Photo courtesy of BIZ 3 Publicity
With 'As Above, So Below,' Sampa The Great Is Ready To Be An Ambassador For Herself
When Zambian rapper Sampa the Great reached a level of success unthinkable to most, many viewed her as an avatar for her nation. But as always, the supremacy of artistic freedom wins out — and that's all she's concerned with on 'As Above, So Below.'
Is there any killer of creativity like the pressure to please everybody? Ask Sampa the Great, a Zambian-born rapper who had a banner year in 2019.
Due to the power of its production and lyricism, her single "Final Form" reached that fever pitch of internet attention where strangers made awestruck reaction videos. She swept a variety of awards ceremonies, including the ARIA Awards and the Australian Music Prize.
Through it all, Sampa the Great was dubbed a trailblazer — and more concerningly, something of an ambassador for the landlocked Zambia on the world stage. For a young person who simply wanted to be creative and see the world, this generated an unsustainable degree of weight on her shoulders.
"There's a huge pressure to be perfect, which is just not even real as a human being," the artist born Sampa Tempo tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom, from an isolated Zambian farm. "It takes out the fun from actually expressing yourself and doing music, which was the main intention growing up and why I wanted to do music in the first place.
A peculiar sort of relief came by way of the pandemic, which spurred Sampa to move back to Zambia from her residence in Australia. With shows and tours on pause, she found inspiration in returning to where she'd initially dreamt of dedicating her life to art.
While hunkered down with everyone else, Sampa reconnected with her old network of friends, family and collaborators. The eventual result was As Above, So Below, Sampa the Great's new album, which drops on Sept. 9 via Loma Vista. With songs like the Botswana-influenced "Bona" and the Angélique Kidjo-assisted "Let Me Be Great," the album reflects Sampa's newfound sense of grounding, rejuvenation and recentering — and ultimately serves as her "self-love note."
Read on for a candid interview with Sampa about the genesis of As Above, So Below, the tension between her introverted and extroverted sides, and why the album was a personal watershed — one that makes her feel like she can express anything from here.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Nice to meet you, Sampa. Where are you located currently?
I'm in Zambia right now, on a farm two hours away from the city. There's nature around me — no cows, though, no animals. It's pretty serene — pretty quiet. A good environment to rest from tour.
That sounds mind-clearing!
Yeah, a hundred percent.
Do you generally prefer those environments when you're off the road? Somewhere where your brain isn't bombarded?
Definitely — especially after a tour like this. It just helps me recenter and calm down. I'm pretty much an introvert. I don't know how I've lied to everybody that I'm an extrovert and like loud things and loud surroundings! Quiet and serene is my vibe.
How do you pull that larger-than-life persona out of yourself?
I think it comes from the family that I'm from. We are a very expressive family. We love telling stories. We love putting you into the mindframe of the story, and that just comes with being very dramatic with the way we tell our stories. Everything is loud. Everything is extra.
And then, musically, nothing stops at the studio. You want to be able to continue the story outside of the studio and bring people into an experience. So, it's not hard. I think the hard part is actually convincing myself to go back into the introvert space and actually rest and be reclusive. The extrovert — that's like default.
I'd say yes. They'd say it's just a hobby, but I think that's still "musical." Dad loved playing piano and was a DJ. Mom loved dancing — ballroom, surprisingly. But, yeah, both kind of landed at just being hobbies.
Sampa the Great. Photo: Travys Owen
So, I imagine, when you started really taking this seriously, it wasn't a jarring change, but a smooth incline.
Oh my god. The opposite. The total opposite!
Tell me about that.
I mean, it was a lot of convincing. Like I said, music is seen as a hobby here. Traditionally, music is played everywhere — gatherings, celebrations. It's just a given. So, to try and pursue it as a career is just something that's like, "Why would you do that when we do it anyway?"
And on top of that, [from] parents in this generation, it's like, "Can this thing sustain you?" I don't think a lot of our parents had the advantage of doing that they were passionate about. It was more about doing something that would earn you money, sustain you, and keep your family safe.
Now, I get to actually do something I'm passionate about and pursue my art as a career, which is something they've never done before. So, it took a lot of convincing to be like, "I want to do music as a career. Not only that, I want to be a rapper and a woman. [Dryly] Yay."
So, yeah, it took a lot of convincing, but they're on board now.
Well, I think that concern transcends cultures. What was the first song you created that your parents really loved?
I did a song called "Mona Lisa" where I sort of sampled a Zambian nursery rhyme and finessed hip-hop in it. And I remember sending it to my dad, and he was like, "This is really good."
And he doesn't listen to hip-hop! He doesn't really know what I'm saying; I rap too fast. But he was really proud that I added traditional elements into my music.
If your parents don't like a song you make, do they tell you?
Oh my god, do they tell me. [Laughs.] The majority of the songs, because I curse. "Final Form," which everyone's raving about, Mom hates it. She hates the fact that I say "f—" a lot. One time, she told me to take it off of YouTube, and I was like, "I can't really do that."
"It's got millions of views, Mom!"
Yeah. They don't really like cursing, but, again, it's the way I express [myself]. So, they've gotten used to it.
Tell me about the on-ramp to As Above, So Below. What was going on in your life and career that led you to write these particular songs?
So, the pandemic had just hit. This was three years ago. I was in Melbourne, Australia, and everything was being shut down — tours and shows being canceled. I reiterate all the time that I'm actually Zambian and based in Australia. So, if I'm not there for a reason, then I have to come back.
My sister's a uni student as well. They were sending students back home because Australia was about to shut down borders. My whole life had fallen in front of me. The industry that I fought so hard to be in looked like it wasn't going to be there next week.
It was kind of this intense moment in time where I was like, "OK, what do I do outside of my career?" And more importantly, "Who am I outside of my career?"
So, I relocated back to Zambia. I came to see my dad. My dad got COVID; I made sure he was OK. And at this point, I couldn't even get back to Australia because the borders were closed.
I was sitting in this house in Botswana, thinking, "Yo, it's wild that this is the place where I actually dreamt of being an artist." It was wild that I was back in the places where I dreamt of all these things that I actually got to do in Australia. What a 360 moment that was. [I thought], "Now, I actually can't go back to Australia and do these things. Why don't I do them here?"
So, a 15-year goal shrunk into a five-year goal, where I was trying to create a project, create these music videos in a place where our industry was still growing, but still do it at the level I'd done before — and try to showcase the amazing talent that is in my country and the continent, basically.
Sampa the Great. Photo: Travys Owen
How did things take shape from there?
So, I was sitting down and talking to a friend who I'd watched just nail music and be[come] an amazing artist. We were talking about the way we love the music that comes from our country. Why didn't we try and expand it? I was like, "That's a really good idea."
Because for the majority of my career, I've been trying to recreate the music I heard growing up — not expand it. And that's because I'm working with people outside of my country who didn't grow up on that music, so they don't know that music.
We see it as an opportunity to work on the project together [despite our different backgrounds]. I'm like, "Sweet, sweet," and we just start talking about where we are in life.
I find myself in a different headspace, because I'm no longer in a country where I really had to fight to get my place, but also fight for people who were like me — the young Black artists like me who weren't seen or who were underground.
I subconsciously put on this huge pressure to be an ambassador for people like me, to be perfect in the way I speak in the projects that I do, because I'm now winning awards and being the first Black woman to do this, that and the third. With that, you're like, "OK, if I'm the first, it looks like I'm an ambassador for a whole community of people."
There's a huge pressure to be perfect, which is just not even real as a human being.
No young person should have to carry that weight.
What's worse is it takes out the fun from actually expressing yourself and doing music, which was the main intention growing up and why I wanted to do music in the first place.
So, a beautiful thing happened where I got to relocate back home. As uncertain and scary as it was, I got to work with artists I saw growing up. Then, I got to journey back to the young Sampa, who dreamed of being an artist, and revert to the reasons why I wanted to be an artist in the first place.
A lot of that armor and pressure I put on myself when I was in Australia started to shed away. I started really getting into the fact that I wanted to express who I was — and be an ambassador for me for once.
Then, it turned into this beautiful journey of expression and experimentation — no holds barred, and not feeling like I had to be a certain way in order to represent people perfectly.
What burst from that was one of my [most] fearless, transparent and authentic projects to date. I don't feel like I have to be a certain way for anyone. I can just be who I am 100 percent, which feels like something that's easy to do. But depending on who and where you are as an artist, things get more complex.
Being back home, I don't have to represent being the first African [to accomplish something in particular], because there are Africans everywhere. I just have to represent being an artist.
At the core of hip-hop is a certain sense of "I don't give a damn what you think." How do you tap into that feeling — of freedom from being a spokesperson, or even what your mom thinks of you cursing?
You get frustrated with not enjoying something you're passionate about. It reaches a certain point where you're like, "I'm actually not enjoying this experience, because I'm trying too hard to make it something that it's not, and it's affecting the creative process.
That's usually the catalyst — to be like, "Well, if I can't create, I can't live." So, I have to drop that pressure, or drop whatever I think would make a good artist to whoever I'm trying to represent, and just actually create.
Tell me about the sound of the record — how you wanted it to hit the listener.
Ingredients. Every spice known to man, in one bowl of soup, and you drink that and experience all these different spices in one go.
For me, it became a thing [where] we were throwing in everything we'd been inspired by from music — whether [it was] hip-hop, folk music from Zambia, Kalindula, because you get to a place where, again, you're really tired of trying to represent one thing.
I'm constantly explaining that I'm Zambian, or trying to defend who I am and where I'm from. It became exhausting, and less [about] proving that in this project, and more [about] bringing every influence that I'm inspired by, putting that into one part, and giving you a well-rounded mixture of genres.
I'm sensing frustration with the limitations of identity. We're in an extremely identity-obsessed time — gender, racial background, sexual preference. Then, you cross-pollinate that with the music industry, where everything — and everyone — is categorized and labeled for consumption. It seems to me like you're just a person who wants to be creative and have fun.
A hundred percent. I mean, who wants to constantly defend their humanness? So, I became less of that. Especially three years ago, that was the main focus — trying to defend this. That's very tiring, and it affects the music I create. It just became more about being expressive.
Sampa the Great. Photo courtesy of BIZ 3.
Give me a line on the album that sums up everything we're talking about — if there is one.
I'd probably go to a song like "Can I Live?", which is a more vulnerable song on the album. I express how as artists, we actually just want to be loved, if we get down to the nitty-gritty. We want to express ourselves, we want to connect with people, and we want to be loved like everybody else.
But in doing so, I think we're throwing this expectation into the world of people reflecting that back to us. And that's just not going to be the case. Your job as an artist is to express your lived experience and leave it at that — not expect any love from anyone else, or expect anyone else to make you feel whole.
I think in my past projects, in trying to make sure I represent people and make sure people are seen, the source of all that was to make sure to be loved, basically. And you can't do that. The main journey is to love [one]self. You actually have to love who this is as an artist before you expect anyone else to love you.
Now that you've experienced this full-circle moment, what's immediately ahead of you?
Oh, man. I just broke so many walls in terms of what I was willing to show and express, because I thought I had to be a certain way. It doesn't feel like there are any limits in the way I can express [myself].
Not only in music, but even venturing into film. Film has always been a huge love for me, and I think we visually show the stories of these songs beautifully. That's something that I'm ready to venture on into and tell more stories through that avenue. But there are no limits.
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Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella
Touring In A Post-Pandemic World: How Costs, Personnel & Festival Culture Have Affected 2023 Performances
The live music business is still dealing with the repercussions of the pandemic. GRAMMY.com spoke with a cross section of professionals about the industry's most profound changes, how they’re being addressed, and what it all might mean for the future.
The pandemic wreaked global havoc on many levels. Beyond the human toll, the disruptions brought on by the spread of COVID-19 caused deep and lasting damage to nearly every business sector, including live entertainment. Virtually overnight, workers lost their livelihoods, businesses closed their doors or drastically curtailed operations, and supply chains were hobbled.
Within days of lockdown, multiple outlets published sobering articles detailing the tours, concerts and festivals that had been affected by the outbreak; Insider.com article identified at least 170 postponements or cancellations. In a flash, every artist across the globe witnessed the live performance side of their careers vaporize. Crews were sent home, and all of the businesses that served the sector — logistics, audio gear, food service and more — found a barren landscape.
During the pandemic, major promoter Live Nation saw a drastic drop in the number of concerts and festivals under its banner: from over 40,000 events in 2019 to just over 8,000 in 2020. But by the end of 2022, Pollstar.com reported that the year’s top 100 tours sold approximately 59 million tickets — more than 2019's sales.
Three years after the beginning of the pandemic, life is in many ways returning to normal. Yet the costs associated with putting on a concert have risen dramatically, due to both the pandemic's inflationary pressures and a surge in demand for the goods and services necessary to sustain tours. For those working in and around the live music business, the "new normal" means some things work as they did before COVID-19 while others have altered radically — either temporarily or for good.
GRAMMY.com spoke with a cross section of industry professionals about some of the most profound changes, how they’re being addressed, and what it all might mean for the future.
New Touring Paradigms
With the return of live music has come a corresponding, pent-up surge in demand, notes Christy Castillo Butcher, Senior VP, Programming & Booking at the 70,000 seat SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. "To satiate that demand, you have to have a bigger venue."
In 2023 alone, SoFi Stadium is hosting several megashows: Billy Joel & Stevie Nicks, Grupo Firme, Romeo Santos, a five-night Taylor Swift residency, Metallica, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran and P!nk are all on the venue’s calendar, with additional shows awaiting announcement. Madison Square Garden saw multiple sold-out performances by Janet Jackson, and will host a seven-night Phish residency.
Since the pandemic, some artists have taken different approaches to touring. Tandem tours and residencies are just two of the phenomena that seem to be increasing in popularity with touring artists and their management teams.
Teaming up for a tandem tour isn’t a new idea; package tours have been part of the concert landscape from the days of Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars in the mid 1960s. And in an era when post-pandemic-related shortages and logistical snags make touring even more challenging, the practice is finding renewed interest.
One of the highest-profile tandem tours of 2023 is the ZZ Top/Lynyrd Skynyrd Sharp Dressed Simple Man tour. Visiting more than 22 cities across the U.S, the tour brings together three-time GRAMMY nominees ZZ Top with the popular Southern rock band.
"You want to give the fans the value of seeing two bands together," says Ross Schilling, Lynyrd Skynyrd's Tour Manager. (Pollstar reported an average ticket price for the top 100 North American tours in the first half of 2022 at more than $108. Meanwhile, ticket prices for megastars such as Beyoncé and Swift have reached astronomical levels.)
Schilling acknowledges that there are pros and cons for the artists as well. "You're sharing the expenses and the revenues," he notes, adding that the production is often halved. "Video, pyro, smoke, whatever kind of elements you want to add" can be shared on a tandem tour.
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Another option experiencing a renaissance is the concert residency. "Residencies are not new, of course," says Phil Carson, a touring and management veteran who spent many years on the road with high-profile rock bands including Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, AC/DC and Yes. "They started with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. when there was really only one place to go: Las Vegas."
Today there are many more options, but the motivations are often the same as before. "Sammy, Dean Martin… all those guys wanted to hang out together, and didn't want to go on the bloody road," Carson explains. As their audiences grew older, they too were interested in the idea of going to one place to see their favorite performers.
And Carson thinks that the multi-night approach may well be part of a trend for the future. "We’re starting to get two-and three-night runs in casinos across America," he says. Adele, Bruno Mars, Maroon 5, Luke Bryan, Katy Perry, Carrie Underwood and Carlos Santana are just a few of the artists eschewing the road in favor of a series of dates in one venue.
The trend is extending to smaller venues as well. Singer/songwriter James McMutry and his band launched a residency at Austin' Continental Club in November 2021; that booking continues to the present day. And just last August, Robert Glasper announced a 48-show residency at the Blue Note Club in New York City; it’s his fourth extended run of dates at the famed jazz venue.
Festivals Return En Force
Following increased demand for live entertainment post-lockdown, major music festivals returned with a force in 2022 and continue to do so in 2023. Coachella and Lollapalooza were among the multi-day, multi-weekend events returning after COVID-forced cancellations, while mid-level events such as San Francisco's Outside Lands also saw over 220,000 attendees in 2022 — a major boon for a live music industry that had been in crisis only a year before.
Celebrating and featuring a multigenerational lineup of Latinx artists and performers, the Bésame Mucho Festival premiered in December 2022 at the 56,000 capacity Dodger Stadium. Tickets sold out within 70 minutes. The lineup for the 2023 event was announced in February; once again, the event sold out almost immediately.
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Ashley Capps has been wholly immersed in the festival scene; former head of AC Entertainment, for many years he oversaw the annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. These days he has scaled back his activities but still curates the adventurous Big Ears Festival which he founded in 2009 in Knoxville, Tennessee.
"The post-pandemic Big Ears has seen extraordinary growth," he says, noting a pre-COVID trajectory of growth, with an annual 20 percent increase in ticket sales. The 2022 Big Ears — the first after a two-year pause — experienced a 35 percent growth. "That led us to declare our first full-on sellout," he says, "five weeks before the festival happened."
In 2023, Big Ears noted another surge in ticket sales, surpassing 50 percent over the previous year. The multiple-venue festival added additional larger venues to accommodate the increased demand. Concertgoers "are certainly hungry to get back into the live music experience," Capps says. "And the artists we’re working with at Big Ears are eager to be back out and in front of appreciative audiences."
That pent-up demand on both sides of the equation can result in a crowded field, with many events — even beyond music — competing both for attention, staffing and gear.
The Cost Of Making Music
Global logistical bottlenecks that plagued every industry continue to take a toll on the live music industry. Worldwide economic inflation — which hit 8.8 percent in 2022, nearly doubling year-over-year, a partial result of the pandemic — has increased costs and cut profits, laying the groundwork for a "rocky road to recovery." Finding themselves without opportunities for work during the pandemic, untold numbers of skilled tour technicians left the business.
"People got out of the industry across the board, from musicians to agents to managers to bartenders to production staff," says Morgan Margolis, CEO/President of Knitting Factory Entertainment. "'I’ve got to do something else.' I saw a lot of that." Some never returned, causing a personnel shortage once live touring resumed.
All that affected live music venues, too. "We were shuffling around tour managers, production managers, box office personnel," says Margolis. He characterizes his company — active nationwide in venue operations, festivals, artist management, touring and more — as an "all hands on deck" operation. "I actually slung some drinks in Walla Walla at an Aaron Lewis concert," he says.
Increased costs mean it’s essential to run the leanest operation possible while maintaining quality. Margolis recalls the landscape when live music started coming back in 2022. "Vans and buses: everything was running out, even rental cars," he remembers. "And everything — generators, lighting rigs, staging rigs – was now 20-30 percent more expensive, because everybody was spread so thin."
But like many in the business, Margolis simply made the best of things. "Personally, I was excited to be on the ground again," he says. "I wanted to be around people."
After a nearly overwhelming surge of music artists getting back into live performance, he says that he is seeing a "more methodical" mindset taking hold. That compares to how he characterizes 2022: "Throw it all against the wall: we’re going everywhere!"
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Another new wrinkle: proposed rule changes by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) would increase the costs to international musicians of obtaining a U.S. visa by as much as 260 percent. "The more these policies are made, the harder it is for us to share our music,” says Sampa the Great. The Zambian singer/songwriter and rapper notes that the proposed changes will hit independent artists especially hard: "Touring is the only way our music gets heard globally."
Such across-the-board cost increases can mean that some international artists have to have tough conversations. If not through touring, Sampa the Great wonders, "How else do we connect with the people who support our music? And how else do we independent artists sustain our careers making music?"
Schilling admits that during the worst of the shutdown, he thought about retiring — and so did one of his biggest clients. Skynyrd began a farewell tour in 2018, which was ultimately cut short by the pandemic, prompting serious soul searching. "When everyone’s livelihood was ripped out from under them, they decided 'We want to go out on our own terms.'" This year’s tandem tour with ZZ Top puts things right, Schilling adds.
That kind of thinking is widespread among the professionals who remain in the game post-COVID. From many working as venue owners to tour managers to crew to artists, the chance to get back on the road outweighs the challenges that they will inevitably encounter. There are many career paths easier than working in the live music industry, but few can compare with its rewards.
Changes Backstage And Post-Show
Before the pandemic, many touring artists arranged meet-and-greet sessions before or after their shows. They provided an opportunity for interaction between fans and artists, and represented an additional revenue stream for the artists. During the pandemic era, those sessions disappeared, even for the new shows that could still take place. Today, even while enforced social distancing has largely disappeared, the state of meet-and-greets is not what it was.
"My last three artists aren’t doing meet-and-greets, because there's still that concern of COVID," says David Norman, a longtime promoter, tour director, manager and accountant currently on tour with Evanescence; his past clients have included Prince, John Fogerty, Earth Wind & Fire, Green Day, Alicia Keys, Tyler, the Creator and many others.
Norman points out that his artists take a financial hit by eliminating the meet-and-greets. "But it’s better to be safe than sorry," he says, noting that a musician who tests positive for COVID can "shut down [performances] for weeks. Then you have to reroute [the tour], and refund money to people who aren’t able to come to rescheduled shows."
Others take a different approach. "Lynyrd Skynyrd will do meet-and-greets," says Schilling, adding that his team "wants to get back to as normal as we possibly can, as fast as we possibly can." André Cholmondeley is a musician, longtime tour manager and tech support professional who worked as guitar tech for Yes guitarist Steve Howe.
Before 2020, "if you bought the meet-and-greet package, you could shake their hands," he says. "There were lots of hugs and pictures." Now the experience involves more waving and fist-bumping. Foreigner, meanwhile, has recently swapped meet-and-greets for Q&A sessions. “Everybody has a great time, and the band is not bored with it because it's different every night," says Phil Carson, the band's Tour Manager.
Life away from the audience has changed, too.
"One major change across the board is the huge difference in catering," says Cholmondeley, who has recently toured with Pat Metheny and Ani DiFranco. Before COVID, touring artists and their crews would typically find a buffet backstage. "We order a lot more food now," Cholmondeley explains. "You get a couple of menus texted to you each day."
Carson notes that the band has found an alternative solution that works for them. "Our singer Kelly Hansen is a chef who won an episode of Food Network’s 'Chopped,'" he says with pride. "He's got a whole kitchen range on our tour bus. He makes breakfast, he makes tacos after the show."
Carson readily admits that such an approach stands in sharp contrast to rock‘n’roll road dining in the ‘70s. "Back then," he says with a hearty laugh, "it was a few lines of coke and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s!"
Bridging The Gap
Beginning in March 2020, the cancellations and disruptions brought upon by the pandemic reverberated throughout the live music industry. But as the business sector enters the third quarter of 2023, the focus is once again on the future, and guarded optimism is the prevailing perspective.
Festival season is officially underway, with Coachella wrapping up two weekends of massive-scale excitement, and a host of other events slated throughout the summer promising an active several months for touring musicians and crews. Taylor Swift's Eras tour is selling out fast, while Beyoncé's Renaissance tour has only just begun (to much fanfare, as expected). It seems as if touring as we once knew it is falling back into place.
Even with her focus on recording — she counts two albums, an EP, two mixtapes and nearly 30 singles — Sampa the Great emphasizes the appeal of live music for both audience and entertainer.
"Performing is the best way to connect with an audience," she says. "You're translating your music from audio to something visual, something physical. It bridges that gap from just hearing an artist or seeing them on social [media] to actually experiencing the artist."
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Photo courtesy of the artist
How Jeleel Went 'Real Raw!' By Combining Martial Arts & Self-Acceptance
"I don't need anything to feel complete. I'm high off life," the charged-up rapper JELEEL! says about his unadulterated new album, 'REAL RAW!' "I'm opening my heart to everybody."
After the suffocating sensation of lockdown, the 2000s are fully back in their spattery, hyperactive, overstimulated glory — think chugging a Rockstar mid-flip on a BMX. And while aesthetic is all over art and media, few have condensed and consolidated it like JELEEL!.
"My aesthetic is like Monster Energy. You know, Nitro Circus, Jeff Hardy-esque, early 2000s WWE aesthetic," the splashy rapper tells GRAMMY.com. "It's very Y2K, but I like that extreme stuff. A lot of artists now are doing the Y2K punk aesthetic — all black — but I'm more like electric green."
On his energizing new album, REAL RAW!, JELEEL! drinks straight from the bottle; that "electric green" sensation permeates it like Nickelodeon Gak.
Featuring top-shelf producers such as FNZ, Working on Dying and Bone Collector, as well as guests Denzel Curry ("SHOTS!"), Chow Lee ("CONFETTI!") and Ty Dolla $ign ("FAST CAR!"), the album is a distillation of JELEEL!'s backflipping, party-rocking, muay thai-ing energy.
Read on for a conversation with JELEEL! about the making of REAL RAW!, his May 5 release; how being a "scared kid" got him into martial arts and what the uninitiated should expect from his juggernaut live show.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
On an essential level, what were you trying to artistically impart with REAL RAW!?
REAL RAW! is real, raw energy. JELEEL! has no additives. I don't need anything to feel complete. I'm high off life. I don't need to do any drugs; I don't need to sell out to be someone. I'm real, and I'm raw.
The album is showing different sides of JELEEL! — his heritage, his culture, his life. That's basically what I want to present to the world. I want them to see that; there's no filter. I'm opening my heart to everybody.
I'm sure you didn't always feel that way — that you don't need "additives," or to put on a face for people.
Mm-hmm. When I moved to L.A., I didn't know anybody, really. I'd seen a lot of people try to follow other people to become somebody, or try to fake a persona. And I was like, I'm gonna just be myself. F— that. I'm gonna just dive in headfirst. Who cares what they think? That's always been my motto.
Tell me about your heritage and culture.
I'm from Rhode Island. My family lives in Nigeria now. Rhode Island is a small state. My parents came from Nigeria to Rhode Island to find better opportunities and help their kids out. Growing up in Rhode Island was chill; it wasn't too bad. Very boring.
Growing up in Nigeria was a little different, because a lot of people really don't have a lot of opportunity to get what they want to do. There's not a lot of opportunity to make money like that, unless you have a really good job.
They're different lifestyles. In Nigeria, people are hustling hard to get to where they want to be. In America, it's a little more laid back. You still have to work hard, but in Nigeria, it feels like you have to work harder.
How did you transmute that unadulterated feeling into the music on REAL RAW!?
Basically, I kind of transmit. I never really thought about transmuting it. It just kind of happened — me taking my personality and being like, You know, I don't care. I'm just gonna sing it like this or that.
Instead of talking about drugs — I don't do drugs — I'll talk about something else, because it's more JELEEL!. I was just trying to put me inside the songs, and me inside the music, and just be more intentional.
How did you evoke that feeling through music?
I guess using certain sounds. Maybe I'll go on Serum, and the sound reminds me of Limp Bizkit or Sum 41 or Janet Jackson, you know? So it's all just creating something and bringing that nostalgia back.
That vibe is certainly back. A lot of hardcore music is drawing influence from 2000s alt-rock.
It is completely. Even, for example, the PinkPantheress and Ice Spice song "Boy's a Liar" — the beat, the flow, the video,
I feel like that splashiness directly relates to the pandemic. We're ready to bash into each other again.
Yeah, we needed a reset, bro. People were just trying to do too many different things.
Tell me about the guests on the album, starting with Denzel Curry on "SHOTS!".
Denzel Curry was fun; me and Denzer are like the same people. He does muay thai; I do muay thai. He's just a very active guy — animated. He's just a funny dude, and he's turnt up. He's very talented, and he loves to create, so Denzel was definitely someone I had to put on there.
I appreciate his intentionality, even doing his verse. He had to redo it and redo it to make it the best he could make it. So, I appreciate him taking the tie and making it the best it could be. He brought the energy.
How about Chow Lee, on "CONFETTI!"?
He's definitely running that drill sound in New York. He's coming up heavy. He's about to take over hip-hop; people don't know about him yet, but he's on his way up. He was a perfect person for that song. It's a different sound that people don't know me for, but he had to get on there. It was perfect.
And what about the one and only Ty Dolla $ign on "FAST CAR!"?
That was a very random song for him to hop on. You would expect him to be on some R&B type of vibe, but Ty is a very, very versatile artist. I didn't know what to expect when we started clicking up, but he just slid on the song and I was like, Damn, he went crazy.
How'd you get into muay thai, and how does it connect to music?
It all started when I was young and scared of the world. I never really like to get hit. I'd been bullied, and that kind of carried into my adulthood. So, I was like, I'm going to go full-face forward and try martial arts. And then I ended up falling in love with it.
They're both arts — martial arts and music. Everything has to flow. When you listen to a verse, what captures you is the flow. When you're sparring, or fighting, you can't be tense. You've got to flow; you've got to be in the pocket.
You performed at GRAMMY House; I know you incorporate MMA in your live show. What should people who haven't seen you live expect on an energetic level?
People definitely are going to expect something crazy [laughs] because people see me on Instagram, all these videos, and they're gonna be like, "I know he's going to do some crazy stuff."
But I'm really performing. I'm trying to get all the words out. Yeah, sometimes there's high energy moments, but I'm actually a performer. I'm actually singing the words. So, that's what I want people who haven't seen me before to know.
Larry June On His Great Escape: How The Posi-Rapper's New Album With Alchemist Reflects His Healthy Hustle
Photo courtesy of the Recording Academy
Press Play: Watch Ibrahim Maalouf Spotlight His Improvisatory Powers In Energetic Performance of "Right Time"
Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf showcases his improvisation skills in this instrumental performance of "Right Time," a hip-hop track from his latest album, 'Capacity To Love.'
Since the initiation of his solo career, Lebanese instrumentalist Ibrahim Maalouf has strived to diversify music with his trumpeting.
The musician found his start performing at international jazz and classical competitions. After quickly becoming one of the most decorated trumpeters, Maalouf began his career as a soloist, where he could transcend the bounds of traditional genres. His skillful, unique improvisation caught the attention of artists globally, including Afrobeats singer Angélique Kidjo.
Together, they released Queen of Sheba, which snagged Maalouf his very first GRAMMY nomination in the Best Global Music Album category at the 2023 GRAMMYs and made him the first Lebanese instrumentalist to be nominated in GRAMMY history.
In this episode of Press Play, Maalouf performs an instrumental version of "Right Time," an upbeat hip-hop track on his latest album, Capacity to Love. Accompanied by an electric guitar and saxophone, Maalouf plays the track's melody, originally sung by Erick the Architect from the Flatbush Zombies.
Maalouf then trades off with the saxophonist, as the two musicians deliver an impressive, improvised solo.
Capacity to Love is Maalouf's fifteenth studio album and first self-produced project. The genre-bending release features collaborations with pop singer J.P. Cooper, rapper D Smoke, New Orleans funk band Tank & the Bangas, and more.
Press play on the video above to watch Ibrahim Maalouf's performance of "Right Time," and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Press Play.
Meet Kibrom Birhane, A Keyboardist & Vocalist Fusing Jazz With 1,000-Year-Old Ethiopian Tradition
Photo: Adrian Villagomez
Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Denzel Curry Keeps It Simple On The Road With Toiletry Essentials And Healthy Snacks
Rapper Denzel Curry shares the list of items he needs to be his best self on stage — all of which can be found on the shelves of any corner pharmacy.
It doesn't take a whole lot for Denzel Curry to be happy when he's on tour. The rapper says his must-haves are all simple items that help him look his best and feel good, even after a night of going all out on stage.
In this episode of Herbal Tea & White Sofas, Curry says that toiletry items are at the top of the list when he considers what he needs on tour — and he also likes to find healthy ways to satisfy his sweet tooth, too.
"My current tour rider has deodorant, lotion, some snacks like fruit or dried mango," he lists. "First of all, I just like mango. But the reason why I like dried mango is 'cause it's sweeter. It kinda feels like candy, but it's not really candy."
Lotion is a key component of Curry's tour rider because it keeps his skin looking and feeling its best when he's on stage, he goes on to explain. "I don't wanna be ashy. You know what ashy is? It means that it looks like your elbows and your knees are just pretty much white or looking kinda dusty. I can't be looking all dusty like a mummy, you feel me?" he adds with a laugh.
A Denzel Curry show is an immersive experience, he says — so much so that he always walks off stage covered in sweat, and immediately needs to change into something dry. Along with delivering a high-energy show, Curry makes sure he gets up close and personal with his fans. The rapper remembers one particular recent show where he brought not one but two fans on stage to sing his song "RICKY" with him.
"I brought a fan on stage, he had a sign that said '[I wanna] sing 'RICKY' with you'... Then there was another fan that had the same sign, and I brought him on stage as well," Curry recalls. "He got to the stage a little bit late, we were literally on the last hook, and he ended up just killing it. I gave the mic to him... and he killed it."
Press play on the video above to learn more about how Curry's tour essentials help him create a live show that's an epic experience for all involved, and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more episodes of Herbal Tea & White Sofas.