A few hours after Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo’s second full-length album PRIME was released earlier this month, it became the number one bestselling rap album on Bandcamp.
“I think what I gravitated to the most in video games was the music,” says the New York-based producer-rapper known as S▲MMUS, speaking to Afripopmag shortly after it dropped.
“So when I think about my favourite games, it wasn’t necessarily the game-play that I was thinking about. It was the music.” It comes as no surprise then, that the artist who cites Kanye West as the inspiration behind embarking on a journey of beatmaking (both in this Chance Fischer-assisted song titled Kanye West and in general conversation) at just 17 years old, also picked a video game-inspired name as a rap moniker.
Samus Aran is a principal character in a game called Metroid, one of the earliest representations of female heroes who aren’t physically objectified. S▲MMUS – pronounced sam-us – borrowed the persona as well as the name of the “boss” of Metroid for her debut album, M’OTHER BRAIN (June 2012). “I spelled ‘M’OTHER BRAIN’ with the apostrophe because it was supposed to be my other brain,” shares S▲MMUS, “basically, this is the place that I go to when I’m not dealing with schoolwork and family and all that other stuff. Music is my other world. I was very happy with that title and was thinking: how am I going to follow that up with something that still references Metroid but is relevant to the stuff that I’m talking about – which isn’t necessarily video games?”
She then thought of Metroid Prime, which are the first games in the Metroid series to use the first-person perspective. S▲MMUS continues: “In the Prime games, you’re looking through the perspective of Sammus running around so I think that the PRIME title jumped out to me because one thing that really comes through in this album is that it’s really personal. I’m talking about my fears, doubts, insecurities and a lot of stuff that I’ve been scared to talk about in past songs. PRIME is people being able to look at the world through my perspective.”
Her perspective includes placing value on your craft (on the neck-snapping Free), a “stream of consciousness” ditty focusing on talking about being in love (Love Song) and affirming black men (or a “nappy motherfucker in a suit” she endearingly raps on Nu Black). But at its core, PRIME is still the S▲MMUS we loved on M’OTHER BRAIN: intelligent, punchline-laced, articulate and offering a relatable outlook. The S▲MMUS who so impressed Black Milk at a beat battle that he gave her a 5/5 score.
One of the stand-out tracks on PRIME is Nu Black and S▲MMUS laughs when she remembers how she’d initially sent the beat she’d produced to her manager (from the label she’s signed to, Nu Black Music Group) with one message: “see if anyone else would like to rap on this.” But after playing it on repeat a few times, she quickly penned the verses – an anomaly in her usual music-making process of having the idea first.
“I sat down, wrote to that beat and then emailed my manager and said ‘don’t send anyone that beat,’” she exclaims before she laughs, “I wanted to make a song about the things that I appreciate in men. I guess it’s kind of a love song to men in general. (He’s in a) suit because it’s like, you can live in your blackness but also dress up and work in different areas, in different places with different people. The fact that his hair is nappy shows certain sensibilities; his ties to blackness – and that’s nothing against white or Hispanic and any men of any origin – but I feel like we need to lift our brothers up. I wanted to specifically make that comment to say black men we love and appreciate you.” Topical in the aftermath of George Zimmerman killing of Trayvon Martin.
Interestingly, in a song called America (off M’OTHER BRAIN), S▲MMUS raps “Got your hoodie on? They wanna stare at ya/They think you’re fully armed. Black in America.” That was a year before Trayvon went to the store for some Skittles and also, a few months since S▲MMUS performed the song and an older white woman came up to her after the show and cried that she didn’t know things were so bad for African-Americans.
“For some of us, we’d bought into myth that we’re living in post-racial society and that things were really changing,” a sombre S▲MMUS says, “so this was a stark reminder that we haven’t really moved anywhere. When I think about it, I get really emotional. It’s a reminder of how far we still need to go. But [the America song] made me feel empowered, like I was doing the right thing and reminded me of how powerful music can be as an agent of change” It’s also why the triangle in her alias is serendipitous too.
“In math,” S▲MMUS explains, “the delta is like a symbol of change and I used to be a math teacher. Two or three years ago I taught third and fourth grade math so I have a special place in my heart for math. I like the triangle because it represents change but also wanted to have a cool way to write my name so it’s not super-duper deep but there is a little bit of a significance to it.”
S▲MMUS’ music has obviously affected a few people but what do her parents – her mother from the Ivory Coast and her father from Congo and both tenure professors – think of her brand of rap and of her icon having an album called College Drop Out? S▲MMUS laughs loudly and deliciously and says, “I tried to keep it from my parents for as long as possible because my older brother is actually (Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo) the guitarist in the group, Gym Class Heroes. It’s funny because people are always like ‘oh, which one is he?’ and I’m always like: ‘the one who is really dark and there’s only one so who else would it be?’”
“I feel like I’m telling too much but his story is already out there so whatever,” she giggles, “My parents are really, really, really into education, they’re both professors and came to the United States for education. They met in Chicago and we’ve been back to the Ivory Coast and travelled through some other places on the West Coast but we have not been able to go back to the Congo yet. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do so in the next couple of years.”
“My mom’s work is specifically focused on education in African countries. So my brother actually left school when he had like a semester left to graduate from Cornell. That’s when Gym Class Heroes were about to get signed. All that residual responsibility fell onto me. But eventually somebody went up to my mom and said ‘your daughter is S▲MMUS.’ And my mom was like: ‘what are you talking about? What’s S▲MMUS?’ But she’s actually been very, very, very supportive and I thank her in my album credits because she actually has said ‘is there anyway I can help, anything I can do?’ But,” she pauses, “she did yell at me for cursing. Other than that, they’ve been really supportive of me.”
Support for S▲MMUS has also come in the form of internet-introduced friends like musician, Alec Lomami. Aside from featuring on CLV, a track off Lomami’s Melancolie Joyeuse, S▲MMUS enlisted Lomami’s help in finding Gabriel Eng-Goetz, the artist who designed the PRIME album cover. Although similar to the cover of 9thWonder Presents Rapsody Replay, S▲MMUS says Eng-Goetz “came up with this beautiful image after I sent him an idea of what I want. I really like the imagery of the stars because it’s like an escape where space is both this beautiful and scary thing. It’s a great representation of what it’s like to make music. You’re free, you’re out there but you’re also alone in the cold, in the dark, floating around and not tethered to the ground.”
So what is keeping S▲MMUS in this cold and dark space called music? “There is definitely a power in music with words and what’s keeping me here is the recognition that I have a unique perspective and I have a story,” she says matter-of-factly, “Another part of it is that I’m so excited about Ebony Oshunrinde aka WondaGurl (the 16-year-old girl who produced Crown off Jay Z’s Magna Carter Holy Grail) and want to see more producers who are girls.”
“I think I have a role to play in making that more mainstream because you really do have women out here having sex for tracks and doing whatever they can to get a track,” she adds.