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On games, music and their intersections
by Mars Dixon

I first found out about rapper and producer Sammus, ak/a Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, on the “Geek Girls” episode of Bitch Media’s podcast, Popaganda. Her name, her songs, her messages, her mission -- they all spoke directly to the little Black weirdo gaymer girl inside of me. Her stage name is an homage to Samus Aran, protagonist of the late 80’s video game, Metroid. When I listened to her songs, the Metroid samples had me flashing back to playing Super Nintendo with my childhood best friend while, at the same time, I was getting my power ups from those bars.

Months later, I dragged my friend Laetitia (of Vagabon) with me to a venue on the Lower East Side to see Sammus perform. We stood right up front, cheesin’. I wanted to see everything. When Sammus described the meaning of her song “Perfect, Dark” -- growing up as a Black girl with the need for Black female heroes in cartoons, movies, etc. -- I nearly wept. And then again when I heard in the chorus, “Black girls wanna have a hero too/All kids tryna get a mirror view.” The song’s title comes from Perfect Dark, one of my favorite games, to which I dedicated many teenage weekends. All of these intersections were coming together for me that night and, to be honest, always do anytime I listen to Sammus. My younger self never imagined those parts of me would connect. My current self, at that point, hadn’t realized how badly I wanted those parts of me connected.

Enongo and I became friends shortly after that show, but I still haven’t stopped feeling a little bit star struck around her. It took this interview, conducted earlier this year, for me to realize we’d never actually sat down and talked in a non-show setting.

You’re currently temporarily living in Brooklyn. How is NYC treating you? What drew you here?

It’s been nice, but it’s definitely been a change of pace, in terms of what I’m able to accomplish on a given day. It’s like, “Okay, let me map out what I need to do for the week, instead of what I can do in a day, because I just can’t do all of this.”

For my dissertation research, I want to study community studios, which are studios in low-income areas. Through that research, I was directed to this program called Building Beats, which is a non-profit that has quite a few instructors who go to schools. They have two instructors who go to detention centers and work with individuals in these spaces to teach them how to make beats and learn how to DJ. I wanted to come study that program, but I also needed to have funding, so I was able to get a teaching position at NYU for a once a week class on science and pseudoscience. When the guy who sets up courses for that department emailed me, he was like, “Aww, I’m so sorry! All we have is this once a week class.” I was like, “That’s perfect! That's the best thing that could ever happen!” I’m a musician. I want to have as much of the week free and flexible as possible.

Pieces In Space came out in October last year. The lyrical content is so personal, and oftentimes, pretty heartbreaking. How does it feel to share that with the whole world? What does the title mean?

It’s been really freeing. And I think now a few months later, it’s starting to feel a little terrifying. At the time, I just felt free. Growing up, I was always encouraged to be really private. I think that makes sense and I understand why my parents are the way that they are, and why that’s a priority. And I still think there are moments when privacy is really important, especially right now. But I was tired of being a fractured person. I felt like I was so many different people in so many different spaces. I would have to hide parts of who I was in different arenas.

When I was in my grad school spaces, I didn’t talk about being Sammus or producing or rapping. And I didn’t feel like I could be free in terms of sharing how much I really hated grad school at most points. I didn’t want to look stupid for being in a program I detested, or look like a coward for not being able to just leave and pursue the dream. I wasn’t being honest even with the people closest to me about some of the struggles I was going through. It felt really nice to put all of that in one place and send it off into the universe, into the galaxy.

So that’s kind of what that title means, Pieces in Space. People will do with it what they will. It’s not necessarily mine anymore. I think every artist kind of deals with that struggle differently of putting their baby out to sea. It’s really funny because I’m so intentional about having people know what I mean in the songs. Some rappers are really esoteric and they’ll talk about some really obscure thing that nobody’s heard of and that’s definitely cool. There’s a place for that, but I want to be clear. I don’t want to be hiding behind metaphors. Accessibility is a really important value for me and my music. So I write out all the lyrics on RapGenius and I annotate them when I have time. I think someone on RapGenius disagreed with my annotation of a lyric. I was like, “I’m not even gonna go there”. If that’s what you want, that’s what you want. You make a thing and you release it and then it’s just not yours anymore.

And then it’s connected to Metroid. When you beat the game, [the narrator] says, “We pray for a true peace in space.” I wanted to continue to have a relationship with the game, but to do it in a more clever way than I’ve done in the past.

A still from the video for “Qualified” (feat. Open Mike Eagle and Arch Thompson).

You put a lot of passion into your performances in a way I’m not even sure how to do myself. Your set runs a gamut of feelings -- there’s the uplifting, empowering, excitable energy. And then the, also empowering, seeing-you-crying sort of energy. What does your pre-show ritual look like before you hit the stage?

I used to get really bad stage fright, so I would usually just hide until the very last second. Or hang out until 30 minutes before, and then look for a corner or my car and just be in there, sometimes going over the words. It’s funny because sometimes I’d be in the parking lot doing that and people who were coming to the show would pull up next to me, and I’m like screaming in the car. I look over like, “Don’t look at me!” So [it’s] a little bit awkward sometimes, but that’s the price we pay.

Now I watch the groups that are performing before me, if I’m not the opener. I think about how amazing it is to be able to be a performer. I just try to take in the beauty and awesomeness of being able to create a thing and then put it out into the universe and have people come together to receive that thing. That gets me in my feelings and then I’m ready to go. I’m just being really observant, standing there. Mindfulness. There’s a whole set of practices around being mindful, so I try to take in everything and that helps me to be in this really open space, a really open mindset.

As you gain more recognition and your audience grows, are you meeting more and more young, nerdy Black girls and women who come to your shows?

That’s been the coolest thing ever! It’s so great to make a reference to something [in my songs], and see in someone’s eyes that they’re like, “Oh my god! I know that so intimately!” When I talk about things like hair, for example, getting micro braids or twists [in a lyric], I think everyone’s like, “Oh, that’s cool”, but then I’ll catch the eye of a Black girl and she’ll be like “Yes!” It’s this really cathartic feeling.

I’m seeing more and more Black girls come out and show me love. I think the coolest thing has been at geek and nerd conventions, having not just Black girls, but people of color come up to me after the show and be like, “I’m so happy that you just exist, that you said what you said.” Because a lot of my performances, I will talk about Black Lives Matter or other issues and I think that they’re really happy to be affirmed in that way as well. Not just, “Oh, you’re a Black geek, but you also care about my Blackness.” Not as some ancillary thing but it’s central to my whole shit. It’s been super super cool being able to connect with brown folks at shows and have them feel loved and understood.

I’ve been playing in bands for so long I forget that when you’re solo, you can play some unique spaces that a loud rock band might not be able to. I know you play video game conventions like GaymerX, but do you also play video game stores, comic book stores and other places like that? If so, how are those shows different from shows at regular music venues?

That’s been one of the really neat things that I’ve only kind of gotten into through going on tour with people who have paved that path. MegaRan is one of my homies who's doing this and also a folk duo called The Doubleclicks. I went on tour with them as well and on both of those tours, I performed in comic books shops. Actually, I’m planning a tour right now and I hit up one of the comic book shops and they were like, “Yeah, sure! Come through!” That has been really kind of eye-opening for me. Like, “Oh, any space can be a performance space if you want it to be.” And if it speaks to what you’re about, I think [it’s] super cool. It’s opened up my mind in terms of where I can reach out. I’ll hit up an Africana Studies department, program or something, like, “Hey, can I come talk? Can I come perform? Can I do something here? Because these are the things I speak about.” Or women’s resource centers. It’s just helped me expand my thinking in terms of where a person can perform. It doesn't just have to be a bar, it doesn’t just have to be a concert venue.

In terms of how those shows go, they're usually really intimate and really fun. There's no stage. They clear out some space in the back of the shop. The tour with The Doubleclicks, they had seating so it was really funny because I was five feet away. There’s rows of seats and I’m like, “O...k.” I need to rap to y'all sitting right in front of me like I’m a teacher. It was also funny because it’s such an intimate space that I got anxious, because I have a lot of cussing in my songs. There were kids there, so I was like, “Oh man, they’re gonna hear every word!” So I was doing some strategic bleeping of words. But it’s fun. I like those arenas. It teaches me to be creative and I think the intimacy of it just makes for a really fun experience. You feel like you're connecting with people in a different way than when you're exalted on the stage. And that’s cool too, that’s definitely fun, but it’s nice to just be in people’s faces and have them be in your face too.

I read that you were starting a podcast? Can you tell me more about it?

Last August, I decided to try out Patreon, a subscription-based crowdfunding platform. A couple of my friends have done it. They do things where they can make a podcast and people will pay anywhere between a dollar to whatever for different perks and to be able to listen to podcasts or receive pictures from people or artists. They’ll produce videos. They’ll do online concerts. It’s a really creative thing. It’s neat being in this nerd/geek world because it was a thing that translated really easily to my supporters. If I were just a traditional indie hip-hop artist, I don't know that this kind of platform would have been as readily acknowledged. Because a lot of these folks are also contributing to game developers and comic book artists and stuff like that. They’re like, “Oh, Patreon! I already know kinda what it’s about.”

I decided to do this podcast with my boyfriend. We do it once a month. I have quite a few albums, so every episode we’ll pick one song and then he’ll ask me, “What’s the song about? Why did you write it? Blah blah blah.” And then we’ll use that as a platform to talk about a bigger issue. In the last episode, we talked about my song “Black Young Pretty”. I don’t like the song anymore. It’s on my first album and I wrote it back when I had bought into the educational system in a weird way. I was like, “Yeah, I’m in the Ivy League. That means I’m super smart.” And that’s not a mark of intelligence at all. It's whether you have access to certain networks, whether you have access to money. There’s all kinds of things that allow people to enter into elite academic spaces, but intelligence is not necessarily one of them. I’ve grown a lot, I’ve changed a lot in my thinking, so now I cringe when I hear the song, but we used that song to talk about how we think about intelligence now. That’s kind of how the podcast works. It’s been neat! It’s like 20, 30 minutes each episode. Folks seem to enjoy it, although the sound quality is a hot mess, but I’m working on it. It’s called The Zero Suits Podcast. And “zero suit” is based on what Samus wears and it means we’re just bearing it all.

Who are you listening to a lot these days?

I’m listening to mostly my friends, which is really cool. It’s neat to know so many talented people. I listen to a lot of Vagabon. Also, my friend, Latasha Alcindor. She’s an emcee based out of Brooklyn and she’s just phenomenal, so good at rapping. She just put out a project called B(LA)K. This guy named Todd Terje. He’s Norwegian. He makes instrumental music, like production. It makes me feel like I’m in a video game when I listen to it. It’s so good. It’s just super fun and funky. And Bob Marley when I drive. I know Bob Marley’s album Legend so well. Like, “Ok, I’ll just put this on and zone out” and then an hour or two will pass. It’s a nice thing to listen to that I don’t have to totally be immersed in but still know all the words.

What software are you using to write your songs? Logic Pro?

I still use Logic 9. I use the shitty Logic. It’s not the Pro one because there's certain things I can't do. I remember one time opened up Logic Pro and was like, “Oh wait! There’s other features?! There’s other stuff that you can do?!” I’ve just been working on this thing I got in 2010. I kind of think it’s time to upgrade. But also, you know when you feel you know something so well? I’m scared to make the leap, but I do want to have a program that has full functionality. So maybe over the next couple of months, I’ll invest in getting Logic Pro.

What is your process for putting a song together? Do you start with words? Or a beat?

I used to only start with the beat first. I might have a rough idea of it, get the beat to perfection and then put words over it. But this past album, and even the EP I dropped before it, it was more a kind of fluid relationship where I would write the words as I wrote the beat, which I think makes for a better piece of music, because I’ll tweak the beat in relationship to what the lyrics are saying. It used to be, “Okay, I have a cool beat. Now I put good words. End of song.” Now it's like, “Oh, it should be dynamic, there should be a relationship.” They should speak to each other. It’s more rare that I’ll start off with words and then construct a beat around it because I’ve been producing for longer than I’ve been rapping so I feel a lot more comfortable with putting a beat together than with writing lyrics. But on this project there were a few songs where I had basic ideas of words and was like, “Okay, what BPM [beats per minute] would sound cool with this combination of words?” And then started to build something around that.

If I find myself crying about something, it’s like, “Ok, I should write about that. This is clearly something that’s important to me. Let me stop what I’m doing and write about that.” And I cry a lot, so there’s a lot of stuff where I think, “That’s important, that’s important, that’s important.” But then other times, I’m on Twitter and I’ll see something that’s important. I’ll recognize, “Oh, this is something that's really important to people I care about. Maybe I should think about how to speak to it or share an experience that might be helpful,” but that happens more rarely. It’s usually while I’m crying -- “let me write this down.”

It looks like artists and musicians have a lot of fodder to work with considering the presidency of Trump. Does that ring true for you? Are you in writing mode?

I’m not really in writing mode. I’m in observation mode right now. First, I think the process of writing an album and even putting out an album makes you look inward for a long periods of time, so I’m rediscovering other people and other artists, other music that I haven’t had time or energy to investigate because I've thrown so much into my baby or whatever.

In terms of this presidency giving fodder, I think for a lot of us, yeah, this is a super fucked moment. But a lot of us have been talking about these experiences already, people in our circles and artists that we listen to and appreciate. If anything, it feels more like an extension of conversations that have been happening, but not like it’s a new era or new moment in political thinking. Nah, people have been talking about all of the bullshit that is crystallizing into legislation right now, not just through being super explicit, [but] through our existence. Through existing and putting out music and appearing in spaces, that’s been us talking about a lot of these issues already.

Right now, I’m kind of just observing and trying to preserve my energy because this moment, more than being one rife with great content, it’s draining as fuck. It’s been what, two weeks since the inauguration? I feel like I’ve aged like four years. I feel like I’ve aged and everybody’s tired. It's like, “Oh, should I unplug?” And then if I unplug, well, am I missing -- there’s important things that are happening. It’s just too fucking much. I’m trying to just get my energy back and figure out what I need to remain healthy and sane right now.

Video games have this terrible reputation of being violent, a waste of time and being an activity reserved for immature, gross boys or for kids. Gaming has changed so much since I first started playing back in 1991. Now with digital distribution platforms like Steam, GameJolt, and Itch.io, indie games are more accessible. Nerds don’t have to trade floppy disks anymore. You got people like Catt Small and Anna Anthropy creating empathy games -- a game about being a Black woman dealing with microaggressions and a game about being a trans woman and starting hormone replacement therapy! How do you feel about the possibilities in gaming now?

It’s pretty unbelievable! If you had told me these things like ten years ago, 15 years ago, I wouldn't have known what to say, but I’m so excited for the possibilities there and that there are platforms developing for people to make their own games. I forget what company it was, that was like, “Oh, we can’t put women in games because they’re too hard to animate” or something. That doesn’t even actually make any sense! That literally makes no sense, but I would rather you be like, “People won't buy it.” I would rather you tell me that than come up with this actually insane reason, and think that we’re so stupid that we’ll be like, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.”

While you have those stupid entrenched ideas, there’s also all of these people who are actively resisting that and have platforms and spaces to do that. Patreon is actually a great place for people who are looking for funds to develop their own game. I just love how the flow of money has been disrupted at this time, that people can really put their bucks towards people who are developing the things that speak to them. I think that hopefully will rattle some of these AAA game companies [companies with big development budgets, i.e. “mainstream”]. It sucks -- the idea that they would start prominently featuring people of color, women, queer folks because it’s profitable is shitty, but it’s a start. For them to be like, “Oh, this is a thing people care about. Maybe we should start incorporating it more into our games.”

So yeah, I’m really hype about the possibilities there. It’s great to see a lot of [people who aren’t] straight white guys saying, “We’ve been gaming forever. It’s not a new thing.” When I first found the platform Black Girl Nerds, it was so magical to me because it wasn't just a community that sprung up in this moment. These are people who have been living this life and now we’re finally able to connect with each other.

I was attracted to video games so early on because I desperately needed to escape my reality. In the 90s, malls and arcades had these virtual reality pods, but now VR is becoming more of a thing that gamers can actually have at home. It reminds me of the dreamasks in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. They were VR headsets with sensory stimulation that people used sort of as a respite from the apocalypse around them. Are you into VR, augmented reality games and things like that?

In terms of games and augmenting reality, I think it's super cool. I’m scared a little bit because I know how easy it is for me to get lost in shit. So I’m fearful for myself because I know that if I felt like it was dope enough, I would just be gone! I would just be in that world. When I’m into something, I'm into something. That's just who I am. Have you ever seen Inception? Just the idea of being stuck in a dream or having one foot out and one foot in is comforting to me. I just get addicted to stuff. I’m like, “Oh, I love this thing! I’m just going to be all about this thing” and then five days have passed. If I had millions of dollars, and I could just be in a VR world? Yeah, that’d be awesome, but I got priorities, I got bills to pay. I can’t just be lost out here in VR.

There was this really shitty game console called the Virtual Boy, back in the day. I remember they had one at this video game store in our shitty little mall in Ithaca, such an awful mall. If you look it up on Youtube, it’s just a black background with red lines, red intersecting lines that kinda replicate a 3D virtual landscape, but it gave me the biggest headache I’ve ever had in my life. They had a couple of games, Starfox and something else, but it was not well rendered all. So it’s amazing now to see where we’re at, that we can really have lush landscapes and really feel immersed 360°. You turn, the worlds turn with you -- it's pretty unbelievable.

Are you into indie games? Which ones?

I’m what you would call a retro gamer. I didn't think of myself as that until I was an elementary school teacher. My brother got me these DVDs for [The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!], the really old Mario show. It’s so hilarious, such a ridiculous cartoon. I showed it to my students and they were like, “This is so old! This is the oldest thing I’ve ever seen!” And that’s when I realized, “Oh yeah. This is like 20, 25 years old.” I love Nintendo games, hard as they are, Super Nintendo games. I really like Playstation 1 games even. I’m really, really into them. I think some of my favorite games are on that system. I’m pretty trash at most newer games. I’m kind of garbage, but definitely willing to try.

In terms of indie games, my homies at GaymerX developed a game called Read Only Memories. It’s a super fun game, so that’s the game I’ve been into. Of course, the one game that I’m into that's current is a throwback. I’m just lost in the wrong era.

Sammus at the New Alternative Music Festival. Photo by Zev Smith-Danford.

But that’s kind of a big thing too. There are modern games with the old school style.

I’ve been told [that] in moments of extreme chaos, people often revert back, trying to go back to another time. Maybe that’s what’s happening.

I went to see this play and this person had Call of Duty going and the whole area was dark except for Call of Duty and it just made me realize how fucked up those games are. It’s just like, whatever, first-person shooter, that’s a kind of game, but the way it was being presented it made me really think about what’s actually happening. You’re running around killing people. It just sort of clicked for me like, “Whoa! This is really fucked up.”

I saw in an interview you did recently, you mentioned MTV Music Generator. I remember playing that game! So I wanted to ask -- what are your favorite music-based games?

That game was so great! It was so good for me in particular because I had all these songs in my head. I got it in high school. I didn’t know where to put them. I wasn’t formally trained. I didn’t know anything about music other than, “Oh, I like this and I want to put it somewhere.” That game allowed me to do that, to finally make songs in the way I wanted to make them. But I also really liked PaRappa the Rapper. I thought that game was super cool. When I was in high school, my mom had a professorship at the University of Hiroshima. So we went to Hiroshima for the summer, which was the coolest thing ever. During that summer, we went to the arcade a lot. They had a whole bunch of rhythm-action games, which was super fun. I’m trash at Dance Dance Revolution. I am garbage at that game! They had this other one,Taiko: Drum Master. I remember I got into that for that summer. Rhythm-action games are super fun, even though I have no eye-hand coordination. You do not want me on your side.

This isn’t a music-based game, but it was really cool, this video game called Brave Fencer Musashi for the Playstation. The only reason I know it was because it was on one of those Playstation sampler CDs. I would play the sampler CD all the time and be mad I couldn’t obviously play any of the games to the end. So finally, I got one of the games from the sampler CD and it was this game. There’s one part where you have to rescue all these musicians and when you rescue consecutive musicians, their instruments start being played in the song that’s playing in the background. When you rescue the flute player, now a flute gets added to the song that you’re listening to. It’s super fun! It’s a little annoying. There are all these townspeople who just do stupid shit and you have to help them. And you’re like, “Argh! I’m tired of saving y’all everyday!” But it’s kind of a standard hero game, he comes into this town. It’s fun, and I really like the music for that game. The guy that I mentioned earlier, Todd Terje, the Norwegian dude -- the music he makes reminds me of Brave Fencer Musashi.

There was this one game that I used to play called Bust-A-Groove. It was a fighting dancing game. I was so obsessed with the music from it that I took my recorder and recorded it from the TV! I still have that tape too! I actually listened to it very recently, the songs are so good!

I used to do that too! I remember Yoshi’s Island. I loved the music for Yoshi’s Island! I remember I recorded it. Me and my little brother had all these action figures. We’d make this whole movie and play that as the music -- for this movie where Batman goes camping with whoever. It was so ridiculous! I was totally there.

Do you have that movie still?

It’s somewhere, yes! I do have it. Once I find it, I’m gonna re-release it to the world!

If you were a game developer, what would your ideal video game(s) look like?

Well, I love really lush worlds. Any game where you get to run around a map, and get to go into different towns and forests and things like that. So I’d want it to be really expansive, where you can explore a whole bunch. I would want to have the worlds be only or mostly brown characters of a variety of different shapes, sizes, backgrounds. I love exploration, but it’s also great to have a real objective, a thing they’re all working towards is always fun.

I’m working right now on a music video for “Perfect, Dark” and I’m working with this animator to try to have the video be a bunch of Black women bounty hunters. So, if the characters in the game could be a bunch of bounty hunters with arm cannons, that would be awesome too. Those are the rough ideas. Hopefully just being in the line of work that I’m in, in the lane that I’m in, maybe I’ll have an opportunity to work with somebody to put something together someday.

Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

I would like to shout out my boyfriend. He’s written a YA book series called Blacktop, about a bunch of kids of color who play basketball and are kinda weird and just do their things. I think it’s really dope and he’s really shy and doesn’t promote it at all, so I’m going to promote it. Everyone should check them out! He’s a really great writer, a really thoughtful person. His name is Lanre, but his pen name is LJ Alonge.

Mars Dixon is a vocalist and guitarist of queer rock band, Aye Nako, in Brooklyn, NY. When they're not doing music stuff, you can find them gaming on the Playstation Network, partying in dank basements, tinkering with horror filmmaking, watching women's basketball, cruising at the gym or walking a bunch of dogs at once.

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