is almost like this living factory that produces this pigment, and the technology can be shared and deployed with people as to how you work with it across the world, then what are the cultural interventions that can happen in South Africa versus in Argentina versus in the United Kingdom, based on this common microbe. I think that's always been what interests me the most, the context in which our materials exist. I think a really good example is indigo, and how from Japan to West Africa, indigo is just this really, really rich material, and the process and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I'm interested to see how the future ecology of making arises in response to biotechnologies across the world.

Where do you see yourself and your work evolving in the near or long term?

I'm sort of going through that growth moment where you've been working toward something and then you've arrived at that and you're like, "Right, what's next?" I think I'm fundamentally somebody that wants to use design as a discursive tool to understand how our technologies proliferate. My focus is really on the imagined life sciences and how they're going to become very much a part of all of our lived experiences, and particularly in the context of really urgent changes that are happening from a local level to a global level. From global warming and climate change to resource scarcity across regions, our response to what I think being able to design with living systems, can afford us in the future. So my work really is about understanding how to engage stakeholders across different sectors to grow a consensus around how we're going to leverage these sorts of technologies so that they can be technologies for good. That's really where this is going.

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

Maia & The Big Sky LP cover.

Start Your Week Off Right With This Soulful Kenyan Collaboration

Maia & the Big Sky connect with Blinky Bill for "Pawa."

Maia & the Big Sky's music routinely blends soul and funk influences with the coastal rhythms of Kenya and features singing in both English and Kiswahili.

Maia's recently tapped into the vinyl revival wave as her 11-song Maia & the Big Sky LP is reportedly the first Kenyan album released on vinyl since the 1970s.

The Nairobi-based artist is now sharing the new music video for "Pawa," the album's leading track, which we're premiering here today. Directed by Chris King, the beautiful new clip sees Maia & the Big Sky taking over the TV airwaves and minds of all of those watching, freeing them from the "power" that controls them.

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