Enter the world of Sammus, real name Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo. The Ithaca, New York, rapper, producer and Ph.D. student at Cornell University has been at the forefront of the underground hip-hop “nerdcore” scene for several years. But that's just one layer of this exquisite young talent.
When covered by media publications (like this one), each outlet has the daunting task of trying to either A) psychoanalyze Sammus through each and every one of her interests, or B) fall down the rabbit hole in the pursuit of labeling her. I'm charting somewhere into territory C) in failing miserably at attempting both A and B while deliberating how much I spend writing about her "Metroid" angle.
It's what intrigued me first when I discovered Sammus -- probably because the "Metroid" series is legendary and I'm a self-described video game nerd. But what I found after that initial "geekery" was something more fascinating –– an energetic rapper that can seamlessly oscillate between interests and topics, from the lowbrow to the emotional verisimilitude to the intellectual-niche, and dropping those bars like confetti from an exploded pinata.
“Yes, my music draws on video games and cartoons but there's so much there, and it frustrates me when my music is distilled to being 'cool hip-hop' that talks about geek stuff."
I should come clean now and state that Sammus probably doesn't cosign any of the aforementioned lofty labels.
"I'm not defined by any one of my interests," she told me during our interview. She's just trying to be herself: a modern, 21st century female who does X, Y and Z. "My whole life I always felt like I was explaining things, constantly explaining. From my name, which is Enongo, to my interests."
In person, Sammus is super down-to-earth and humble. She pokes fun at her attempt to juggle an artist's life while pursuing her Ph.D., which is an "interdisciplinary field in which the study of sound is used as a means to understand social, technological, and cultural developments as well as to access particular aspects of human experience," according to her student spotlight page.
Her secret in maintaining this life-work balance? Naps. "I take naps when and wherever I can," she laughs. "That's how I get it done 'cause they both are pretty demanding things."
You're wasting your time if you try to label the multidimensional artist by using just a few elements. It's disingenuous. Sammus, in hindsight, has rapped about everything from her own depression to social inequality, to creating songs with the braggadocious self-decree commonly found in other hip-hop anthems.
Oh, and she's referenced the "Metroid" game into a seven-track EP called "Another M." It's a retelling of the space bounty hunter from the perspective of a little black girl who dreamed when looking up to strong female characters like Samus or Mae Jemison, the first black female astronaut in outer space. “Yes, my music draws on video games and cartoons but there's so much there, and it frustrates me when my music is distilled to being 'cool hip-hop' that talks about geek stuff," Sammus says.
So, when choosing a rap moniker, she sought inspiration from one of the first strong female characters she encountered. One that broke archetypal gender tropes and just did her thing in a male dominated space –– Samus Aran, the space bounty hunter protagonist in the popular Nintendo video game franchise "Metroid."
"When I got a little bit older, I started wanting to make music that had elements of video games in them."
Video games are, in a way, the foundation of Sammus' musical roots. "I first got into music because I love video games," she says.
She recounts the memories of her video-game past, with her brother leading the way by introducing her to the 8-bit and 16-bit game universes. "I wanted to be his little protégé. I followed him around everywhere and I started playing video games, too. I fell in love with the music of video games. 'Sonic the Hedgehog 2' I think has one of the greatest soundtracks of all time and no one can tell me differently," she laughs. "I just love those tracks, and I just really loved instrumental music.
So it's no surprise that Sammus' musical influences are diverse and pull from several genres and mediums. There's no discrimination in her artistic palette. In her pantheon of musical heroes, there's an equal admiration attributed to video game composers like Masato Nakamura ("Sonic the Hedgehog 1," 2) and hip-hop icons like Kanye West.
Sonic the Hedgehog slippers proudly on display in Sammus' "Games & Cartoons" music video.
"When I got a little bit older, I started wanting to make music that had elements of video games in them." She credits her brother, Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo, the guitarist in the popular rock band Gym Class Heroes, for teaching her the music program Reason. It's where she first cut her teeth in sampling beats.
But when she started to showcase those produced beats to her friends, the response was a bit lukewarm. "This is weird. Why are you making this video game-kind of-ish music?" she says, reverberating her friend's confusion. "It was around that time that I first heard Kanye West, and when I heard Kanye West that was when I was like, 'Oh, I wanna make hip-hop beats. Junk this other stuff I've been working on. Hip-hop is where it's at. Sample base, weird chops. That's what I'm into.'"
From there she moved onto Garage Band, a Mac-based program that she felt was an "easier" solution to the sampling and chopping of beats into tracks. "I would just drag in things that I wanted to chop up and one of the first beats I chopped up was a 'Final Fantasy VII' track when Cloud was on the motorcycle. That was kinda how I got my foray into making music."
"On the other hand, it (video game association) puts me in a box in a way that I get frustrated by often."
But the video game references -- its imagery, music samplings and lyrical allusions -- can be a double-edged sword.
Video games are not the be-all and end-all to Sammus' musical identity, although it would have been fun to quiz her during our interview to see if she could recite the Konami code --or if she ever put the code into a rap lyric. "On the one hand, it's really awesome and liberating and allows me entry into these interesting nerd and geek spaces. On the other hand, it puts me in a box in a way that I get frustrated by often."
The entire Samus character angle wasn't fully explored until her 2010 "Another M" EP release. She felt compelled to create the project after being asked repeatedly to perform at nerd and geek conventions. "Okay. Well, I'm taking my name from this character that's very important. I'm being invited into these spaces. I think it's time for me to set aside (time)... to make a project that's 100 percent devoted to telling the story from the perspective of the protagonist."
"I can credit my Ph.D. and the work that I've done there with thinking critically on a sort of social level.”
With songs like "Time Crisis," which reflects on both Sammus' own admission of reaching the "dirty 30" years old and German philosopher Martin Heidegger's "Being and Time," it's safe to assume Sammus is firmly at the intersection of music and education.
Both of her parents are university professors, and she graduated with a bachelors from Cornell before moving to Houston to serve as a full-time teacher in a Teach for America program. Her students' interest in hip-hop got her thinking: why not fuse raps with education to get them inspired about learning? So she did just that. Rocking the classroom as an enshrined auditorium, all the while celebrating hip-hop and learning.
After completing the program, she moved back to Ithaca in the fall of 2011 to pursue her Ph.D. at Cornell. But returning to school with a full-fledged music career got her a little anxious, and she was apprehensive in announcing her musical identity to her peers.
"For a long time I tried to keep my Ph.D. and my music stuff pretty separate," she says. "I never talked about it in my department." But there was no escaping the inevitable. One of her administrators came across an article about her adventures as Sammus, and with good intentions and genuine admiration, displayed the article to her department.
"I was like, 'No! I don't want anyone to...,'" she says, describing the "mortifying" moment. "I was just walking around the hallway with my head down. Eventually it got out and folks in my department have been really supportive. I do think that there's been an interesting crossover, sometimes even just lyrically speaking," she adds.
Watch Enongo give a lecture about tears at XOXO festival
There's a lot more to the doctorate angle than just name-dropping an obscure scholar to capture the attention of intellectual nerds. Academia has allowed Sammus to dive deeper into her themes and translate her thoughts and emotions through her lyrics more effectively.
"Just in terms of thinking critically, I can credit my Ph.D. and the work that I've done there with thinking critically on a sort of social level. So, sort of thinking about race, the construct of race, the construct of gender. Thinking about those things through a critical lens is something that I might have arrived at on my own as a musician."
She also values one of the tenets in successfully completing a Ph.D., which is the role of being a teacher's assistant. "It's allowed me to see what's cool with the kids, basically," she reaffirms to me after mentioning how most young music artists are surprisingly woke. "Youth are important. I want to make sure that what I'm doing resonates with them, as well. It's been a cool way to stay connected with younger listeners."
Her anxieties of being in the academia space were explored in the song "1080p" from her Infusion EP.
"It was also really beautiful to tell my hero to her face... tell her how important she's been for me and for little girls who look up at the stars and think about the possibilities."
So what's next for the cybernatic-armored hero? Writing her thesis and righting the wrongs of misinformed strong black females. She's hitting personal achievements through her music and profession, experiencing meta-moments like the time she got to interview and perform her track, "Mae Jemison" to her personal hero: Mae Jemison, the first black female to travel to outer space.
"My manager was able to arrange an interview between me and her. At the end of the interview I performed the track 'Mae Jemison' for Mae Jemison. Then I just started crying 'cause I could not believe... It was super meta but it was also really beautiful to tell my hero to her face... I'm getting emotional now, but tell her how important she's been for me and for little girls who look up at the stars and think about the possibilities."
Here's one last music video to keep your ears perked.
“I didn't like that my brand of hip-hop was being weaponized so I made this song to speak to the fact that I like to do a lot of things and I like to listen to a lot of things. I'm not defined by any one of my interests.” Sammus explains the origins for her "Mighty Morphin'" song. The music video is an homage to Alanis Morissette's 1995 music video for "Ironic."