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Changing the Game: How rapper/Ph.D candidate Sammus pulls off the ultimate balancing act

November 6, 2018

Story by Brendan Menapace. Photography by Charles Shan Cerrone

Énongo Lumumba-Kasongo seems calm. Calmer than you might expect considering her current workload. The 32-year-old, perhaps better known by many as Sammus, is sitting on her couch, which is perfectly angled in a spotless, sun-filled living room that could very well be found in a West Elm catalog or interior design Instagram feed that focuses on minimalism. The only thing that resembles clutter in her West Philly home is one shelf of books on the wall and a stack of records beneath the TV. On the other wall is a Mac desktop computer and small keyboard.

In this place of absolute organization, there’s tranquility. Nothing seems overwhelming to her, even as she balances life as an up-and-coming hip-hop artist and as a Ph.D candidate at Cornell.

Which makes her kind of like a superhero: She’s Énongo at school and on paper, but on stage she’s Sammus, and she just might bust out a mock blaster cannon like her namesake wears in the “Metroid” video game series.

“It’s been really nuts,” she says. “I’m really blessed in that things started to take off after I finished my first round of qualifying exams. Basically, before you take your qualifying exams, you have to be on campus. You have to take classes, and you have to teach classes, and you have to write a project proposal, all of this stuff. So, during that time, I was just dipping my toes into what it would be like to be a full-time artist, but I wasn’t fully committed.”

After she wrapped up her first round of qualifying exams at Cornell, she had a little more freedom to move outside of her academic bubble in Ithaca. This allowed her to do her first tour, and eventually, move to Philly with her fiancé.

It didn’t mean her workload was any lighter, though. And now that she’s away from school, she’s had to learn to decide which one of her passions she feeds at the moment.

“In terms of balancing, I guess it’s just figuring out what’s more urgent when,” she says. “It’s like a series of putting out small fires. Even with working on my dissertation now, ideally, I would be working on my next album. But my committee [at Cornell] is like, ‘Yo, you need to finish this.’ And I want to be done. I work on songs when I can, but Monday through Friday is dissertation time. At other points in my career it’s been forget the dissertation. I’m not thinking of that. I need to figure out the details of this tour. I need to email with folks and figure out where I’m staying, how much I’m making, whatever, whatever. Going hard for whatever I’m working on in a particular time. Switching gears right away.”

Lumumba-Kasongo’s Ph.D dissertation focuses on how recording spaces exist as both commercial entities and also spaces designed to benefit the community.

“My area of research is focused in the politics of recording studios that are supposed to also function as community resources,” she says. “I would say over the last decade, there’s been this burst of the number of programs that are studios for the underserved communities, that are geared toward teaching them certain skills. Not just recording skills, but mixing and mastering more generally. So what I’m interested in is how the people who run these spaces and also participate in them, how they navigate the dual identity of the space—how it’s functioning on the one hand as a commercial studio, but on the other hand as this radical community space, and that sometimes those interests don’t necessarily align. They could be in contention.”

The theme of two worlds living in contention is what brought her to Don Giovanni Records, a Jersey-based label that mostly puts out punk music, and is run by Joe Steinhardt.

Lumumba-Kasongo and Steinhardt met while they were both at Cornell, while the latter was working on his post doc. She had gone to see a Don Giovanni band, Izzy True, and ended up talking with Steinhardt.

“Basically, I was telling him that I wanted to move out of this weird geek space that I had been sort of placed in,” she says. “My name, Sammus, comes from a video game character. I have a concept album about ‘Metroid.’ I love video games, I love cartoons. So I reference it really heavily in my music. But what happened was a lot of folks started putting it in the category of Nerdcore hip-hop, which I didn’t even know existed until people were like, ‘You’re a nerdcore rapper!’ ”

Although people connected with her love of video games and references in her music, it’s not what she wants to be known for or identified as.

“So I want to resist this label so much! I’m more than just this woman who talks about geeky [stuff],” she continues. “I’m using it to talk about other things. So I was talking to Joe about, like, how do I reject that label in a strategic way? And we started thinking, like, maybe it would be cool if I worked with Don Giovanni, because they’re, like, kind of a punk label, not really like a standard hip-hop label. So, in that way, I would really be differentiating myself from the label that I had before. And also, he felt it would be a nice way to start exploring what it would be like to represent hip-hop artists on the label. So it just worked out really nicely.”

She and Steinhardt realized they were kindred spirits in the sense that they both were balancing on the line between academia and indie music, and both had similar ideals and goals for themselves and their art.

“I was on this panel [at Cornell with her], and I started talking to her, like, ‘I want to support you, and I want you to stay independent and succeed, and I want you to make smart decisions. I want to help you,’” Steinhardt, 34, says over the phone from East Lansing, Michigan, where he’s currently teaching at Michigan State. “Then, I think, the more we talked, it felt like we could really do big things together. I was like, ‘Wow, we really share the same values.’ I’ve always used the word punk incredibly loosely. I don’t think punk is so much about a sound. So, talking to Sammus, I was like, ‘Oh, you do punk stuff! You want to be a punk band, even if you’re an emcee and producer.’ And having these discussions, we were like, ‘All right, let’s do this!’ ”

Don Giovanni put out Sammus’ last full-length LP, 2016’s Pieces in Space.

Having the partnership of two people who understand the unique world of balancing an academic career and creating a music career, especially one that allows you to live off your art, made the two connect in ways that other labels and artists might not.

Steinhardt says his scholastic perspective gave him a better understanding of her current situation, and he tried to encourage her to, as she puts it, put out the academic fire at that moment, and finish upcoming music when she can properly dedicate her energy toward it.

“I was like, ‘Don’t worry about the record, get your dissertation done,’” he says. “The record is going to be huge, and your dissertation will pass, and you’ll get your doctorate.”

The theme of duality returns over and over again in conversation with Lumumba-Kasongo, understandably. She’s this incredible rapper and creative force, and she’s also smart and thoughtful in the traditional academic sense. And she keeps these two very heavy plates spinning (three, if you count preparing for her wedding).

“I think at first I tried to keep the two worlds as far apart as possible, because I thought I was going to go nuts if I even brought in a little of my academic work to my music,” she says. “Music was my escape, almost. It was like a refuge from academia. But I do find that even the way that I write, the way that I work on songs mirrors the way that I write my dissertation or work on papers. I’m very particular with the words and connotation, and how the music or the paper is going to be interpreted by other readers or other listeners. So I think that kind of attention to detail about what the meaning of what I’m trying to say has been informed by working on this Ph.D. And I guess, to an extent the content itself is also a little bit informed by what I’m working on academically.”

She mentions one particular track of hers, the 2016 single “1080p,” as an example of this. It conflates self-doubt about higher education (“Cuz they write books nobody reads / For these white folks that they tryna please / Recycle all the right quotes tryna cite blokes ain’t my cup of tea”) and a devastating post-break-up depression.

When asked what she learned the most from all of this, she pauses longer than any other response during our conversation.

“I would say that the biggest takeaway that I have is that it’s really complicated, but really rewarding, to celebrate complexity—to live in complexity,” she says. “The spaces that I’m studying for example—they mean multiple things to multiple people. Instead of trying to whittle it down to being purely a commercial space or purely a radical community space, it’s kind of nice for it to live in this in-between world, and it’s actually a benefit for a space to be interpreted in multiple ways. I think, for my career, for all kinds of folks to be invested and engaged with my music… Whether you’re a geek or a gamer, or just really love hip-hop, whatever it is, I don’t want my stuff to be able to be easily whittled down to one thing. And so I think that complexity is an incredible thing that’s difficult to deal with, but necessary for future change in the world.”

She more easily answers what she plans to do after she finishes her Ph.D and album.

In addition to a celebratory tour, she’s got one other thing on her to-do list.

“I’m gonna sleep so much.”

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