Play enough video games and eventually you become a pro at leveling up. If you’re lucky, you learn how to level up in real life. That’s what Sammus taught herself to do, and she’s been leveling up so much that it’s hard to remember she’s a real person.
The underground, alternative rapper got her start back in 2012 with a self-released EP. After choosing the Metroid moniker, Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo started honing her craft, making a name for herself in the music scene, and touring nonstop. While this was happening, she also got a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, worked full time as a Teach For America teacher in Houston, returned to Cornell to get a PhD in science and technology studies, and released her critically acclaimed LP Pieces in Space in 2016. It’s a lot, and yet she’s stayed level-headed about it all. She’s currently working on new music—it’s self-described as having chill themes, slower BPMs, and less chaotic energy—and plans on trying some of those songs live because mixing up her setlist is part of Sammus’ power.
“I try not to perform a song just because I think it’s catchy and people will like it,” she says. “For example, the song ‘Childhood’ wasn’t a single, it didn’t have a video, and wasn’t a hit, but it slowly made its way into the [live] rotation. For me, it shares a lot of the different things I can do. The chorus comes from a Weezer song I used to listen to, which I try to do a lot: to share my relationship with the music I grew up with. There’s a lot of references to video games and cartoons I loved a lot as a kid, too. There’s also a reference to my life as a first-gen kid, which is something I don’t do much in other songs. That song has become more special to me as a result, especially as more and more people start to sing the chorus along with me. It gives it a shared sentimental value.”
To go deeper into the mind of Sammus, we interviewed Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask musicians questions inspired by their song titles. We focused on Pieces in Space, and her answers show a grounded side of her—a perfect introduction before she performs at ONCE Somerville this Wednesday.
1) “100 Percent (feat. Latasha)”
DIGBOSTON: When you’re struggling to give your all during an activity, what do you say or do to pump yourself up to reach that full 100 percent?
SAMMUS: To reach 100 percent, I usually smile. Smiling will almost have a psychological effect where the rest of my body starts to give in to whatever is going on. I’ve had some performances where there weren’t as many people there as I thought there would be, and during those sets is when I will smile the most. Often someone in the audience will smile back and it will make me think, “Oh, okay, yeah! I’m here right now! I should be present, too.” I have the privilege of doing this thing that I love, so let me get my shit together—and smiling helps me get back into that mindset.
2) “Comments Disabled”
DIGBOSTON: What’s the most common criticism you get online, and how do you clap back?
SAMMUS: Ugh. I don’t know if this is a criticism, but people will say I’m such a good female rapper. It’s not a criticism, but it does feel like this weird caveat. It almost can feel like a sleight. My identity as a woman is obviously very important to me, but I don’t see people saying, “Oh, this is my favorite male rapper.” I’ve tried as best I can to respond by saying something like, “Oh, well, my favorite male rapper is so-and-so,” to call attention to that kind of qualifier. And sometimes folks realize that they messed up, but other times it goes over their head.
DIGBOSTON: What’s a childhood memory you completely forgot about but were recently reminded of?
SAMMUS: Oh! So on the last tour that I was on, we went to the UK and then Paris. I lived there, in Paris, when I was a kid for about a year. I remembered that we went to eat dinner at the principal of the school’s house. It was my mom and a few other people. I licked my bowl clean and my mom was so pissed at me that I completely embarrassed her. She was so angry. But I forgot all about that until we were in Paris on this tour, and it came flooding back. I would have been four or five years old. I think it was a general get-together of sorts, but all that I remember is loving that food. [laughs]
4) “Cubicle (feat. Alex Attard)”
DIGBOSTON: Have you ever worked a cubicle job?
SAMMUS: Yes, I have worked at many jobs behind a desk, usually as an administrator in an academic department. At Cornell, I did a bunch of jobs where I helped with marketing or an organizational role. I pretty much got fired from one job because I was coming in late from making music. It was definitely worth sacrificing that desk job.
5) “Perfect, Dark”
DIGBOSTON: Who is your all-time favorite black role model and who is a relatively new black role model you’ve come to admire a lot?
SAMMUS: This is hard. All-time, I’d say Mae Jemison, the first black women to be in outer space, just because of the way she’s taught me to dream big. It’s insane to me that she’s been outside of the planet, and to do so while representing all of these different young girls and women. It’s really powerful. She’s an amazing and kind person in person, too.
Someone relatively new that I’ve come to admire is the frontwoman for the project Zenizen. She’s a fabulous person. She plays the keytar, and she’s very funny but also thoughtful. She’s a really great songwriter. I hope she blows up to take over the universe. We were on the same show together two Decembers ago, and we’ve been on a whole bunch of shows since.
6) “Weirdo (feat. Homeboy Sandman)”
DIGBOSTON: Can you name three of your weirdest habits or interests?
SAMMUS: I really love the movie Sideways, which is about this dude who’s kind of awful and likes to drink wine. I have three copies of the DVD [laughs]. I lost one of them when I moved and was so sad. But I purposely bought three in case something happened to one of them, though, so that was helpful.
I don’t know if this one is weird because I’m starting to learn a lot of folks love this, but I’m obsessed with terrible movies. I love bad movies. Maybe something that’s a little less broad is that I love bad video game movies, too. I love Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and the Mario Bros. movie. Those are all ridiculous and I love them because they’re so, so bad.
And for the third? Oh, I know. I really like watching YouTubers who recap what happens in reality shows — but I don’t actually want to watch the shows. I just like when they sit and break down each episode’s plot or the drama between characters, like who is crushing on who, because it’s so fascinating. These YouTubers impart their own politics and how they feel about different characters on reality shows. I watch them review reality shows just to see their perspective. I think this started as something to watch to help me fall asleep, but now I actually watch them for enjoyment.
DIGBOSTON: Do you gravitate to specific YouTubers, or are you watching multiple people review the same show?
SAMMUS: There’s one lady whose name is 4itsrox who talks about Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, Real Housewives, that type of thing, and I like her personality. She’s fun and interesting. I usually won’t watch a review if I don’t have a general sense of the show, though.
7) “Song About Sex”
DIGBOSTON: Growing up, a lot of kids and teens misunderstand basic facets of sex. What’s something you misunderstood that you learned later in life wasn’t true or as you envisioned it?
SAMMUS: This is a great question. When I was younger, I thought I was the only one who didn’t know what they were doing. I thought everyone else was an expert, especially when I started having sex. Like I thought I was the only person who had no expertise about it. Now, as an adult, I’m like, “Oh, a lot of people don’t know what they’re doing, and that’s okay.” But I really felt like there was a secret most everyone knew about how to make sex enjoyable or fun or not awkward, but that I didn’t get the memo.
DIGBOSTON: When was the last time you saw an opener outshine the headliner at a show?
SAMMUS: Oh my goodness. Good one. That happens often at SXSW, which is where I am right now. That probably has to do with a hunger of an up-and-coming artist and the desire to really put it out there to be recognized. Veterans don’t necessarily think every show is a special opportunity. During SXSW, that’s when I wandered into a show and saw someone who blew my mind and then went to the “big showcase” and was rolling my eyes. There was an MC who is also getting her PhD named Lingua Franca who performed at an unofficial showcase on Thursday. She had an amazing stage presence and had great lyrics. Totally blew me away.
9) “Nighttime (feat. Izzy True)”
DIGBOSTON: If you stop at a bodega during nighttime, what do you usually buy?
SAMMUS: I love Twix and I love gummy bears, especially the sour Haribo ones. Actually, in place of Twix, I would definitely have those. Last night, my drummer and I drove around to multiple gas stations to find those gummy bears and some Gatorade. We’re staying in a part of Austin where everything closes early, so we just couldn’t find ones that were open, but we were determined to get our snacks.
10) “1080p (feat. Jean Grae)”
DIGBOSTON: What’s a piece of advice you heard that helped you see the world a bit clearer?
SAMMUS: I may need to think on this. So, I would say on this last tour—this is something I’m actually thinking of getting a tattoo of because it compelled me so much—my tourmate said he heard an interview with Jazzy Jeff where he said, “You should die empty.” By that, he meant you should share every little thing, get it all out of your system, before life is over. He was talking about doing that as an artist, not waiting to release that project, but I took it as a personal guide for my relationships: be honest with people in your life, don’t keep feelings inside, let people know where I’m at. That’s something I’ve done throughout my life to keep the peace, and the idea of expressing how you truly feel as a means of emptying yourself is so compelling. So I’m trying to do that more.
DIGBOSTON: What’s a nagging criticism you hung over yourself that prevented you from realizing you’re as smart as you are?
SAMMUS: I think a big criticism of myself is that I don’t, well, let me think of the best way to phrase this. Agh. Actually, that’s what it is, so it’s funny I just said that. I’m not able to articulate things as eloquently as other folks, especially when you see someone with a beautiful, critical, thought-out thread on Twitter. I’ll overthink everything I’m saying, and I’ll tell myself I could never do that. I don’t think I know how to share my views in the best way possible. I can’t be firm about things because I’m always thinking about how it sounds. I wish I could be more comfortable with how I think about things and the way it sounds leaving my mouth.
12) “Qualified (feat. Open Mike Eagle and Arch Thompson)”
DIGBOSTON: Apart from her arm cannon, what’s a characteristic or trait that you would like to borrow from Samus Aran?
SAMMUS: Well, I like that Samus is a little bit mysterious. Her personality comes out in little ways. She’s not a character with a fleshed-out personality the way someone like Link is. He has this big, detailed story all the way down to how he walks. She has so much mystery. What would it be like hanging out? Would she be cool? Would she be bored? Especially with the rise and importance of social media, I’m trying to remember to keep some things sacred to myself, to not feel compelled to share it all, and I like that about her. I’d like to work towards embodying that eventually.
MEGA RAN, SAMMUS, NONE LIKE JOSHUA. WED 3.28. ONCE SOMERVILLE, 156 HIGHLAND AVE., SOMERVILLE. 6PM/18+/$10. ONCESOMERVILLE.COM