Meet the MCs shaping a new wave of African rap
Across Africa, a new generation of rappers is emerging. Drawing on the explosion of UK drill and contemporary hip-hop sonics, and creating new flows and wordplay out of their native languages, these artists are shaping new, often hyper-localised styles of rap, and bringing stories of racism, politics, gender and poverty into the spotlight. Here, DJ Mag highlights six exciting MCs coming through, from raw Ghanian drill to colourful feminist gqom
From hip-hop and house, to techno and jungle, and more recent genres like grime and drill, Africa is the wellspring from which all contemporary Black sounds originate.
In 2020, the boundaries between these sounds have become increasingly blurred and experimentation has thrived. Drill has arguably been the greatest beneficiary; Headie One topped the UK album charts with an expansive drill project which draws on Afrobeats, R&B and trap elements, while the late Pop Smoke’s genre-blurring ‘Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon’ has just returned to the top of the Billboard 200.
This wave of experimentation is influencing the music being made across Africa too, as rappers explore new ways to express themselves. Western sonics are being fused with homegrown sounds and native languages, from the disenfranchised young men telling their truths over drill productions in Ghanian and Kenyan cities, to South African feminist icons laying rap verses over gqom beats. Here, DJ Mag highlights six exciting artists.
Kumasi, in the Ashanti region, is Ghana’s second largest city. Musically, it’s renowned as a hub of innovation, from the ’90s hiplife movement pioneered by Reggie Rockstone to the Ghanaian rap of Lord Kenya and Akyeame. Today, the city’s youth is masterminding a new sound, fusing the grit of UK drill and the grandiosity of its Brooklyn counterpart with local influences to create Kumerican drill.
Also known as Asakaa music, Kumerican drill has been simmering underground for a couple of years. With the help of co-signs on social media from Virgil Abloh and Vic Mensa in recent months, heaters like ‘Akatafoc’ and ‘Sore’ have gone viral. Both tracks are produced by teenage Cardiff-based producer Chris Rich Beats. It’s an interesting aside, which speaks to the organic, youth-led development of the wider drill scene.
‘Akatafoc’ and ‘Sore’ are essentially posse cuts, showcasing artists on the frontline of the scene. Of those, the gravel-toned O’Kenneth is the most attention-grabbing. He spins his street tales through a melodic fusion of English and Twi, switching between straight-talking bars and sung verses, which brings a luxurious texture to his sound.
In August, O’Kenneth dropped ‘Straight Outta Kumerica’, a collaborative EP with fellow Asakaa driller Reggie Osei. The 6-track EP (and Kumerican drill more generally) benefits from the sonic expansion of the wider drill scene, allowing O’Kenneth to showcase his musicality. String-led opener ‘Abasakoom’ is akin to buttery smooth trap, while ‘Ya Parke’ and ‘Ain’t Shid’ draws from cinematic Brooklyn cuts. ‘M.O.B’ is London winter-cold, full of funereal keys and dark bass.
It’s fitting that Birmingham’s M1llionz took to Nairobi’s Kibera slum to shoot visuals for the anthemic ‘Lagga’ - the city’s own drill scene is emerging. While it’s Kumasi counterpart is heavily influenced by Brooklyn’s flamboyant, champagne-drinking energy, Nairobi drill is sub-zero chilly. At the forefront of the scene is Natty and the GTA Crew.
“GTA means G-Town Anarchy. We come from Githurai, that’s a hood in Nairobi,” Natty tells DJ Mag. “We started doing drill music in January of this year, basically inspired by real life. What you people go through over there is the same thing... life in the streets. You know, you have to sell something to get something. We speak about what’s happening over here in Githurai, and in Nairobi. That’s how we’re repping.”
Natty’s most significant release to date is the brooding ‘Rong’. His no-nonsense verses blend flourishes of British road parlance with Swahili bars over a bubbling production. Sonically and visually, UK drill is a blueprint for GTA’s approach. Staying masked-up in videos suggests they’re all too aware of the scrutiny placed on drill artists by the authorities.
“Over here they’re not as many restrictions as in the UK, because over here the police don’t know what drill music is... yet. But there’s a song we released in February called ‘Curfew’ which talks about a lot of things, criticising the government. It was removed from YouTube.”
Although South Africa’s Moonchild Sannelly has been making and performing music since 2006, and has attracted the attention of Beyonce, her feature on Ghetts’ ‘Mozambique’ introduced her to a new audience. Levitating over Rude Kid’s ‘Top 3 Selected’ sample, her rolled Rs and Xhosa bars add a transcendent element to the grime cut.
Moonchild built her name by rapping over airy, minimalist gqom beats and describes her current sound as ‘Future Ghetto Funk’. “It originally stems from the genres I couldn’t escape the most, which were jazz, kwaito and hip-hop,” she tells DJ Mag. “And it’s as energetic as funk.” Her latest EP, ‘Nudes’, is a sonic kaleidoscope, rooted in gqom yet outward-looking.
Despite her music’s global outlook, Moonchild represents Xhosa culture to the fullest. “I basically sing how I speak, and my Xhosa is very present in my songwriting. Even though I do so many different sounds, I think the most distinct part of any song that I make is my accent and where I come from. I’m flying the flag. I think it teaches kids to have pride in where they come from, and to know that where they come from is special.”
Thematically, empowerment of women and sex-positive feminism is at the forefront of her work. “I draw my influences from having a voice, having sex and animation. Because it’s like fantasy meets real life ... that’s liberation, empowerment, empowerment, empowerment galore.”
South African conservatism means those themes can be met with resistance. “I’ve had some songs that didn’t make it to radio because they were too ‘derogatory’ when they weren’t even. I’ve dealt with people who think liberation is not having a voice and being fucked, instead of choosing who you wanna fuck. It’s been confused because we are a nation of conservatives and when you have someone who goes against the grain, it’s a little scary. They’re just gonna have to deal with it, because I ain’t changing!”
In just three years, Sho Madjozi has established herself as one of South Africa’s most prominent artists, through a radical approach that blends a hyper-local celebration of her Tsonga heritage with Pan-African and Western elements.
Like Moonchild Sannelly, the bass-heavy, stripped back rhythms of gqom form the backbone, from which Sho writes her melodic, multilingual verses. Xitsonga, the language of the Tsonga people, is spoken by approximately 4.5% of the South African population, and choosing to rap in English and her native tongue is a statement of intent; she is fiercely proud of her culture.
2018’s ‘Huku’, one of Sho’s biggest hits, features neither Xitsonga or English, though. Over a hypnotic production, she raps in Swahili, having learnt the language while living in the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam as a teenager. Last year’s ‘John Cena’ is an energetic, upbeat stomper, featuring bars in all three languages.
Sho’s Pan-African approach to music extends to her striking aesthetic too. She often performs and is filmed in Tinguvu, a traditional Tsonga skirt worn during the Xibelani dance, adorned in beaded necklaces that pay homage to Mali’s Tuareg people, with centre-parted Fulani braids. These are all offset by a box-fresh pair of Air Max trainers. Of her image, she told The New York Times that she wants to embody what a young African woman might look like if she “didn’t come from a place that had been subjected to colonialism and apartheid.”
Kenya-born, Uganda-based MC Yallah has been in the game for almost two decades, utilising a mix of steely soundscapes and intricate flows to deliver a message of self-determination. Her affiliation with Kampala-based festival Nyege Nyege (and its label, Nyege Nyege Tapes) has amplified her work, pushed sonic boundaries and garnered international acclaim.
‘Kubali’, last year’s collaborative project with French producer Debmaster, sees Yallah conquer frenetic productions with blazing verse after blazing verse. For a battle-hardened veteran, it’s part of the joy of being an MC. She tells DJ Mag, “I love challenging beats. They help me find dope, nasty flows, you know? I love doing something that is unique and my own.”
Yallah’s work with Debmaster eschews mainstream sounds in pursuit of artistic growth. “I really don’t like working on trap beats or dancehall beats because the counting is really easy ... 1, 2, 3, 4 ... everyone can do that. I wanted to move past that, which is why I aimed for something that is crazy, you know? The Debmaster stuff, it challenges me, it improves my flow and my skill. That’s why I went towards electronic, futuristic sounds.” The final product is dark, industrial dance music; the ideal foil for Yallah’s fearsome, multilingual delivery.
Yallah combines English with local languages so that the key messages in her music, of community and encouragement, are absorbed by the people she represents. “I represent my culture by using English, Kiswahili, Luganda and Luo, because I try so much to reach out to more people. These are languages spoken by people in one or more countries in Africa. Some people do not understand English, but when I express myself in the local languages it helps them understand.”
Prettyboy D-O’s music sits at a hectic crossroads between contemporary Afrobeats, dancehall, hip-hop and R&B; this broad amalgamation, the result of a Lagos upbringing and time spent in the United States while studying, fits the description of Nigeria’s Alté movement. But Prettyboy D-O’s fierce energy separates him from the ambient, dreamlike vibe of Alté pioneers like Odunsi and Santi.
His debut project, 2018’s ‘Everything Pretty’, topped Nigeria’s iTunes charts. The Santi-assisted ‘Pull Up’ is a standout cut, blending smooth vocals with rapping, and featuring a shifting bass-line that mirrors familiar drill patterns; the politically-charged ‘Chop Elbow’ examines police brutality and corruption in Nigeria, which feels prophetic in the current climate.
This June, he released ‘Wildfire’, which pushes his multidimensional sound. From the warm, sun-kissed keys of ‘Waka’ to the rapid-fire bars of ‘Odeshi’, there’s a dizzying array of elements to absorb. What holds it all together, though, is Prettyboy D-O’s raw emotion. Speaking about the EP to OkayAfrica, he says, “I do not like things that are not equal, I don’t like intimidation, I don’t like oppression and that is the emotion that comes with ‘Wildfire’. I am tired of being oppressed - not just me, because I might not be oppressed because of who I am, but my people are oppressed by my country.”
Given his timely commentary, it’s not surprising that he’s has been actively participating in the social movement gripping Nigeria. The #EndSars protests were initially a response to decades of police brutality and impunity, and have now expanded into calls for much wider reforms. It’s an important reminder that regardless of the Western influences in his work, Prettyboy D-O’s music is focused on the betterment of his homeland.