Balancing a life of rapping, producing, studying, and gaming sounds like a daunting prospect, but for Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, stage name Sammus, it’s all in a day’s work. Lumumba-Kasongo, who takes her name from the protagonist of the video game Metroid, hails from the nerdcore realm of music, a genre of hip-hop dedicated to gaming and geek culture. With a seemingly endless stream of references, Lumumba-Kasongo constructs tracks that bounce between identity politics, mental health, and her idol, Yeezy, all against her own self-made productions that could soundtrack an SNES game. When she’s not spitting about sexism or Super Mario, she is also a PhD candidate at Cornell University as well as a co-host of a podcast called Zero Suit.
I sat down with Sammus in the midst of her “Qualified” tour, and spoke with her about her development as a rapper, her involvement with the nerdcore group Nerdy People of Color, or NPC Collective, and how she learned to embrace the pop sounds of Bey and Britney.
So I’m gonna start with a few quick questions just to get the process rolling. FPS or RPG?
Marvel or DC?
Smash Bros Character?
Favorite Boss Battle?
I happen to really love M. Bison from Street Fighter. You can pick him and you can play as him but fighting against him as a computer is just a whole different experience, a different level.
I haven’t watched enough anime to be an expert but Dragonball Z changed my life.
Favorite Album of 2017?
Probably SZA’s Ctrl. Right in the heart.
[commence mutual fangirl moment]
How is touring going so far?
Absolutely phenomenal. In the past I mostly stayed in the Northeast and I’ve done the Pacific Northwest a few times, so this was my first time traveling in the south and southeast like Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis. It still blows my mind that people in these cities I’ve never been to know who the fuck I am, know the lyrics to my songs, and will come out on a Wednesday night to hang out with me even if they have work in a couple hours.
In one interview you gave back in 2014, you expressed how your management and even you had trouble marketing yourself. Now that three years have passed, what would be your elevator pitch?
It’s so funny that you ask that because this morning at the airport I met Waka Flocka and my boyfriend was like “She makes rap music!” But when he asked what kind of rap I froze because I didn’t have a pitch ready, so I just said “Old-school Kanye.” As soon as we got on the bus to go to the main terminal I was like “That’s so stupid, that’s not at all what I do.”
It feels cool because I’m doing something no one else is doing, but how do I describe such a thing? It’s definitely a concern because I don’t know the easy way to get people into me if they don’t know what I do, so I just tell folks that I’m a rapper who loves video games and cartoons, and who is interested in black feminism and outer space.
Up until last year you considered yourself a “garbage rapper,” your words, not mine! How did you shift that idea in your mind to a mentality of “I spit, and I spit well”?
So that’s been a multi-level change. Part of that has been just the sheer number of people who want to book or perform with me. It started to click that this many people wouldn’t want to work with me if I was a trash rapper. Furthermore, prior to working with my current producer, Sosa, I had been recording myself in my room, doing it DIY, so my delivery was more to myself. But when I started recording with Sosa, he actively gave me feedback about how there was a dissonance between what I was recording and how I was performing. So now when I listen to myself on records it feels like there’s somebody there, whereas prior projects feel rehearsed.
You recall being accused of “acting white” in “Mighty Morphing”, and you also told PHDivas that you didn’t grow up with hip-hop and it wasn’t something you identified with until you found Kanye West. Do you think this played into this insecurity about yourself as a rapper?
It’s weird because as a black woman I feel this cultural connection with hip-hop, hearing black folks talk about their lived experiences and their joy, their triumphs and traumas. But at the same time I felt this distance because here I am in upstate New York with like six other black people, and the hip-hop I’m hearing filtered through MTV I didn’t necessarily connect with. It didn’t feel like something that represented my experience.
So that paired with kids telling me I act like a white person, as if it’s a compliment, gave me all kinds of weird identity issues. It definitely took me time to feel this was an art form that I too am allowed make even though I don’t tell the same kinds of stories that were originally fed to me through MTV. Since I started rapping I learned there are so many rappers who talk about a wealth of different things. It just took me some time realize I’m part of a tradition of people talking about video games or whatever they’re interested in.
You have a line, “Party people love my baggage.” How does it feel to go from your nerd-centered music of your past to now craft very personal material?
It’s been weird. On one hand it’s super freeing. I often tell people who call me brave for writing songs like “1080p” that it wasn’t an act of bravery, it was to save my life. I was in such a dark place and I had to get this poison out of my body and it happened to be in the form of this song. I used to be really embarrassed about crying onstage, but I’m not anymore.
It’s cool to me that people connect to this stuff so intimately. But it does give me anxiety for my future, because I feel good about myself and life but it’s a classic issue many artists have where people connect with your music when you’re in your darkest place. Mary J. Blige is one of those artists that people often say whose music was better when she was dealing with issues. Okay, but now she’s happier so let’s take that into account. As I feel better about life, the personal stuff I’m sharing might not be as valuable to folks since it’s not validating their sadness or their issues.
How have your PhD studies changed your approach to music?
When I listen to other artists’ projects, it’s more than just “how do I step my bars up” but “let me study the artist who I want to be like” and really put energy into thinking about specifically what it is about other artists’ works that speaks to me. A lot of academic work is mining books and journals to find that thing that connects with your studies. The mindset of a researcher has helped me to evolve consistently by figuring out that one thing about Kendrick or whomever that speaks to me.
Do you see yourself bringing the “higher realm” of academia to the masses with your music?
I feel like I’ve had so much more impact through a show than I ever would with a journal article. That’s no shade to anyone in the academies, it’s just not for me. So I’m not necessarily about bringing folks to the academy or bringing its language to the people. I also feel like the important knowledge is happening away from academic institutions, who often get to it last, or try to co-opt or contain it. I would love to actually do the reverse and use it to fuck up academia.
What is something your studies taught you that other artists should know about?
You are not what you do. A lot of folks in academia, their whole identity is being an academic, so when the committee isn’t fucking with you, your whole world gets bleak. Because I’m also a musician I learned to just not take it so seriously. Shit can get crazy but I know it’s not a reflection of who I am as a person, it’s just a thing that I do, an aspect of who I am and not my everything. So even if you’re a musician or artist, remember that you’re bigger than the stuff that you create. So if people aren’t fucking with it right now, or ever, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re unworthy or that your material has no value. Know that you have inherent value just by existing.
So you’ve used Metroid themes and sound effects from Sonic to name a few. What’s a video game theme or sound you want to incorporate that you haven’t yet?
There’s a video game called F-Zero that I want to chop up so bad. I think it just has the best soundtrack.
What would you call an F-Zero inspired project?
Hmmm, I’m thinking about the ‘F’ so something like F You, Pay Me.
Tell me about being part of the NPC Collective, and why this space is important?
When I started making music I thought I was the most creative person. Then two weeks later someone was like “well this person does this, and this person does that.” At first I was like “Oh, I’m not that original,” but then I got over my ego and realized how awesome it is other artists of color are deeply invested in these catalogues too.
We’ve done shows together, panels, and it’s always super affirming for both other artists and other people of color. A lot of us growing up feeling like aliens, largely because you don’t see a lot of people of color in games, so you start to feel like it wasn’t designed for you or that you’re not supposed be a part of this universe.
What are some other things people have said to you that stuck with you?
In Cincinnati this woman came up to me and said after the first time she saw me perform “1080p” she started going to therapy, and that the next time I see her she might have a 1080p tattoo. I’ve had people email me things like “That track saved my life” or “I knew someone who committed suicide, and I wish I could have given this track to them.” It feels unreal that my little experience could shape someone’s trajectory. Sometimes white dudes will come up to me and thank me for sharing my story and perspective with songs like “Perfect Dark”.
But on a less heavier side, black girls will come up to me and say “You’re me! And thank you for letting me know I’m not an alien!” It doesn’t feel real, because I’m not a celebrity.
That remark, “I’m not a celebrity.” Do you think that sort of changes with how the Internet changes your proximity to you to your fans, that maybe occupy a different type of celebrity? Because you seem to resonate with a lot of people.
I’ve always felt that the concept of celebrity was very specific, but if the definition expanded to include somebody whose persona is pretty solidified to other people, then I feel like maybe I could identify with that. I interact with so many folks online who I don’t know personally, and while Pieces in Spaces is not the whole of me, it’s enough to feel a connection. I feel like I’m in this weird space where I’m known by more people than I would be as an academic.
I met someone at a convention once who once told me she was so nervous to talk to me, which is crazy because I’m like such a loser! [Laughs] I don’t think there won’t be a time where that won’t be surreal to me.
What do you do between music and studies? Are you still drawing?
So I have this Patreon funded podcast that I just switched up because it used to just be me and my boyfriend just talking shit, but then I was like “I need to do better.” So we decided to reformat it to be a podcast for creatives specifically and concretely about our artistic choices. He’s a writer, so we would discuss what it means to write a song, or from a business side what it’s like to organize a tour. As part of the donation process I would draw pictures to those who donated. I hope to continue doing so.
You said on your podcasts how an older brother influenced you to reject pop music because it represented the establishment. But you now say you want to embrace it a bit more. Who are you inspired by in pop?
When I was younger I didn’t know how to engage with someone like Beyoncé. She’s this powerful figure and presence, but to me she sort of represented the establishment and I didn’t know what to do with her. But now I’m 100% invested in the Beyoncé machine. I still grapple with rejecting of some of her ideals of wealth as status or power, but also loving every fucking thing she does.
I’ll also fuck with Britney Spears. Her stuff was catchy but I also didn’t know what to do with her. Now I’m like “OK, Britney”, and see that she’s an institution. Also, seeing her have that very public experience in 2007 made me realize that regardless of my biases at the end of the day these pop stars are human beings. And we have to stop viewing them as sub and/or super human.
There are still some people who say hip-hop isn’t real music, or that rappers aren’t geniuses. What do you have to say to people like that?
All you have to do is look at the global influence of this art form. It’s infectious, there’s a brilliance in an art form that can take over the entire planet. Going back to the pop music topic, I think I used to reject it as being simple, when a pop song is designed to feel inclusive and it takes a great deal of thought and engineering to turn it into a smash hit. I can’t write a smash hit, but if I could I would, we all would! There’s a reduction of the brilliance of hip-hop sometimes because of its accessibility. There’s also a racial element that this is an art form about black experiences that people write off as not being rooted in something important or worthy of discussion. Even the songs talking about “all the money” and shit, I found the importance of black kids taking up space even if it’s through this crazy capitalist dynamic. I feel the value of us saying “Yeah I am in first class, what’re you gonna do about it?” That’s it’s own form of power.
So yeah I would tell people who feel hip-hop isn’t an art form… to just shut up!