Photo credit: Zoloo Brown
Interview by Anita Sarkeesian
Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo wears a lot of hats. By day, she’s a graduate student working towards a PhD in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University, but when she steps on stage she’s Sammus, a rapper and producer who has been called the “undisputed rap queen” of Ithaca, New York. Although she’s often categorized as a “nerdcore” artist because many of her songs reference video games and pop culture, her body of work goes far deeper, exploring personal and political issues like police brutality; her identity as a black woman; and her struggles with depression. She recently released “Pieces in Space,” her first album on the Don Giovanni Records label, which deals with everything from playing video games as a kid (“Childhood”) to dealing with anxiety (“Nighttime”) and even online harassment (“Comments Disabled”). Although she’s currently in the midst of a tour, we sat down with her at the recent XOXO Festival to learn more.
FREQ: Your love of video games is evident in a lot of your songs, like “Games and Cartoons.” What got you interested in games initially?
SAMMUS: I got interested in video games through my older brother. He loved video games, so I loved video games. We had a Nintendo—I remember my mom went to a conference in Canada and it was slightly cheaper there, so she picked one up and brought it home. One of my earliest memories is hooking up the Nintendo and putting on Super Mario Bros and my dad, who’s a super serious, very stoic guy, just giggling at it. He found it so funny and weird that you could manipulate these characters. Immediately I was like, this is fun! This is something that makes me feel happy, that makes my family happy. It wasn’t until I got a little bit older, when I was nine or ten that I started to appreciate the music and aesthetic of games. I remember playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and the soundtrack was in my mind for days and days. I always think it’s a little bit weird that my entry into video games was mostly based around my love of video game music. I would play the games so that I could hear it.
FREQ: Did digital music and beats resonate with you more than traditional music?
SAMMUS: Totally. My parents got us this crappy Yamaha keyboard when I was maybe ten or eleven. In fifth grade, I had a band with a couple of my friends, an all-girl band, but none of us knew how to play an instrument so that fizzled out. I wanted to make music but I didn’t know how. My parents had put me in piano lessons but I gave up on that; my older brother taught me a few chords on guitar, but I never put it all together. Then I remember being in a video game store shopping when I saw MTV Music Generator and thinking, oh, this a game you can make beats on? I took it home and started experimenting with laying out tracks. There were a lot of pre-recorded samples so at first I was just using that stuff, but then after I started figuring out how to make it work I started composing. That was one of my earliest experience with putting songs together and that I could share with people. It was exciting. I think my relationship with computers has a lot to do with games.
Photo credit: Kai Nealis
FREQ: So how did you go from making music at home to playing shows and touring?
SAMMUS: When I was growing up in Ithaca, New York, I didn’t listen to a lot of hip hop music. Then when I got a little older I listened to Kanye West, and he was the first rapper I’d ever heard who talked about concerns that were a part of my existence: being anxious about going to school, not wanting to work at The Gap. That was the first time felt like, oh, this is something that I can speak to. Initially, I started making beats because I wanted to make music for a video game. But I didn’t know how to program; I didn’t know how to code; I didn’t know how to animate. Music was the only literacy of that kind that I had. There was always this element of wanting to use the music for something else, but when I encountered Kanye West I was like, oh, I want to just make music for me or on my own terms.
I remember receiving a lot of weird pushback from people who would ask me if I made my beats, or if I’d had help. I’d be on stage actively saying, “I’m a producer, I made these beats!” And inevitably at the end of the show someone would come up to me and say, “Oh, who makes your beats?” I remember thinking, the guys I know who make beats never get asked these questions. After sharing that experience with one of my friends, he said, “Oh, that reminds me of Samus [from Metroid] in the sense that when you beat the game and the armor comes off, it’s revealed that it’s a woman.” There was this similar moment of surprise for a lot of audience members when they realized or finally heard me saying, I made these beats.
When I moved back to Ithaca for grad school I decided I couldn’t let it go. I wanted to keep making music even if meant having a kinda shitty, very stressful PhD experience. Then more people listened to my stuff and it started to resonate, the way I was using video games and cartoons as metaphors to talk about broader issues in my world: being a black woman, pursuing a PhD, family issues, religion.
FREQ: What make you decide to pursue a PhD in Science and Technology Studies?
SAMMUS: In undergrad a lot of my friends were like, I want to be doctor or lawyer, but nothing felt right to me. I bounced around to a bunch of different majors until I took an introductory Science and Technology Studies course. It had a section on the history of the synthesizer, and at the time I was trying to make music so it was really interesting to me that there could be a field that focused on music but it wasn’t in a music department. It focused on sound, but I didn’t have to have knowledge of how to read music or any of the stuff that I perceived to be a barrier to entry to studying music in other contexts.
I worked on a senior thesis about my experiences as a woman producer and how people learn very informally in terms of computer music. There aren’t a whole lot of formal networks that people move through to learn how to make beats, and the nature of these networks means that if you’re a woman trying to make your way there’s a lot of insider knowledge that you’ll miss if people don’t see you as someone valuable.
FREQ: You’re progressing on these two very different tracks in your life, in the music through your stage persona as Sammus and in academia through your work on your PhD. Do you struggle with that or do you feel like it fits together?
SAMMUS: At first it didn’t really fit together. I felt very much pulled in two separate directions. I had never seen someone pursuing their PhD while trying to build a completely separate career, and so for a long time I had to make a lot of choices like, am I gonna go to the show or am I gonna do the reading for this class? It caused me a lot of heartache and anxiety, especially a couple years ago when things weren’t going as well in terms of music. I didn’t have a trajectory. I didn’t know where I wanted to end up, but I knew that music made me feel happy and whole. It wasn’t until maybe two or three years ago that I realized that I didn’t have to keep my rap career from my PhD cohort or vice versa. I was able to tell professors, “I’m going to a geek festival to perform so I won’t be here on Monday,” and they were kind of receptive to that. Before, I’d always felt like they had to be compartmentalized; I didn’t share anything about my rap life with people in my department, and I didn’t share anything with people in the rap world about my academic life. It was so stressful. And now I’m like, why did I think that? But academia is a very strange place, and that was why I was feeling anxiety about being my authentic self.
I have to humble myself a lot in the PhD setting because I’ll go perform in front of a thousand people, and then go back on Monday and I’m just a lowly grad student. That feels weird, and sometimes I just want to be like, do you understand what I’m doing on the weekends? [laughs] I want very much for the people in my department and at Cornell more broadly to understand that this is not a hobby. It’s a really important part of my world. That’s starting to happen, but it’s so frustrating being in academic spaces where I feel my opinion isn’t valued, or writing a big paper and waiting two years for it to go through the publication process in the hopes that maybe three people will read it. Meanwhile, I have all these people sending emails thanking me for the songs I wrote. I can directly feel the impact that I’m having when I perform or put out an album.
FREQ: The content of your music also switches back and forth between different focuses: in some songs you talk about games, and then “1080p” talks about mental health and depression, “Three-Fifths” talks about racism and police brutality. You have this mix of geeky, pop culture things with very real world issues. How does that all come together for you, and how do people respond to it?
SAMMUS: That’s something that I struggled with greatly over in terms of my identity, up until recently. Even taking on the name Sammus means that I’m going to be received in a particular type of way, and there are all these people who have deep love for Metroid and very rigid ideas about what Samus is supposed to represent. But ultimately I thought, “whatever, fuck that.” [laughs] My first full length album in 2012 was called “M’other Brain,” which is supposed to be a cute reference to the boss in Metroid. But there’s only one song on there that’s explicitly about games, and the rest of it is my politics. There’s a lot of stuff about my identity as black girl and media representation of black girls and black women.
Initially I felt like I didn’t want to be subsumed by [the label] of nerdcore, because I thought it was a bunch of white nerdy guys emulating hip hop, and I didn’t want any part of that. Because I was drawing on games and cartoons but to talk about things that are really meaningful, blogs would write about me as a “nerdcore” artist and I felt like, my identity is getting away from me! Then maybe a year or so after that I settled into the idea that maybe I didn’t have to resist the term, that I could reshape what nerdcore means. I could be a new face for this thing that has traditionally been identified as white nerdy guys. I made peace with the fact that some people just wanna digest the games and cartoon stuff, while other people are going to be more invested in conversations about blackness or womanhood. People will gravitate to whatever they gravitate to.
FREQ: Do you feel like some of the frustrations you’ve dealt with are compounded by the fact that all the different elements your work take place in white male dominated worlds—music and games and academia?
SAMMUS: Well, as crazy as the world of rap can be and as many awful things as I’ve heard in it, I still felt less marginalized there than I did in academia. I have a lot of imposter syndrome, and a lot of that is the culture of academia, seeing who is respected in the field and what they talk about. That can make me feel like this isn’t a place where I’m supposed to be, because I don’t feel like anyone is talking about the things I’m interested in. In rap circles I can find women and people of color who are invested in talking about the same things as me, more easily than I can in an academic setting.
I do still hear things in rap circles that I have to navigate around. Like, I turned 30 in March and that has been a big revelation to me in terms of the ageism that exists in the music world. I remember somebody asking me how old I was, and when I told her she gasped and said, “but you don’t look old at all!” Also, I started getting questions about when I was going to settle down, if I was gonna have babies and still be a rapper. I just want to rap and then figure out what happens, but these are the unique pressures that women in music face.
FREQ: You talked about Kanye West being a big influence, particularly when you were starting out. Are there other people who have inspired you and your music?
SAMMUS: Megaran is a big inspiration for me. Even though we don’t do exactly the same thing, I really admire that he continues to walk the line between broader indie hip hop and nerdcore. He’ll put out a project about Mega Man, then put out a project about his life experiences. I also really like the rapper Open Mike Eagle. He’ll rap about, like, the anxiety of picture day when he was a kid. That’s inspiring for me because it tells me that I can literally rap about anything. Also, my older brother is a self-trained guitarist; he was a black guy listening to punk music in middle school and high school, which was weird to a lot people, but he wouldn’t change it. He started a band. He showed me that blackness wasn’t just one thing. As a kid I remember being told that I “talked white,” and feeling like wasn’t the “right” kind of black person, so his resistance to that was really important for me to see.
FREQ: Do you have advice for young women of color who want to get into hip hop and music?
SAMMUS: I would say focus on finding your people, finding people who are going to be receptive. I remember when I stumbled across Blackgirlnerds on Twitter and I was like, there’s a whole community of black girls who identify as nerds and I didn’t even know that existed? I wish that I’d been more intentional about finding people who were interested in the same things I'm interested in, instead of having to be in a couple of toxic spaces before I could realize they were not a healthy place for me to share my music. When I look back the trajectory [of my music career] looks linear, but there was were so many stops and starts and times when I thought I had to stop doing music. Self-care is a real and necessary thing. Sometimes I don’t go on Twitter or Instagram when I just need to. Sometimes taking two or three days off and just watching Netflix is ok.
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