SAMMUS: Changing the game, bringing the beats
article by Nikko Van Wyck
photo by Zoloo Brown
Whether it be to unwind after work for a few hours, or to escape this reality and immerse oneself in another, some find solace in turning on the screen and diving into a video game. New York rapper Sammus brings these alternate realities to life through music, specifically, self produced beats that are heavily influenced by her days as a child playing video games.
Sammus, real name Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, hails from Ithaca, New York, which isn’t the big city you’d picture when you hear about a musician coming from New York. Her parents are of Congolese and Ivorian descent and are professors at Cornell University.
“I grew up in upstate New York, in Ithaca, and as a child my brother and I were always playing video games. As a kid I was obsessed,” she explained. “I wasn’t only obsessed with the games though, I loved the game soundtracks, I would record them and just listen to them when I wasn’t playing.” This led to her diving into music production.
“My brother, who I look up to immensely, is a self taught guitarist, and he started to teach me how to make music. That progressed with me learning how to make beats, which I was really inspired by video game soundtracks, so there’s always this element of gaming in my productions.”
Her music also has this element of raw and brutal honesty. Sammus is a grad student at Cornell, working on an advanced degree in technology and culture. Lyrically, not only does her music take on and destroy genre/gender norms in both the hip hop realm and the computer/science realm, it captures, quite perfectly, what it’s like to face down taking on too much at once. She said a lot her lyrics were born out of her therapy sessions.
“I was overwhelmed, and I started going to therapy. I had just gotten out of a pretty bad relationship, and my therapist suggested that instead of calling or emailing my ex, which wasn’t helping things, that I should just write these things down and not reach out. My song “1080p” was mostly written this way. It’s where the honesty comes from too, I can be honest with myself and not only that, I can share that personal honesty, which is why I think people are able to connect with it.”
Her final line in that song cuts deep; “I can guarantee, that without you I’m a better me, now I see the past with some clarity, glad I took my ass to some therapy.”
Outside of just personal relationships, she opened up about being a grad student and trying to make something for herself in the music world. “I consider myself really lucky. Over the last couple of years I’ve been able to make it work with advisors and professors who understand, who want to see me succeed, whether it be academically or musically. It wasn’t always like that though, my first two years of my grad program were hell, a lot more on campus hours and working. I toured during my breaks from school, luckily they usually lined up with SXSW, spent my summers only focusing on music. The work/life balance wasn’t anything like it is now, I consider myself really fortunate with how its worked out.”
Her advice to students who are diving into music: “You might have an asshole advisor or professor who won’t understand the late nights traveling and gigging. That happens. But do what you need to do, follow your passion, always work hard.”
Sammus is a champ. She’s come out on top, facing down academic and personal hardship, and is absolutely redefining video game and hip hop culture. We should all celebrate.
Be sure to see Sammus at Make.Shift on Aug. 31. For more information about her, go to sammusmusic.com or her Facebook page.