Sampa the Great (Sampa Tembo), a hip hop artist, poet and singer-songwriter, won the Australian Music Prize this year. She was the first female hip hop artist to do so, despite the fact that Australian women from Maya Jupiter and MC Trey to Empress MC and Jesswar have been making this music since the 1980s.
Until recently, few were popularly acclaimed. Indeed, the most commercially successful had moved overseas. Things are now gradually changing, with Australia home to a diverse and successful range of women in hip hop. Here are five artists at the peak of their craft.
An Egyptian Australian hip hop artist, poet and singer-songwriter from western Sydney, Nardean (Nardine Gharsa) recently released her debut EP Creatress. Tracks include songs such as Awareness, Adamantium (addressing survival of sexual abuse and women’s strength), Creatress and Relinquish.
Nardean’s lyrics poetically reflect on self and other, responsibility and control, gender relations and creativity, but most of all they explore emotion. As she suggests in Relinquish, “give me pain over numb any day”.
Musically, Nardean creates a range of melodies and rhythms, sometimes drawing from neo-soul, Arabic modes or Western art music, but more often using trap beats under evocative vocals. On this EP, she collaborates with fellow women artists ALPHAMAMA, Alice Night and Georgia Frew.
Brisbane’s Kaylah Truth (Kaylah Tyson, also previously known as Kayemtee) has been creating hip hop for more than a decade. Kaylah is a Meerooni woman of the Gurang nation and also connected with the Ngugi people of Queensland’s Quandamooka area – or, as she explains while rapping on the track BlackSistaz by Indigenous hip hop group The Last Kinection:
Kayemtee on this beat
Gonna rip this up easily
When I step I rep Brissy
Blood is Ngugi with South Sea
Spanish, Indian, some Pom
Meerooni’s where my nan’s from…
Kaylah Truth combines elements of pop, neo-soul, grime and smooth beats with her solid hip hop style and honest lyrics addressing personal, national and transnational politics. Her song Wave, written while visiting Numbulwar on the Gulf of Carpentaria, asserts pride in hard-earned freedoms and release from the thoughtless judgments of “haters”.
Tkay Maidza (Takudzwa Victoria Rosa Maidza), a Zimbabwe-born hip hop artist and singer-songwriter from Adelaide, has collaborated not only in Australia, but also with leading artists in hip hop and dance music around the world, such as Killer Mike, Martin Solveig, Holychild, Troye Sivan, Bok Bok, Charli XCX and Years & Years.
Tkay is loved for her energetic performances and dance style, as well as her infectious music and lyrical creativity. She migrated with her family to Western Australia at the age of five, before moving to South Australia. Her lyrics are broadly positive in tone, addressing the realities of relationships, presenting truth, communication and humour as solutions, and providing soundtracks for celebration and connection. Musically, she draws on grime and trap, experiments with percussive rhythms and melodies, and shifts smoothly between different tempos and moods.
Melbourne’s Kaiit (Waup) produces innovative music grounded in hip hop. Chicago rapper/slam poet Noname is one of her primary influences, along with the late Amy Winehouse for her lyrical honesty.
Kaiit, who was born in Papua New Guinea, describes her genre as “neo-soul, hip-hop, jazz” and brings stylistic elements from all three to her work. At just 20, she has released three successful singles (Natural Woman, 2000 N Somethin and OG Luv Kush p.2) supported acts such as Joey Bada$$, Chance The Rapper and The Internet and is about to release her debut EP, Live From Her Room. She collaborates widely, having started out performing with DJ MzRizk, and credits her artist parents and childhood spent between PNG and Australia as inspirations for her visual style, which is an important part of her act.
Kaiit too writes reflective, poetic and candid lyrics, full of emotion and humour. In Natural Woman she raps and sings:
Didn’t know that I was keen on jazz could rappity rap or street tappity tap
Quit when I was 11 to work on my tennis
Now all I do is run from love
And now I guess I’m Galileo coz all I do is reach for the stars
Sampa the Great
Finally, of course, Sampa the Great, born in Zambia, raised mostly in Botswana and now based in Australia, draws on a broad range of musical, lyrical and performance styles to produce smooth, complex music with wide appeal.
Sampa grew up loving African beats, reggae, soul and gospel before moving on to hip hop, jazz and neo-soul. With a degree in audio production, she uses electronic and acoustic sounds in her work, as well as various languages, such as Nyanja (her father’s language), Bemba (her mother’s), Setswana (the principal language of Botswana), Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara.
Sampa’s performance style engages her audience with humour, personal interactions and call and response pieces, as well as impressive dance moves. Her lyrics, while broad-ranging, articulate injustices and anger, but poetically celebrate those who struggle. Sampa’s track Inner Voice (featuring her sister Mwanje Tembo) includes these lines:
Hear through the pain
A symphony is crying
You’ve been complex
Hated cos you’re complex
Simply your song is
Harder in the sonics
But you’re smiling
Now you’re out here smiling
Only now you know you’re
Complex by designing…
Still, these five artists are just the tip of the iceberg. Other women to look out for in Australian hip hop include Sophiegrophy, Miss Blanks, Fresh Violet, Kween G, MC Thorn, A-Love, Miss Hood, Class A, Mirrah, Muma Doesa, Chelsea Jane, Coda Conduct, Mistress Of Ceremony, SHE REX, Zeadala, Stretchy, Blaq Carrie, Netti and Imbi the Girl.
GJ Breyley has received funding from the ARC.
Authors: GJ Breyley, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University