Sampha’s Process: an artist reckoning with family

The struggle between family and purpose hit a little too close to home.

Sampha, in a still from Process, a film directed by Kahlil Joseph.

A snow storm had shut New York City down earlier that day in February, prompting folks on Twitter to ask the same two-part question I had: would the show that night be canceled and would Terminal 5 reimburse us for our purchase? It wasn’t and two long lines for the doors formed outside far down the block in freezing temperatures late that night, which packed the concert hall to capacity. Mal Devisa gave a powerful performance in her own right, but everyone in the room clung to each other in long awaited anticipation of the headliner. A friend of mine had just put me on to Sampha, so I didn’t have as much claim to the powerful feeling in the room. Still I stood front row, stage right enamored by the musician’s voice, which together with his keyboard conjured my most buried emotions: pain, love, euphoria, guilt.

That night I couldn’t see anything other than an artist humbled and gracious, completely in his element on stage, which I later learned was part of an artistic process central to that very night. Sampha has been open about his staggered journey to his first full solo album, both in interviews and in his music. Yet with the release of the short film, Process, directed by Kahlil Joseph, which premiered exclusively on Apple Music this past March, Sampha has added another dimension to the story behind the journey.

In 36 minutes, the short film provides an even more intimate look behind Sampha and his music. It shows us the influence of family, ancestry, and diaspora on his artistry. To be of a diaspora creates a unique third space for the children of immigrants, who belong both to the place their family left and the place they decided to make their new home, and yet singularly belonging to neither. It is a central theme in Process that comes to life on screen through a multilayered storytelling that defines the film beautifully.

A series of vignettes travel back and forth between the city streets of Morden, London, and the forests and beaches of Freetown, Sierra Leone. The juxtaposition creates an amazing contrast between the two locations. For one, it traces the distinct origins of Sampha’s sound, a blend of electro pop with West African influences of the kora and drums, which is introduced by a vinyl record playing in a family’s home. But even more shrewdly, the film a reveals a duality of the “home” and “back home” that serves as the backbone of the film, and of immigrant life. Though both are geographically separated from each other, life in each is simultaneously intertwined across time.

The two worlds never share the screen in Process. Rather, their contents abruptly interrupt each other, disorienting the viewer throughout the film. We are invited into vignettes, drawn into the scene it sets, only for it to cut off before it can unfold completely. The music, which intentionally comes second to the story behind it, receives similar treatment in the film. The instrumentals of “Plastic 100°C”, the first song on the album, cut off isolating Sampha’s voice, and float above a home shrouded by trees on a dirt road in Sierra Leone before it dissolves into the fabric of the story. If anything, Process the film clearly illustrates that not only did we all have to wait for Sampha to complete something that was wholly his own, but he had to as well.

The clear bridge between the two worlds for Sampha is family, who are placed subtly throughout the short film: his father, the player of the vinyl record that introduces a love of music into the family’s home; a matriarch in Sierra Leone who names Sampha as her grandson; and a guitarist in London, who talks about their mother. Sampha has shared that he put his music career on hold to take care of his mother, for whom he wrote “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano.” The situation alone would weigh heavily on anyone. For the diasporic artist, it holds an additional layer of familial duty.

That children of immigrants bear the tacit responsibility of producing the fruits of generational sacrifices is something that remains at odds with the selfish nature of an artist: an unyielding hunger for freedom to create on your own terms. Art requiring a solitude, like studio time or even traveling away from home steals time from family. And yet, that is a completely contentious, guilt-inducing concept within the immigrant narrative. I’ve felt it. The reason my artistic struggle even exists is because of family. A parent crossed oceans to start a new life in a foreign land, and once there, often put aside their own existential crises for you, I remember. So, how can family come second to purpose? I wonder how many artists have chosen to serve family without hesitation, even if it meant delaying their purpose or not realizing it at all.

The tension between Sampha’s soul searching, serving family, and his anxieties around both, is most poetically captured in the last song on his album, “What Shouldn’t I Be?”

Family ties /Put them ‘round my neck /I’m walkin’ ‘round high
A ghost by my side/Challenges come/Challenges come and they go
I need someone to help me down/You can always come home
You can always come home /A mother always knows
I needed to grow/ Just, it’s all about you now

Sampha dutifully comes to the conclusion like many a child of immigrants before him: It’s not all about me. It’s what makes the most haunting moments of the film the ones of the musician, wearing a red coat, sitting by himself in an empty outdoor amphitheater with his keyboard. Over time, the visual evolves into him on stage, playing a version “No One Knows…” on the piano to a full house in the Globe Theater in Freetown.

If the music on Sampha’s album reveal that the inextricable ties to family and his internal strife were necessary to his musical process — that actually in fact, as a diasporic artist, art always serves family — his film reveals that his journey, though not linear, was necessary to tell his, and his family’s story. He just needed some time.

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