Samus was one of the first female protagonists in a video-game series. The Metroid main character, and certified bad ass, appeared in 1986, as a galactic bounty-hunter fitted with an exterior power suit and an arm cannon.
It is from this character that hip-hop performer Sammus draws her name, except her weapons are clever rhymes, accessibility and a powerful stage presence.
Sammus is Enongo Lumumba-Kasango, an Ithaca, N.Y., native currently teaching at New York University, while working on her Ph.D. at the Department of Science and Technologies at Cornell. In addition to being a prolific hip-hop artist and an academic, Sammus is also an activist and a writer, balancing her time between touring, teaching, writing and collaborating.
Her immense knowledge of politics and current affairs, and her academic background, are evident in conversation, but everything she says is easily understood and accessible. Her punchlines are witty and loaded with geeky pop-culture references, and she makes sure no one gets left behind.
“I recognize that folks are coming to me from a variety of places,” Sammus says to City Paper, via Skype. “Even if some of the references are a little obscure, I try to always annotate the lyrics on Genius.”
Many fans discovered her after she released Another M, a concept album based on Metroid and overflowing with video-game references. After she started writing songs about things like grad school, mental illness and her introverted personality, she expressed some anxiety about people moving away from her music. But so far, her listener base has only grown with her last two works, Infusion and Pieces in Space.
Sammus currently releases music with Don Giovanni Records, a label usually recognized for its punk-rock roster. The label’s co-founder Joe Steinhardt and Sammus met when Steinhardt was doing post-doctoral work at Cornell, and they bonded as academics who were also involved in the independent-music scene.
“One of my goals was to push my music in spaces where I don’t think it would be heard traditionally,” says Sammus, “[Don Giovanni] is perfect for that. We’re all here to experience something together, but it’s not rooted in strict identity politics.”
Sharing music on that kind of punk-rock label was the perfect vehicle for Sammus’ creations; the themes, such as Black Lives Matter and feminism, at the heart of her music are relatable and served over addictive beats. Her gift for peppering pop-culture references and clever jokes shines in “Time Crisis,” especially when Sammus walks listeners through pushing back against the pressures to be a mother. “My vagina’s not a Timex, so why you all up in my privates? / Tell ’em it’s my body to decide if I’mma be about it or I’m childless,” she spits with fire over production that could induce a dance party on its own.
And although Sammus can be introverted in conversation and in her work, her stage performance is overflowing with charisma and fun surprises, like an arm-cannon replica. It’s this balance that makes her body of work so novel, and her style so refreshing.