Vicky Sampson: a singer-activist-unionist in search of elusive African Dream

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7 August 2020

Singer Vicky Sampson has much to celebrate this weekend. It is International Women’s Day on Sunday with the theme Generation Equality and “a call to action to join forces across generations, to create a world where every girl and woman has equal opportunities to fulfil their full potential”.

It is also Vicky’s birthday on Saturday. She will celebrate appropriately at 7pm with an online gig, Cape Town In Concert, featuring herself, Claire Phillips, Salome, Loukman Adams, Nur Abrahams, Robin Pieters, Vuvu Khumalo and Wayne McKay.

And on August 28, she rounds off the celebrations with her own online live streaming gig, Vicky Sampson – Like You’ve Never Seen Her Before. [Tickets for both shows can be obtained from quicket.co.za]

This blog could not think of a better way to celebrate the role of girls and women in our society than by profiling the life and achievements of Vicky Sampson.

Achievements she has many. She has performed with some of the most high-profile international entertainers. She has sung for two of our presidents; has been on stage for two of the biggest sporting occasions on the continent; and she is the voice behind African Dream, the song that is the next best thing to our national anthem.

Vicky will be 51 on Saturday and has been performing since her early teens with pop group Last Dawn. She’s a veteran by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, she says she is a long way from packing it in.

“Being in my ’50s it would appear that that the best things are yet to come for me, as an artist. I am working harder now than I ever did during my younger years,” Vicky says.

Much of that work involves strengthening the position of the Trade Union for Musicians of South Africa (TUMSA), the latest in a long line of initiatives to set up an organisation to protect and advance the rights of performers. Vicky is the acting president of the organisation and is optimistic about its future.

“We have existed since 2017 and formally registered in May 2018,” she says. “We have been recognised by the government and invited to represent labour for the creative sector. Through our engagements with the president’s office and our protest initiatives as a founding member of the Copyright Coalition of South Africa, the Copyright Bill was returned to parliament for complete review.  Ironically, our very own department of Sports, Arts and culture would not engage with us on Covid relief for our members.

Vicky Sampson belts out her hit song African Dream

“Of course, there is yet much work to be done but the results since our launch have proven to be very successful.”

Vicky says Covid-19 has actually assisted TUMSA in its membership drive. “It has highlighted the real and desperate plight of many rank and file artists around the country. We grew exponentially during this time with people still joining daily. We have 2060 Members with the most prolific numbers being Gauteng and Western Cape.

“Although previous attempts may have failed, TUMSA is a labour union with a strong emphasis on musicians/artists to be recognized as workers, first and foremost  . . . we do not accept the failure of TUMSA as an option.”

Vicky says the union sees its biggest hurdle as re-educating government, the public and the private business sector to invest in the future of the entertainment economy and “to start seeing us as a very credible and viable contributor towards our GDP and also having much more readily access to international markets, given our attractive global brand of South Africanism”.

The union found itself at the centre of negative publicity two weeks ago when one of its senior officials, vice-chairman Camillo Lombard was arrested and charged with rape of a minor. Lombard resigned his position but the issue raged on social media.

“The situation with Camillo was a huge shock but as for being a setback, it has consolidated our efforts to work even harder. The foundations of the union were never built around a few individuals but always on the collective strength of all musicians in South Africa,” Vicky says.

“The union has taken the stance of ‘let the law take its course’, and rightly so.

“My personal opinion is the same, as I am not the justice system. But as a woman, mother, sister, daughter and citizen of South Africa, and in light of knowing how huge the battle against any form of GBV and violence on any level has been in this country, I am naturally driven towards using my voice as well as doing my best to be a part of the reconstruction of our society as a whole. It cannot be acceptable on any level, no matter what your status or personal position might be. I used my voice to express this.”

When she is not immersed in union work, Vicky has to earn a crust like any other performer and she is slowly coming to terms of the new reality under Covid-19 and performing without an audience.

“I have just embarked on the online streaming live performance journey and am learning as I go. I am looking forward to my own show later this month,” Vicky says.

“It is rather difficult adapting to the streaming platform but when one remembers that there is an audience out there, albeit on-line, it makes it easier and actually quite exciting. One has to use one’s imagination to envision your audience. We are entertaining the world now! I love this aspect of it.

“Online performing is probably here to stay. It has increased our potential to reach more people and to also become more creative. Live audiences, God willing, will return. There is no substitute for that and artists were created for the purpose of communicating with our audiences on a human level.

“TUMSA is working on its own live streaming presentation in order to create a more permanent stream of revenue for its members. It’s called Club TUMSA, the details of which I am unable to share at this stage.”

Vicky’s long career has seen her share the stage and rub shoulders with the likes of Tina Turner, George Benson, Michael Jackson, and Randy Crawford. But she cherishes most her work with the late Al Jarreau.

“I met and supported Al Jarreau in 1993,” she says. “He proved to be not just an incredible artist but also a wonderful, sensitive and beautiful being. It was a historic moment in the history of my career!”

Legendary Sixties crooner Victor Sampson with daughter Vicky.

When she was developing her skills as an entertainer Vicky looked to performers Anita Baker, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, and, right at the beginning, Shirley Bassey, for inspiration.

“I was seven when my dad bought me a single with Never Never on it. I honestly honed a lot of my vocal skills around her. The reason these artists have inspired me so much is their ability to just walk onto a stage and draw the audience in. Their presence was immense and their skills unique.”

Of the local musicians, she is a big fan of band leader Cedric Samson. “I loved working with Cedric as my musical director and the ensemble he put together for Madiba’s 90th the celebration (Father of Our Nation), is one of the best I have ever performed with. It included the likes of Themba Mkhize, Kelly Petlane, Faith Khumalo, to name but a few. The most talented group of artists ever! He always also manages to bring out the best in me as a performer.

Vicky says she thinks of herself as a “balladeer/power vocalist”. “I sing any genre and would not like to limit myself vocally with any style although I do love R& B ballads or great rock ballads.”

Vicky Sampson and the band with Michael Jackson when he dropped in.

As a balladeer she would have inherited something from her father, Victor Sampson who was one of the most popular entertainers on the Cape Town scene in the Sixties. Victor was one of the smoothest singers with the sweetest voice and dubbed Cape Town’s Johnny Mathis.

“I have a vague memory of him singing in a talent contest (in which he won first prize) at the Luxurama when I was about three years old. I then sang with him at Club Fantasy many years later in 1986. Apart from this, he was always singing whenever I had the opportunity to meet with him over the years.”

Victor was one of many local singers who had great potential but never fully realised it. “Had there been a strong union in my dad’s day, I might have inherited a much more stable and easier future,” Vicky says.

“The legislation and regulation TUMSA is striving to put in place now may have changed the course of South African music history and many great artists would have benefited greatly.”

Vicky Sampson with her mum, Faye.

She is philosophical about the rewards that her career has brought her. “Financially, I could be better off than I am, but then again, I am not really complaining. We live and we learn and it is never too late to live your best life or to fix things or to do things better. Money is not everything and my true success and value is now measured in other meaningful things, like experience and good friendships gained over the years. And family.

“As a young activist, my career needed focusing on but now in my more mature years, I have become an activist again and am enjoying working towards making my ‘African Dream’ a reality for all of the people of this country and continent. I believe that it is part of my destiny. The African Dream has yet to be fulfilled.

Vicky has recorded three albums. Shine spawned two hits and Licence to Sing didn’t do much.  But it was her second album Zai that gave the world African Dream. It was recorded more than 25 years ago and is extremely popular and a beacon for people who yearn for a better South Africa.

“It is immensely humbling, and inspiring, to hear how people still love my African Dream and to see how it still changes peoples’ lives and hearts and minds. It changed my life!  It is very difficult to not perform the song at all my events, as people will actually ask for it, should they not hear it in good time.”

African Dream may be a career highlight but right up there with it is meeting Madiba at Athlone Stadium in 1993, at one of his first ANC rallies for the people.

She will also include on her highlights reel singing on a yacht at the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Monaco in 2008 (“and not for all the very happiest or best reasons, I may add”), and the opening and closing ceremonies of the AFCON football tournament at FNB stadium in 1996, when South Africa won.

Vicky Sampson with Nelson Mandela. It was one of the highlights of her life meeting Madiba.

Has retirement crossed her mind? “There have been many times over the past 15 years when I have felt the desire to pack it in, especially when my last album, Licence To Sing, bombed. I am so glad I did not, as it was all preparation for this time!! To stand up and be counted and to use my voice to try and make this world a better place! I am so grateful to God.”

Vicky was born in District 6 but spent  her teens in Hanover Park  where she was something of a student activist during the apartheid years. Then she started on a career as a performer, now she’s a unionist. “I consider myself to be primarily an entertainer and composer, with a close second and third being an activist and someone who just happens to be a unionist now, as well.

“For as long as God gives me the strength of mind and the voice, I will continue to sing and also, I guess … until my work here on earth is complete and only God knows when that will be. I owe everything I am and have done to God.

“The next big thing I am embarking on (after my own online concert on the August 28, is The Peace in Africa Project. God willing.”

 

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