African-Australian musician Sampa The Great has won this year’s $30,000 Australian Music Prize (AMP) for her record Birds And The BEE9.
Sampa The Great won from a varied shortlist including eight other records: Second of Spring, by Beaches; Intimacy & Isolation, by Darcy Baylis; Chrome Halo, by HTMLflowers; Jen Cloher’s self-titled album; Wallflower, by Jordan Rakei; TFCF, by Liars; Life Is Fine, by Paul Kelly; and The Vampires Meet Lionel Loueke, by The Vampires.
Birds and The BEE9 is a lyrically rich meeting point of reggae, hip-hop and soul from the Sydney singer, who was born in Zambia but moved to Australia four years ago after stints in Botswana and the US.
On the record, Sampa Tembo both sings and raps, and is joined by musicians from around the world, including Australian rapper Remi, a previous winner of the AMP in 2014.
At a ceremony in Melbourne, she thanked her audience for their faith in what she called “the project” — not quite an album, but “a body of work”.
“I didn’t see any of this in my periphery when I came to Australia,” she said.
“To have you guys listen to that, and to acknowledge that there are still people who still need to be heard, and then to say this is the album you want to award — it means so much to me. Thank you so much.
Tembo said the record was about “igniting an uncomfortable conversation” around race and identity in Australia, “knowing it’s an uncomfortable conversation, but knowing that it needs to happen for things to change for the better”.
“We are all here, we are influenced and inspired by each other, we are influenced by each other’s music, even though we are from different backgrounds,” she said.
“It’s just understanding all those different backgrounds, and working together to make it better for everyone.”
There were 430 albums submitted for this year’s prize, the 13th.
A panel of 19 judges, including music critics, label representatives and record store owners, decided on the winner.
Unlike the ARIA Awards, which consider an artist’s popularity and impact, the Australian Music Prize rewards an album — released in the previous year — for its artistic merit.
That means it is equally open to major artists and relative unknowns.
Entry is free, and the prize money makes a particular impact for less established artists, for whom a $30,000 windfall from music is an almost unimaginable sum.
It is understood that this year, the winner was decided by a single vote — it came down to Sampa The Great and Jen Cloher, Double J’s 2017 Australian Artist of the Year, for her self-titled record.
“It’s not turn-up music, it goes super-deep,” judge Mikey Cahill said of Birds and The BEE9.
“We’ll still be playing this 50 years in the future; you and your kids will be too.”
Previous winners include hip-hop duo A.B. Original, last year, for their fiery record Reclaim Australia, as well as Courtney Barnett (2015), Big Scary (2013) and The Drones, Augie March, Hermitude and The Jezebels.