Sammus is a scholar. One of the few rappers I met in my early 20’s that I truly wanted to befriend. She was born Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, 110 miles outside of New York City in Rhinebeck,
NY, but ended up in Houston, working full-time as an educator with Teach for America for a few years. We met in October 2010, sharing the bill at a show downtown the same month I released my debut album RABDARGAB. In a sea of posturing and fake networking, Sammus was unique, smart, and insular. She was herself in any room. And she was a big nerd. Years later, we ended up labelmates for a time at the almighty Don Giovanni Records.
I first interviewed Sammus for FOUND ME while we were at a conference with Flocabulary, an edutainment company we write songs for, in Chicago during summer 2018. That conversation came at a pivotal point in her career as a songwriter and educator as she had just completed her Ph.D. program. We caught up in summer 2020 to update our chat about mental health, gender, music, and more.
How has your academic life been since completing your PhD program?
I have to say, it’s been pretty great. I thought I was going to be leaving academia for real for real after I finished, but a mentor of mine sent me the link to a position at Brown in the music department with a job description that felt a lot like what I was already doing: a practicing artist, with a PhD, with a focus on Afrodiasporic music-making, particularly someone who felt comfortable with rap songwriting and production. Since I’ve been in the music department at Brown I’ve been able to meet some really great artists and thinkers and found opportunities to support my homies by inviting them to perform and give talks. I never imagined that I could be in academia as a creative so this has been kind of a dream position.
One thing that has been tough is finding enough time to actually focus on my music. It’s strange, being in a music department I had initially thought: “Wow I’m going to have SO much time to work on music!” But there are so many boring and administrative things that pull me out of my work throughout the week that I’ve had to really be more intentional with my time. It’s little things, like going to faculty meetings or agreeing to help this person with that project or meet with a student...and then suddenly the month is gone, or I’m too exhausted to do much else besides chill and watch something on Netflix. One thing my therapist suggested, which has been very helpful, is taking back my weekends. I try not to meet with anybody on the weekends and give myself time to get into something creative. I hope that I can develop some more rituals that allow me to get back into a music-making space.
What has teaching been like during quarantine?
I’m currently co-teaching a poetry/performance class with an amazing professor named Kym Moore who’s in the Theater and Performance Studies department. We met at a first Friday event last semester where I performed some songs, and she was cool enough afterwards to just say, “Hey I like what you’re doing, what do you think about co-teaching?” The class has been surprisingly dope. One of the key insights that my co-teacher has imparted on me is that we should always be finding ways to play with and break the Zoom space. Rather than resisting it, or just dealing with it, this class has shown me that, as far as performance is concerned, Zoom can simply be another kind of stage. The students have created audio- visual pieces that lean into the glitchiness of Zoom; they’ve come up with neat stuff like performances that we all watch unfold on a Google doc, or using anonymity to create really neat meditative thought exercises. We also do a lot of checking-in in the class too. We ask how everybody is really doing and provide space for everybody to share; we do somatic exercises to get everybody breathing and reconnecting their bodies before we get to work.
My co-teacher and I are water signs so we’re constantly crying in the class, because we’re so inspired and overjoyed by the art that these brilliant students are creating in the middle of a pandemic. I’m very spoiled because I know that for most of my colleagues, Zoom-teaching has been really tough. I will say that as dope as it has been teaching this class, teaching remotely is exhausting. I think there have been some studies done about the unique kinds of fatigue we deal with from being online all day, and as the semester goes on I’m having a greater appreciation for finding ways to take care of myself—staying hydrated, taking breaks, etc.
What are you working on currently?
I’ve recently linked up with the brilliant MC and producer Akua Naru, who is the force behind theKEEPERS, a Black womxn-led hip hop collective that is currently focused on raising funds to develop the first ever digital archive and database that documents and celebrates the contributions of womxn and girls in hip hop from around the globe over the past 50 years. I’m so honored to be a part of this group and I’m excited to see where we can take this project.