Since 2010 Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo has been rapping and self-producing under the name Sammus. Working as a third and fourth grade teacher in Houston at the time, she crafted her first EP Fly Nerd with hopes of giving her students music that would inspire them to come to class. “E-D-ucation / took me places / like a vacation,” she sings on that EP’s title track. “And it’s spacious / at the top of the mountain / sitting here bouncing / to my own tracks / Dead-president countin’.” She followed it up in 2012 with a full length, M’OTHER BRAIN, whose title referenced the video game Metroid but lyrically dealt with complex issues like religion, sexuality, race, and gender. The project captured the attention of nerdcore rapper Mega Ran, another former-teacher turned rapper who invited her to guest on one of his tracks and later would bring her on two tours.
In between the release of Fly Nerd and M’OTHER BRAIN, Sammus moved to Ithaca, New York and enrolled in the PhD program in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. Accordingly, her work has started to incorporate the general theme of struggling to navigate academia as a rapper and producer.
Recently Sammus formed a music group with some fellow rappers and producers and released ANOTHER M which uses the story of the Samus Aran, the main character in Metroid , as a metaphor to deeper explore gender, sexuality, and power dynamics. She also released the single “Three-Fifths” which deals with police brutality and “the cost of being viewed as subhuman.” Surrounding these new releases, we met up in Ithaca to discuss her new work, dueling identities, the political power of hip-hop, and more.
You just got back from your second tour with Mega Ran, what was reception like?
Tour can take you to places where you don’t have a guaranteed following. There are places where they know Mega Ran, but they haven’t heard of me, which I actually consider to be super fun because then it’s my job to convince them that I’m dope. We’re a really good pair in the sense that we have an affinity for video game characters with arm cannons, so there’s that (laughs). But we also are navigating this line between nerdcore and indie hip hop that I think a lot of people appreciate, and then I offer a slightly different perspective than Mega Ran.
I actually feel like I might not be a great person to explain. The term was coined by this artist named MC Frontalot and I think he was doing some online rap battling stuff and he wanted to figure out a way to talk about what he was doing so he called it nerdcore, jokingly or ironically, and then it actually became a thing. So for example, now at SXSW they have an official nerdcore stage. My sense is that it’s people who speak about these very specialized areas of geekdom or nerddom, pop culture in general, or just being really smart. I think part of that is trying to push back against typical mainstream hip-hop tropes, which I have my own issues with.
And where does Sammus fit in with all that?
I’m hesitant about using that term. I think it’s been helpful because it helps people to make sense of what I’m doing. I am also very anxious about being pigeon-holed. Especially because my first two full-length projects had nothing to do with video games specifically. There are references, and I think there’s a broader kind of tie that I’m trying to make to the character Samus from the Metroid video game, but most of it is about my issues being a black girl in upstate New York who is trying to navigate academic life or whatever. So the term nerdcore can be kind of limiting. I also feel like there’s a component, a sort of racial aspect, of what I’m talking about that’s lost when you use the term nerd-core so I’ve been using the term afrofuturism to think about what my music is geared towards.
I also feel like there’s a component, a sort of racial aspect, of what I’m talking about that’s lost when you use the term nerd-core so I’ve been using the term afrofuturism to think about what my music is geared towards.
So what is the reception like from the nerdcore community toward these more serious issues you discuss in your music?
I think that’s kind of the thing that artists in the scene deal with. For example, I don’t always know if the venue I’m playing is going to have people who feel very passionately about Metroid, but really don’t give two shits about my experience as a woman or my experience trying to navigate academia. I think increasingly I don’t really care and I’m just going to do my set. I also think my video game stuff also deals with a lot of the issues I find important. In addition, I don’t want to delegitimize how important video games are by themselves – they shaped a lot of my life, my early understanding of things, and a lot of the connections I’ve made with people have been through video games. But using hip hop I think there’s a responsibility, at least for me, to talk about the racial implications of being someone who likes geek and nerd stuff but also being a person of color – being concerned about more than just what the latest Fantastic Four movie is going to look like, and more so with that someone else that looks just like me got shot today. In terms of reception from the nerdcore audience though, I think I’m always pretty surprising to them. Just my presence. Like, “who is this black lady that’s coming in here with an arm cannon on…” I think the reception has mostly been positive though. Surprised, but really excited after I get through my set.
At a deeper level, who is Sammus?
So just in terms of the character, Metroid is a Nintendo video game. It came out in 1986 in Japan, the year I was born, and in 1987 in the U.S., but we didn’t get it in our house until years later because my family loved to wait until stuff was not as expensive to get it. My older brother played the game when I was about seven years old and I watched him play it and wanted to do everything he did. I remember thinking “Samus, he’s so cool!” So then we get to the end of the game and the armor comes off, and it’s a woman. That was actually really crazy for me as a kid. I loved the way that it was presented, it wasn’t like, “oh my goodness, Samus is a woman.” She’s just there, and is like, “okay, bye!” and then the credits come. I think that speaks more powerfully than a big presentation that is like, “haha, I tricked you.” Because it’s saying instead, “so what that she’s a woman?” She just happened to save the world and that’s awesome, and she’s an awesome chick.
I don’t want to embellish and lie and say that’s when I decided to be an ultra-feminist for the rest of my life. I went on about my business. But when I moved into high school I started having a desire to really make my own music, and that was based on another desire I had to create my own cartoon and video game. I didn’t know how to animate or program, but I figured I would make the music for the game first. As I got a little bit older and wanted to continue working in that craft though I started getting pushback from people. Dudes in particular would be like, “Who helped you make this beat?” Just the kind of skepticism about what I was bringing to the table that I wasn’t even aware was going to be an issue. I hadn’t approached it from a feminist perspective, but all of the sudden I was confronted with a lot of doubt. Nobody was asking my male producer friends who made their beats for them. So I started saying on stage, “Hey! I’m a producer and rapper, I made these beats…” and still after the show people would ask, “Who made your beats for you?” It was wild and I had never experienced anything like that before. You read about and think about this kind of thing, but now it was happening to me. So my friend was the one who suggested, “you should call yourself Sammus,” because there’s this shock, this revelation, when suddenly you emerge and are like, “I’m the producer!” And then I also love video games so I felt like it was the perfect match.
Why do you think people are so ready to challenge you about making your own beats?
I think for one thing, the rest of my life doesn’t seem to reflect that skillset. I think when people see me and hear that I’m a PhD student, that doesn’t necessarily overlap in their mind as something that goes hand in hand with beat making. But I have spoken to other women who make beats and have had similar experiences, and I think it has a lot to do with people’s assumptions about women and technical tools. There’s a really great book called Sexing the Groove by Sheila Whiteley which talks a lot about the issues that female performers and guitarists have to deal with as it relates to people questioning their competence and having imposter syndrome when they were totally confident before getting into the scene.
I don’t want to delegitimize how important video games are by themselves – they shaped a lot of my life, my early understanding of things, and a lot of the connections I’ve made with people have been through video games.
Did you find yourself experiencing imposter syndrome?
Totally. There was a beat battle in 2011 and one of my friends told me I should enter. I remember standing up on stage, and I was the only woman on stage and there were eight other guys, and I remember having this internal freakout like I was about to embarrass myself. And feeling like none of my stuff could possibly be as good as what all these guys had. I played my first beat, and I thought it sounded dope on the speakers, but until the judges were like, “this is awesome,” I felt like I didn’t know if it sounded to them like it did to me. I really did feel like someone was gonna be like, “She’s not dope, she’s awful! People are just listening to her because she’s a woman making beats!”
With your older brother playing rock guitar, what do you think drew you to hip-hop and beats as opposed to guitar and rock?
Growing up in Ithaca, and also the time I grew up, rock was everything and everywhere. I don’t think there even was a hip-hop station here and there still isn’t one now. So I remember listening to whatever my older brother listened to. He taught me to not limit myself as it related to race in music. I meet a lot of African American people who felt weird about listening to rock music, but I never had that issue because my older brother was like, “Nirvana is awesome and you’re gonna love them. You’re gonna listen to Rage Against The Machine, you’re gonna listen to Weezer and Green Day.” I remember MTV2 used to show music videos and I would record the videos on VHS so I could show them to my brother because he came home from school later than I did. And the video for Daft Punk “Da Funk” came on and I couldn’t even believe it. I thought it was the most hilarious, weird, amazing thing I had ever seen in my life, so I saved up all my allowance to buy their cassette Homework. I remember listening to it and I had never heard instrumental music before. That was the first group that I independently liked; everything prior to that had been my brothers taste.
So after I started listening to Daft Punk, what I really loved about their instrumental music is that they almost lay out for you how a beat is constructed because they’ll have layers, they’ll take away some layers, they’ll add some layers, etc. So you’re hearing when there are hi-hats, when there is a kick drum, you’re learning what the different layers are that make a song a song without a person rapping on top to obscure that to you. Through Daft Punk I both expanded my appreciation for weird shit, and also production in general. The last component of how I moved into hip-hop production was Kanye West. When I was listening to hip-hop in high school I was starting to become a bit of a hip-hop purist, starting to think that anything that is mainstream is unacceptable. That was my mindset about culture in general at the time. But Kanye West’s first song Through The Wire came on and I had never heard anything like that before. So I looked him up and then I wanted to be just like him.
What do you think the role of being political is in hip-hop or art in general?
That’s probably changed for me since I’ve been making music and since more people have been listening. Definitely when I first started this was just 100% for me and a release for me. I lived in my head and this was just something to make me happy and make me smile. As more people have listened to what I’m saying I do feel like my art has a responsibility. Both my parents are professors, they both come from African countries and have done a lot of work there. My great uncle was Patrice Lumumba, the prime minister of the Congo, and was assassinated for basically saying The Congo needed to be independent and trying to make it so. So I feel like it would be completely unacceptable for me to then be talking about some bullshit. That’s just not okay based on my family’s fight to even allow me to be on this planet and to be in school and to have the things I have. I feel an obligation to my family and more broadly to my people. I’m also starting to develop a following which can be nerve-wracking for someone like me who lives in their own head. I like interacting with people but that can be a bit stressful for me because I don’t always know what to say. But recently I think I tweeted something and a whole bunch of people re-tweeted it and I was like “oh shit…” It gave me pause a bit where I felt like I need to be intentional with this platform I’m developing. I’m disappointed by artists who pull from black forms of expression and don’t say anything. That pisses me off.
Using hip hop I think there’s a responsibility, at least for me, to talk about the racial implications of being someone who likes geek and nerd stuff—but also being a person of color.
What do you mean by that?
For example….Miley Cyrus (laughs). Artists who are like “I want a black sound,” but don’t want to talk about anyone being killed who is black. And I feel that way about black artists who have a platform too. Your music doesn’t have to be like that, but if you have 3 million followers and you haven’t said anything about anybody that’s been killed, that’s kind of bananas to me. Like I said, the music itself, if you’re making party music I’m not going to be mad at that. It takes a skill to make a song regardless. A song that’s super catchy, it’s designed to sound like it’s not hard to make, but if it were super easy I think every person in the world would have made a top 40 hit.
You’re basically living two separate lives as a PhD student and an artist. Are you ever able to make the two worlds live in harmony or are they always pulling against each other?
In terms of time and energy I think they are always pulling against each other. Either I’m making a song, or I’m planning something for the course I’m teaching. I like that distinction though where it’s either rapper time, or school time. I do think creatively they inform each other a lot though. In STS (Science and Technology Studies) I’m studying something called Sound Studies, and that’s 100% based upon my love of music. My research is very much informed by my desire to make music. But there have been times when my research makes me sit in studios where people will engage with me as Sammus the artist while I’m trying to be invisible and make observations for my research. That’s becoming more and more challenging and I feel like I need to finish my dissertation before it becomes too complicated. I’ve also written about my academic experiences as an artist. The next project I’m working on has a song in particular that talks a lot about my indecisiveness and struggles within the academy and academia in general.
Katie Alice Greer from Priests does a segment for The Media where she talks a lot about influences, and had this great question I wanted to ask you. Can you think of the last three incidents where you felt intensely inspired by experiencing them?
So the first thing I would say is that this past summer I went to a concert in someone’s living room and the artist who headlined is this woman named Izzy True. I had seen her perform before as part of The Realbads and Fight A Scary Dog. There’s something so earnest about her music and how she presents who she is so authentically, and she had these comic books that she had made and drawn pictures for. I had this feeling like, “woah this is someone from my home planet.” Everything about it was totally where I was in my life when I was at that set and I was just really deeply inspired not just by her performance but also by having a concert in someone’s living room compared to a bar or whatever a typical venue is.
The next one I would say would be the whole experience of going to The Congo. It was such a homegoing for me. My father is from The Congo and I had never been before – there was concern over the political climate, and my dad has this affiliation with this former prime minister and it was unclear how that would play out in terms of security. I can’t even really put in words how incredible it was to be surrounded by my people people. Our blood is the same! Everything about us is the same! I would see my brothers in their faces and my dad in their faces and I was just weeping the whole time basically. I’m so grateful to have been able to go.
I would say the last thing, and the word inspired is weird here, but Sandra Bland. Moved is probably a better word for that. It’s weird because this happens so consistently that I was beginning to feel scared that I may reach a point one day where I am desensitized. That story in particular just devastated me because I was on Twitter as it was unfolding. Most times when these things happen I get paralyzed and really depressed, but in that moment I felt angry and I ended up writing a lot. I think that opened something in me because that could have been one of my homies. I have a friend that went to the same school as her. It just totally empowered me to write. Those three things have just transformed me completely.