As the rap game consistently changes and grows, it’s easy to get stuck on the favorites because, overwhelmed. To make it easier, VIBE has rounded up some of the industry’s newest rappers, who happen to be women. Get to know them in our series, The New Class of Femcees.
When she’s not rapping over her own beats, Sammus is a Ph.D student at Cornell University studying Science and Technology. Balancing the two can be tricky, but as she prepares for an album release and tour, the nerdcore emcee is making it happen in the best way possible. Sammus’ new album, Pieces in Space, is out tomorrow (Oct. 28) on Don Giovanni Records and NuBlack Music Group. Pre-order here and get into her story below.
Hometown: Ithaca, NY
Craziest thing on your show rider: “I asked for a projector, if someone has it. But I don’t think that’s really crazy!”
Three words to describe the music: “Snarky, black, and nerdy.”
VIBE: How did you get into rap in the first place?
Sammus: Actually I was a producer before I was a rapper. I never had intentions to do anything with my voice. I remember attempting to sing in undergrad, I have a terrible voice. So that’s a very small part of the reason why I rap. I attended undergrad at Cornell University and I was making beats on my computer at the time. I remember sending a beat to a friend and then somebody else sent me the beat back with someone else rapping over it and I was furious. I was like, I didn’t authorize this, if anybody is going to rap over my beats is going to be me.
But I didn’t really take it seriously until I had graduated and moved to Houston where I was a third and fourth grade math and science teacher. I was really depressed at the state of the educational system. It’s a hot mess and I needed some kind of outlet, something to feel okay with feeling powerless at the time. I had been making beats for some time and I finally decided to start rapping mostly about how cool it is to be a nerd because I thought about my students. The fact that they were coming in and they could recite all of Lil Wayne’s lyrics but were struggling with some of my lessons. What is the disconnect? Maybe I can make it seem like it’s really cool if you go home and study all the time. That was sort of the entry point into rapping.
As a female emcee, have you ever experienced anything crazy and how do you feel about the state of female emcees at this time?
I’ll start with the second question first. Right now, I’m so excited about what’s going on with women in rap. There’s just so much good stuff and I think we’re finally in a place where people are willing to accept all of our stories. I think for some time there was only one sort of narrative about women as emcees that could be told. There was one that was usually highly sexualized or framed within in a particular way. Which I will say, there is nothing wrong with that prospective, but when its the singular story that’s being told it’s frustrating for a lot of us. I feel so great about Noname, Lizzo, Ivy Sole, there’s so many emcees I can think of. Through social media and through some of these other platforms, we don’t have to work through traditional avenues to have our stories told anymore, which is part of why I think there’s so many diverse voices with women emcees now. But in terms of my personal experience, a lot of my anxiety and a lot of the doubt that I face has been regarding my skills as a producer.
Part of the reason why I took on the name Sammus is that Sammus is in reference to a video game character. In that video game, the character is in an armored suit, so you can’t tell what they look like. Then when you beat the game, the armored suit comes and you discover that it’s this woman. When I was playing it as a kid, I was like that’s pretty incredible. I had envisioned this to be a big powerful man. So when I would tell people that I made beats, especially with dudes, I would receive pushback. They would inquire, like “who helped you to make this” or “did you really make this.” I felt myself having to defend my skill-set there. That was really demoralizing. By the time I started finding my rap voice, I already was just not here for the bullsh*t. I was already able to walk past the comments that had been made. I’ve heard stupid stuff before, stupid comments. The most frustrating thing is being framed only as a female rapper. I think Noname was actually tweeting about this but, “oh you’re my favorite female rapper” and “you’re a really good female emcee.” I think there’s definitely merits to being framed as a person speaking perspective, it can also be frustrating. It’s like how can I be evaluated in the broader emceeing period. What do I have to do to be seen as an emcee in my own right? That’s the tension that I think a lot of women emcees face.
That makes sense, it’s accurate. If it’s a guy, you don’t necessarily say you’re my favorite guy rapper.
Yeah! You don’t say you’re my favorite male emcee.
Do you feel that being empowered as woman is a part of your sound? Do you think it goes with your music?
Yeah, when it first started out I wasn’t thinking about my music as being some feminist or womanist reaction to anything. It was just like this is my story, these are my ideas. But the more that I started to perform and get out there and more women said thank you for reflecting this story or thank you for sharing this thing. I started to realize that what I’m saying is important for a lot of women, that a lot of Black women specifically are thinking about at this time. So yeah, now that I’ve been doing this for some time I definitely take that on and feel like it’s a big part of my music. But initially I don’t think it was a central idea in the actual concepts that I was talking about.
How did you come up with your sound as rapper and what do you feel it brings to the rap game at this time?
I think that’s a really interesting because as I was talking about before with this singular rap perspective, I remember feeling like my voice is too deep. When I first started, if you listen to my earlier stuff I’m like trying to make my voice higher because I didn’t think it was cute enough. I was really anxious about coming across in a particular type of way because my voice. It’s taken a progression for me to love my own voice and the way that I rap, the way that I say things. So that’s a part of my sound now, I think it’s my voice. The way that I phrase things I think is an interesting perspective that’s being brought to rap game. I am a Ph.D student so I have this interesting vocabulary and interesting references that other folks may not be talking about. The last thing is that I think I’m bringing kind of an openness and vulnerability that for a long time we haven’t been allowed to display. It’s part of the reason why so many gravitated toward Kanye West when he first dropped because he’s so open with the highs and the lows. I feel like I’m trying to do something similar but for black women and their experiences.
What does your creative process look like when you’re starting off? Do you start with the beat or the song? Do you light candles?
I wish it was that spiritual! This last project or the last two projects I’ve been working on, the process was very, very different than had been prior to that. For those two, I would think of a thing that was important to me or I drive a lot, I go back and forth between Ithaca and New York City a lot, so that gives me time to think. When I hear something or think about something and I start kind of tearing up or start feeling emotional, I’m like oh that’s something I need to talk about. That’s obviously an important topic to me. If I’m driving around, I’ll start thinking of words or putting words together. But sometimes, I might have a beat already that I’ve been working on and try to configure something to the beat. I guess say all that to say that this time around, the process was a lot more fluid than it’s usually been where I’m working on the beat and the lyrics and the concepts all at the same time. Not going into something with sort of an idea already in mind. I’m more open to just working through my feelings, like why am I feeling this way and why does this does make me feel emotional. Writing down that I think about a particular subject. But in the past it was much more like I want to talk about police brutality, write a song about that. I want talk about my relationship with God, let me write a song about that. It’s a lot less stretching now.
You just spoke about letting people into those highs and lows and that vulnerability in your music. What do you want people to gain from your music?
I mostly people to gain sort of a respect for themselves as humans. Especially, especially black women. In the sense that… one of the songs I put out on my last project was a song about going to seek therapy and dealing with a really, really awful breakup, medication, all kinds of things. I was so mortified at first to share those things, but having done that so many times now and seeing the response I’m recognizing that a lot of people are going through it right now. A lot of people need help, but are scared to say something. Or want to be seen as human but don’t have the words to kind of articulate that so I want to help provide with a vocabulary working through some of things that they are thinking about it terms of their own identity. And knowing that it’s okay to struggle, that’s it okay to be unsure and also that it’s okay to make space for yourself. To fight for your space in whatever circle you’re in.
When it comes your career as an artist and producer, what is your ultimate goal? Does one outweigh the other?
I have been thinking a lot about this because I have been moving down this academic trajectory, but I don’t want to have a career in academia. Ideally for me, I would be able to work in kind of an academic context, talking about teaching, songwriting, or production, but not tied to a specific institution. Maybe being an artist in residence, kind of working with a school for two years to do certain things. I appreciate teaching, teaching is cool and I would love to be able to do that and to be paid basically to perform and do your thing.
What can we expect from you soon?
My next is album is coming on Oct. 28 and its dropping on a record label called Don Giovanni Records. They have mostly done punk bands and punk artists which I think is interesting. I want to able to break into weirds scenes and do different things like that and then after the 28th I have a tour that I’m calling The Weekend Warrior Tour because I’m still in school so every weekend I’ll go to a different place in the northeast and do things that way.
Outside of music, all the things that you cover there, what are you passionate about?
I’m really passionate I think broad social justice issues, particularly things around Black Lives Matter. I’m a working group member of the chapter here in Ithaca and it’s a critical part of who I am. I’m interested in helping people to find ways to express pain and them dealing with it. Mental health issues are really, really important to me. Finding spaces or creating spaces to meet people who are open to sharing their authentic stories is really really important to me.