There’s a noticeable power that comes with a moniker like Sammus. Taken from the lead character of Metroid, an ’80s sci-fi action videogame, the name refers to Samus Aran who spends her time protecting the galaxy. She’s cool in the most understated of ways, the biggest being most people fail to realize the character is female because of her red-orange armor. She’s one of the very few female heroines in videogames, especially of that time, who doesn’t spot a sexualized outfit. To this day, people fail to realize it’s a girl they’re playing as the whole game.
When I call Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, the 30-year-old behind the hip-hop moniker Sammus, she’s thrilled to chat about the game. Almost immediately, our voices pick up, talking faster and faster, eager to chat about gaming with a fellow female. It’s as if we’re both aware of what it means to play this game and, even moreso, what it means to recognize your own superpowers that come with being female.
“I knew Sammus was a guy, there was no question about it, but you beat the game and a suit comes off and I was amazed to see it was a woman,” says Lumumba-Kasongo. “At the time, I didn’t have the words to say it, but I had to grow up a little bit to define how impactful that was for me. My own assumptions about gender were thrown right back in my face. I love the way they do it, too, because it’s not a ‘Gotcha!’ moment. They show her, and then that’s it. That gender revelation still appears today. I’ll talk to people who think my music is by a guy, but when I make that reveal, when I explain that, no, I make my beats, they have a similar moment of being shocked.”
Sammus’ music is beyond complex. Her influences range from Kanye West to Bjork, particularly leaning into what she’s learned from alt-hip-hop artist Open Mike Eagle. But then, of course, come the lyrics. She covers it all, from her heritage to stereotypes, and does so with her own brand of secrecy that still pries deep. Just look at “Qualified,” the closing track off this year’s Pieces In Space.
“I like it in terms of how it came to be,” she says of the song. “I tried to give the feel of being out at the club while also making the microphone really high so it would pick up all of my breathing to counteract that. In terms of the content, that had been something in my heart for a long time: the anxiety of moving past a relationship that didn’t go so well. You ask how it changed you, how it makes you more insecure, and how you learn to trust yourself again, you know? How do I know that I’m right?”
She picks her topics by letting them come to her. It’s a case-by-case basis, and, for better or for worse, she has plenty come into her life that warrants writing about. “Internet harassment is a huge issue, but I only felt compelled to write about it after one night that I spent reading the worst, horrific varieties that had happened to women on Twitter,” she explains. “Right then, it hit home, and I realized I should talk about that. It’s a lot more freeing of a writing process to address topics when they overwhelm you, especially right in that moment if you can.”
She’s also running behind another LP released this year: Infusion. It alludes to areas of her life coming together, but also the fusion used in Metroid. “I’m smashing together all of my identity points in a way that I had never done prior to this, not in music,” she says. “For example, I talk about my first generation identity. I never found a way to talk about my Africanness, because I do feel like torn between my family, some speak French, but I haven’t picked it up in a meaningful way. Then there was me addressing mental health. This was the time for me to personalize my music, even if I didn’t know the extent to which I would reach into those things.”
Sammus embraces her Africanness with a curious level of hesitancy, something often reserved in hip-hop. Instead of a claim to name, she admits she’s left with curiosities about her own place in the world, America’s melting pot becoming all the more isolating the longer she goes without meeting others of similar nationality.
“I couldn’t help but think I wasn’t ‘doing it right.’ A lot of people are so connected with their Africanness, especially those from Nigeria. There’s a direct connection there and I never felt that,” says Lumumba-Kasongo. “My dad is from the Congo and my mom is from Côte d’Ivoire, two countries that are underrepresented in America, or at least not over here in the north. I didn’t know anyone else who ate the food I ate for dinner. Singing about this has allowed me to become to terms with not being clear on that. In some songs, I’ll talk about African food my mom would make or I’ll reference it in a non-specific way. That’s how I think about my Africanness — it comes out in subtle ways because I don’t feel comfortable making a clear connection. Not just yet, at least, but I hope to.”
That’s why her music is so phenomenal. She takes it a step farther than where rap usually goes. Maybe that’s because of her time in school. Once an activist, then a teacher, and now a PhD student at the Department of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University, she keeps her brain active, learning about everything she can all at once, even when it means trying to learn about her family’s heritage, too.
That unique combination makes her place on the Don Giovanni roster quite peculiar. The record label is known for its punk and rock acts. Before her came Moor Mother, a musician who combines noise and rap, but Sammus takes a hip-hop proper route, and she makes it work surprisingly well. “Growing up in Ithaca, I primarily went to punk and rock shows. I wanted to have that fanbase — punks, activists, people who want to hear a message of unity, talent, and community — but still create rap music. Then I realized Don Giovanni would be a perfect home for me. Sound-wise there’s not a lot in common, but our ethos and missions line up fairly well.” And so Sammus joined a larger label for the first time, her music rolling out on vinyl and the proper support popping up to push her career to the next level.
“The timing has been really good for me. When I started the PhD, I would not have been able to write this music on top of it,” she says. “I was taking shows at any area that I could at the time. I would go to NYC on a Wednesday night and then drive back. It was really, really crowded. I was questioning if I even wanted to continue doing music. Somehow, I made it to the end of the semester and now, after passing my qualifying exam, there’s more flexibility in my schedule and I can travel a bit more. I realized I don’t have to play certain cities. I don’t have to take every show offer. That’s okay.
Playing videogames as a female becomes a much different experience than playing them as a male, at least when you grow up. There’s no qualifier to the types of games you play or how long you play them. And yet, there’s a different expectation of what it means to be someone who plays videogames, obsessively, casually, or any place in between.
“I think there’s a shying away of that because of what people have come to expect extreme things about what it means to be a ‘gamer,’” she says. “Maybe I need to more publicly state that I’m not fantastic playing games but that I play them all the same because it’s fun. This year was my first time attending [PAX East]. It was so cool! I mean, look, I’m definitely what you would call a retro gamer — I generally stopped playing new stuff after Playstation 2 — but it’s still great to try.”
Obviously studying for a PhD takes up a lot of time, and Lumumba-Kasongo only has so much time, but she plays when she gets the chance. She recommends an article by Maddy Myers about “the cool gamer girlfriend” and then sighs, as if looking back on past time. “For now, I’ll just have to play Pokemon Go when I can.” There’s no blame to place. Sammus has enough under her belt at the moment, and that fact that she pulls it off so gracefully makes her ability to continue playing videogames nowadays all the more impressive. In fact, she’s right in the middle of leveling up in real time.
SAMMUS, THE KOMINAS, LEWIS M. FRI 11.11 LILYPAD INMAN, 1353 CAMBRIDGE ST., CAMBRIDGE. 10PM/ALL AGES/$10. LILYPADINMAN.COM.