Nerds are having a moment. Blockbuster superhero comic book flicks continue to pull in billions at the box office; the concept of accessible, awkward intellect is the stuff of fetishization. At the heart of nerddom is a spirit of wanting to learn — indeed, a passion for it — and a desire to share that information, even if it comes across in packaging considered dorky in the pop-culture arena. The Ithaca, N.Y., rapper Sammus (born Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo) knows this space well. "Weirdo," the first track from her upcoming debut LP Pieces In Space, highlights that passion while acknowledging — and rejecting — the social stigma it can occasion.
Sammus got her start in music in an unlikely place: Before becoming a Ph.D. student in science and technology studies at Cornell, the musician worked as a teacher in Houston through Teach for America. After observing her students' love of hip-hop, Lumumba-Kasongo decided to write raps for them that championed learning, hoping to inspire excitement about studying. She took the name Sammus after a character in the video game series Metroid — a female character in a male-dominated space. In writing songs for young people, Sammus' focus has shifted into a personal-as-political realm, dissecting identity in race and culture.
"Weirdo" is about otherness — both as a nerd, seen in her opening verse ("I lost another pal / I'm an introvert") and as a person of color, in her final verse ("Want to be carefree / But now I'm careful / Yelling we can't breathe / Get off my air hole"). Sandwiched between the two is a contribution from the Queens hip-hop icon Homeboy Sandman that acts as a transition from alienation to acceptance of others, the explicit kind of understanding-as-survival inherent in minority groups. He raps, "I don't hate people / Just 'cause I don't like people / I don't hate cops / I don't hate white people." Together, Sammus and Sandman build a decree over video-game bleeps and bloops, highlighting a certain lightness in being "just another mad weirdo." The result is something to learn from, a celebration of nerddom and self.
Pieces In Space comes out Oct. 28 on Don Giovanni.