The MC-slash-Ph.D-student raps about how it’s cool to be a nerd.
Teach for America rarely inspires rap careers. But then again, it’s rare to find a rapper like Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, a.k.a. Sammus. Upon graduating college and taking a position with TFA in Houston, Lumumba-Kasongo noticed her classroom was full of brilliant kids, but they weren’t connecting with her lessons. “It was like they knew all the lyrics to these rap songs but couldn’t put the pieces together for some of the math stuff I was teaching,” she said. “So I thought, maybe if I made rap music about how dope it is to be a nerd, they will love it.” Over time, these playful classroom raps have morphed into a full-fledged creative outlet where Enongo tackles more “grown-up” issues, using her platform to touch on topics such as sexual agency, nerddom, and mental health in bracingly honest fashion.
After her time in Houston was up, Lumumba-Kasongo moved to Ithaca New York to persue a Ph.D at Cornell University, all the while continuing to amass a dedicated fanbase as an artist. Later this month, she’ll release Pieces of Space on Don Giovanni. Entirely self-produced, the LP features a slew of eclectic guests ranging from fellow hip-hop weirdo Homeboy Sandman to label mate Izzy True.
We spoke with Lumumba-Kasongo about school, punk, hip-hop, and the politics and responsibilites thereof. Catch her record release gig at Alphaville on 10/28 with Sad13, Vagabon, and Alter.
AdHoc: The upcoming album is your first on Don Giovanni and the first hip hop album they’ve released. How did that relationship come to be?
Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: I learned about [Don Giovanni label head] Joe Steinhardt being in Ithaca New York through Izzy True. Then I was like, “Oh wait, this guy is also a post-doc at Cornell? And is running this really successful label?” So we ended up meeting at the beginning of this year, and I basically talked to him about my plans moving forward. Initially, I wanted to drop this album in March and he said, “That’s not a good idea. You should wait and drop something that introduces people to you in a progression,” since my last album was a Nerdcore project. In that yearlong period, the people coming to me were coming to me since they loved Metroid. He was like, “Before you drop your magnum opus, you should think about something that bridges the gap.” Once we had that conversation, the next question was, “Who do you want your audience to be?” I said explicitly, “I want it to be people that go to punk shows.” After that conversation, Don Giovanni seemed like the right home because the ideologies aligned. We have the same DIY ethos and in terms of caring about social justice issues. And then the audience was there since it’s primarily a punk rock label.
Speaking of indie rock and hip-hop coming together, you’re the only feature on the upcoming Sad13 album. How did you and Sadie hook up and make this collaboration happen?
We met last year at SXSW. Joe from Don Giovanni brought her to my showcase and she was like, "This is awesome!" So we continued to text and email. She reached out to me in May and was like, "Hey I'm putting together a new project. Would you want to do a feature?" So I submitted my verse and didn't realize I was going to be the only feature on it! I’m so honored and stunned. The song is really cool and working on it helped me learn how to write for a different genre.
You’ve been outspoken about mental health issues during your entire career. Recently, mainstream rappers like Kid Cudi have come out to speak explicity about this problem in the hip hop community. Why do feel that it took so long for this conversation to begin on a larger level?
It's so multilayered. Even today, I still feel anxiety about being open about the state of my mental health. I think that for a lot of black kids, there’s a healthy mistrust of medical health institutions given the history of race and medicine. So there’s a desire to not open yourself up to a system in terms of taking prescribed medication or going to see a therapist. These things are stigmatized, some of them partially for reasons I don't subscribe to, but also because I do think there's a reason to be hesitant to engage with certain medical institutions for black and brown folks. So for me, it was always “Don't mess anything up by revealing yourself to being someone who is mentally unstable. Just grin and bear it and deal with it, and when the process is over, that's when you talk about it.” I think I was reaching a breaking point with that mindset because I had become so insular in dealing with these issues and I couldn’t even help not talking about them anymore. Lastly, we're in this moment where people are talking about destigmatizing a lot of things and mental health is [on the] a spectrum of things that people are discussing in the context of, "This is something that I don't need to be ashamed of.”
In “Time Crisis,” off your last EP, you rap “Heard it from a birdy / That the thirty word is dirty.” Do you see ageism being a problem in hip-hop or is age just a number?
I do think that if I was making the same music and I was 22, my music would be received differently, which is fair because if you're that age and grappling with really complex issues, that's something to be highlighted and shared. In terms of how I project my career, that’s an anxiety that I have. There are only a handful of women that I can point to who have continued a career past 30 in terms of rap. Most of the women rappers who are older than 30 have broken through already and have had their success in that regard. I do think there's a way, though, that artists can repurpose the age anxiety, and that's through sharing personal stories, like my song “Time Crisis” or Open Mike Eagle talking about growing up and being married and having babies. It's the artists whose whole persona is based on turning up that will struggle with growing up.
What current artists are you gathering the most inspiration from right now?
I adore Izzy True so much. It's not like a connection of just being from a similar place. If I heard Izzy True and they were from California, I would be just as enamored. Basically everyone featured on my project is who I'm obsessed with. Homeboy Sandman consistently pushes me as an artist and a listener to want to rap better. He's so good at putting words together and makes challenging stuff—stuff that would take me a long time to write or even think about that. And, of course, Open Mike Eagle. He does really interesting weird stuff. Lizzo is another. I met her when I was in Houston, so it's been crazy to see her explode. In terms of political inspiration, I love Downtown Boys. Lyrically they don’t mince words and they're like, "These are our views and you can't get with it or get out." And I've struggled with that as my platform is growing, like what should I say and what should I not say? I really respect them for putting themselves out there like they do. And Sadie too. I like that folks are introducing these really hard to talk about subjects in ways that people will consume or, at the very least, subconsciously it will be running through their minds.