In an ongoing effort to highlight Ithaca’s thriving alternative music scene, we wake up local Ithaca musicians at their homes (or touring artists on the couches they’re crashing on) and have them perform their music for us. From The Ithaca Voice and Ithaca Underground, it’s the Bedhead Sessions.
ITHACA—Izzy True frontperson Isabel Reidy recently told me they’ve been asking artists what their superpowers are. Reidy smiled when mentioning Sammus: “Enongo said her superpower was crying.”
Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, better known as Sammus, is many things: rapper, producer, PhD student, geek culture enthusiast, Black Lives Matter activist, mental health advocate, new Ithaca Underground board member, and easily the biggest fan of the 2004 comedy film Sideways that I’ve ever met. But more than anything, Lumumba-Kasongo is someone who investigates and embraces her emotions.
I met up with Lumumba-Kasongo twice during 2016: first in April at her JAM (Just About Music) housing on Cornell campus, and once earlier this October at her new downtown Ithaca apartment to discuss her new album, Pieces in Space.
Infusion and Pieces in Space: Sammus at 100 percent
This Thursday, October 27, Sammus is scheduled to release Pieces in Space at The Haunt alongside performances by Sad13 (the solo project of Speedy Ortiz member Sadie Dupuis), Ithaca rapper Mr. McBean, and New York hip hop duo No Comply.
Pieces in Space as a triumph for Lumumba-Kasongo. The album features tracks that address anxiety (“Nighttime”), introversion and social media fatigue (“Weirdo”, “Comments Disabled”), physical and emotional abuse in sexual relationships (“Song About Sex”), and a heartbreaking look at the lack of representation in the media for black girls (“Perfect, Dark”). The album is beautifully-produced, and hosts a number of guest appearances, from up-and-coming emcee Latasha Alcindor to critically-lauded underground rapper Jean Grae. It’ll be Sammus’ debut on Don Giovanni Records, a New Jersey-based label that’s been home to rock bands like Screaming Females, Downtown Boys, and Aye Nako, as well as Ithaca’s own Izzy True (who also appears on the album).
“I realized I didn’t want to go through a traditional hip hop route,” Lumumba-Kasongo recalls. “I’ve fallen in love with everyone that I’ve met through Ithaca Underground, and being on bills with artists who don’t sound anything like me.”
Work on Pieces in Space began with Lumumba-Kasongo’s previous release, Infusion. While Lumumba-Kasongo initially envisioned Infusion and Pieces in Space as a single release, Don Giovanni co-founder (and recent Cornell PhD graduate) Joe Steinhardt is credited as one of the first people to recommend Lumumba-Kasongo start with an EP before submitting a full studio album.
“I was devastated at first because I wanted to release a full album right then,” Lumumba-Kasongo says. “But the more that I thought about it, the more I knew I didn’t want to release something that’d just get lost in the ether. I wanted to take the time to be really intentional about everything, which is something I’ve had a problem with in the past.”
And her intentionality paid off.
“1080p”, the initial single from Infusion, is a personal story told by a fully-formed voice, and it’s been well-received in all its forms. The song is striking in its candor: Lumumba-Kasongo’s lyrics detail her feelings of isolation at school, the collapse and aftermath of a destructive relationship, self-medication struggles, and ultimately, how therapy helps her to recover. Recorded versions of the song are admirable enough, but it’s nearly impossible to keep from welling up when watching Lumumba-Kasongo perform the song live in a crowded room. Often, in stunning displays of vulnerability, Lumumba-Kasongo brings herself to tears onstage when performing “1080p” and other songs written for Infusion and Pieces in Space.
Lest she become known as “the rapper who exploits her sad feelings”, Lumumba-Kasongo soon followed “1080p” with “The Feels”—a track that’s precisely about being wary of wallowing in self-destructive thoughts and depression for artistic acclaim. Through many Sammus songs, Lumumba-Kasongo has a made a habit of preemptively addressing critics who might seek to pigeonhole her.
Much of Lumumba-Kasongo’s career has been bolstered by her initial reputation as a “nerdcore” artist. But while she considers her work to have outgrown nerdcore as a primary descriptor, she’s also in no hurry to disown the nerdcore community. After all, she still dreams about cartoons, freaks out over fan-made video game tributes, and genuinely loves her fellow nerds—she just wants people to recognize that “nerds”, like all people, are multi-faceted human beings.
“The realization that I came to is that if I sit here and make a set list for a geek convention and it’s just songs about Metroid, that’s me limiting the humanity of fellow geeks. It’s wrong for me to think that they’re not going to respond about a song about depression. We all experience the full spectrum of human emotions. I needed to stop being stressed out about how much ‘proper geek content’ I had, because every geek is a human being, period.”
This understanding is key to the ethos behind Infusion, Pieces in Space, and to Sammus as an artist: regardless of one’s race, gender, or reputation, everyone should feel safe to like the things they like, love the communities they love, and feel the emotions they feel, no matter how broad a spectrum they might occupy as they grow.
Weirdo: from introvert to activist
Lumumba-Kasongo grew up in Ithaca after moving from Poughkeepsie, NY with her two parents—both professors—and her two brothers. As is the case with most people of color who grow up in a predominately white areas, she had difficulty feeling like she belonged.
“I have all these different identities, but I don’t have any role models I can attach them to as normalizing them,” she explains. “Like any kid who doesn’t look like someone from Saved by the Bell, I thought ‘there’s no one representing me, so I must be an alien.’”
She felt especially tense in middle school and high school once her friend group began communicating regularly via phone: “I dreaded it so much. I thought, ‘Am I a bad person? I love these people, but I don’t want to talk.’ I had all of this guilt infused with my desire to be left alone to sit in a corner somewhere.”
Lumumba-Kasongo cites this desire as the inspiration for the song “Weirdo”. “I think based on my affiliation with nerdcore, the meaning of the song gets spun as if it’s a geek anthem, but it’s more of a song for loners. It’s a track for anyone who wants to shut out the noise. There’s a lot going on out in the world, and I think about it, and it stresses me out.”
Though Lumumba-Kasongo found solace and creative inspiration in the art of video games, and took notice of the local Ithaca punk scene, she largely disengaged from pursuing art and music upon entering undergrad, and was never aware of any hip hop scene. It wasn’t until Lumumba-Kasongo started grad school at Cornell that she began exploring the possibilities of fostering a visible hip hop community in Ithaca, quickly convincing Ithaca Underground president of the board Bubba Crumrine to book more hip hop shows.
“I wasn’t expecting any kind of support, so for that support to be there immediately was really, really important to me. And now I’m watching other rappers in the scene, people from Smacked Records, trying to get into the scene through Ithaca Underground, and it’s really amazing to me that I’ve been able to have a role in that.”
When I ask Lumumba-Kasongo what she’d like to see from the Ithaca Underground scene moving forward, she doesn’t hesitate: “I’d like to see some more brown folks. I’d like to see more engagement on the part of Ithaca Underground—as someone on the board, I feel like this is something I can actually do. Get more brown folks in the room and have them feel like this is a space that supports you and supports your artistic expression. I want to see more women emcees in particular. And I don’t want to just limit that to hip hop at all. I mean, my older brother was a black kid who grew up playing rock music, and I remember going to shows and being like, ‘It’s just us here.’ The scene is so dope, I just want to continue to see it growing and being weird.”
Lumumba-Kasongo’s desire to create space for marginalized people in the local music scene has also grown to a desire to advocate for people in the Ithaca community as a whole, through Black Lives Matter Ithaca. “In Ithaca, we can feel like we’re ‘doing it right.’ When we have rallies, it can feel like it’s just a show of solidarity for things that are happening elsewhere, and not a reflection of anxieties that are happening here in Ithaca.”
“Ithaca doesn’t exist in a bubble,” she tells me. “Housing and hiring disproportionally affects people of color. The things that we’re trying to take on are things that will uplift the entire community. If we can improve the cost of living for those who are most marginalized, everybody wins. Everybody is carried up by that wave. I think from a humanist perspective, if you can’t see black and brown people as human, then you’re not experiencing the fullness of humanity.”
Disclosure: I’ve worked with Lumumba-Kasongo several times in the past on various projects, including contributing artwork for her most recent album.