The best African rap of 2021
In 2021, African rap was marked mainly by the rise of drill, the sub-genre of hip-hop made popular in the United States by the rapper Pop Smoke, and which has had a huge impact on rap music all over the continent.
ISSAM, the rapper from Casablanca, blends singing in darija – the Moroccan Arabic dialect – with trap music and traditional North African music. Thanks to the success of his hit “Trap Beldi” he signed the biggest Arab hip-hop contract ever, with the Def Jam-Island label branch of Universal Music France. In early 2021 he released several songs from Crystal, his first album, which includes the spellbinding “Wra Tabi3a”. In the clip, which he directed himself, scenes of daily home life freeze and become harrowing through the use of terrifying masks and devil’s horns.
Fior 2 Bior (feat. Niska)
“Gnonmi avec lait”
There’s nothing better than a tasty dish to create a festive atmosphere during family meals. On a gastronomical level, Ivorians can be counted on to highlight their country’s specialities in their music. Since 2019, Fior 2 Bior is one of the most popular rappers in Abidjan with his fanciful expressions and his mix of rap and coupé-décalé. His song “Gnonmi au lait”, released on March 1st and featuring the French rapper Niska, is dedicated to an Ivorian sweet made with millet flour that is much in demand at the end of Ramadan fasting. An instant hit, where the energy of the two artists makes sparks fly. And a song in which Niska, who is of Congolese descent, honors the Ivory Coast by rhyming French with nouchi, urban Ivorian slang, as well as citing two emblematic dishes of Ivorian cuisine : garba (a fish dish served with cassava semolina) and alloco (fried plantain bananas). Barely a month after it was released, the clip had already been seen over ten million times on Youtube. It’s the quickest success in the history of Ivorian rap.
Yaw Tog (feat. Stormzy, Kwesi Arthur)
It’s common knowledge that the kings of African drill are the Ashanti rappers from Kumasi, Ghana. Their particular style is called asakaa and they rap using a coded slang (saka) derived from twi. And if there’s a rapper who is most responsible for the growing interest in the Ashanti version of this music, it’s Yaw Tog. His song “Sore” has become a hit and has made names of all his colleagues on the label Life Living Records (Jay Bahd, City Boy, Reggie, O’Kenneth). On March 4th the young artist released the highly-awaited remix of the song with the British rapper Stormzy and the Ghanaian rapper from Accra, Kwesi Arthur. A major moment for Kumerica (the nickname for Kumasi and its local culture inspired by African-Americans) and all its representatives. No doubt the beginning of a long adventure.
We continue with a message of hope. After the very well-received “Je gère” released in October 2020, Ami Yerewolo, one of the pioneers of female rap in Mali, presented in March the clip “I bamba”. The title, which means “perseverance” in Bambara, is a hymn in favor of self-actualization. The young rapper’s lyrics depict the perpetual struggle to become free of other people’s expectations. In the clip a young female student is harassed because of her singularity. Like a prophetess, the MC delivers her message to the young girl, surrounded by other caring women. Ami Yerewolo invites women to practice sisterhood and to show perseverance.
Folidjanta x Beatpopovelo
The Togolese rapper Folidjanta regaled us all year long with stylish clips from his series devoted to drill. A native of Adamavo, a suburb north of Lomé, the rapper started making music in 2020 : “I started doing drill just after the rapper Pop Smoke died. What I like about this music is the percussions and the sound of the TR-808 drum machine, on which the instrumental track is based. Since I’m African, these percussion sounds inspire me a lot”, he says. Folidjanta is always accompanied by the rapper and beatmaker Beatpopovelo, an old friend. For “Drill 5”, the two artists used the instrumental track from the New York rapper C.J.’s “Whoopty”. The creative clip was filmed in Kagomé, another popular quarter north of the Togolese capital where Beatpopovelo lives.
K.O, the veteran rapper from Soweto, made his mark on the history of South African rap in 2014 with his first album, Skhanda Republic, an instant classic that was voted Best Album at the 2015 South African Music Awards. He is a major representative of skhanda rap, a musical style invented in the 1990s and associated with the eponymous dance. Skhandra was a fusion of the pantsula dance that appeared in the townships during Apartheid and American breakdance. This dance was linked to the lifestyle which K.O paid homage to in his album Skhanda Republic. In May 2021, the 41-year-old Zulu rapper released “K:HOVA”, one of the biggest hits of the month in South Africa. He collaborated on the track with beatmaker Lunatik, the sound architect of his 2014 masterpiece and with whom he had not worked since. The title is a reference to J-Hova, the American rapper Jay-Z’s nickname. And a way for him to proclaim that he is one of the godfathers of South African rap. For “K:HOVA”, Lunatik created a clever mix of the sounds of kwaito, amapiano and the California rap of Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock. The superb clip for the track depicts the atmosphere in the townships after dark, and K.O can be seen rapping in the streets between sequences of brawling and a botched burglary.
The Kinshasa duo MPR, created by Yuma Dash and Zozo Machine, both natives of the working-class neighborhood Matate, proudly wear the colors of Congolese rap today. With the name MPR, which stands for “Musique populaire pour la révolution” (“popular music for revolution”), the two artists reclaim the cultural heritage of Mobutu’s Zaire. In their lyrics, MPR alternate between critiques of Congolese society (“Dollars”, “Lobela Ye Français”), and scenes of life in the streets (“Tika Biso Tovanda”). As they explain : “ECM” is a song representative of our reality and the way we approach life. ECM stands for “Éducation Civique et Morale” (“Moral and Civic Education”). “It’s a way of saying that there is also an ethic where we come from. We advocate self-acceptance and the fact of living according to our own reality, instead of just playing a role in one’s own life and wanting to live the lives of others”. MPR also work meticulously on their clips. “Dollars” was inspired by Brazilian telenovelas and the televised plays on the DRC tv channel, while “Semeki” paid homage to the popular programs back in the days of Télé Zaire. For its latest clip “ECM”, the duo has chosen a more subdued atmosphere. It was shot in the ABC building, a famous landmark for the inhabitants of Matete. The music is influenced by cloud rap and the sequences filmed with a drone evoke the universe of the French rap group PNL, but with a feeling that is 100% Kinshasa. “The idea was to show people the beauty of the ghetto, the beauty of the so-called distant townships. We wanted to show that poverty is a state of mind and the beauty of a thing depends on the angle from which one looks at it.”
One doesn’t necessarily have to do drill to be cutting-edge. As proof, we now go to Conakry in Guinea to meet Straiker, one of the most important rappers in the country. A native of Pita (a city in the Fouta Djallon region), the 22-year-old artist grew up in the Dabompa quarter of the Matoto township in Conraky. He first wanted to become a writer, but finally chose rap to express his ideas. The title of his most recent song, “Poullosophe”, is a concept he created and which signifies “Peul philosopher “. In this song rapped in Pulaar, Susu and French, Straiker expresses his opinions, his distinctiveness compared to other rappers, and his vision of the Guinean game, as well as the wisdom of the Peul community and the importance of culture. For the end of the song the young artist invited the Senegalese rapper and beatmaker Iso X who added a verse in Wolof. The instrumental track, which features drums and sanzas, is highly original and was composed by Azizfizzle, a Senegalese beatmaker. Straiker explains his choice this way : “If I chose her, it’s mainly because she’s African and that she’s unique. If Americans listen to Guinean rap, I don’t want them to think it’s the same thing they’re already doing“. The same goes for the clip, directed by Emilex. Here, the Guinean rapper highlights Peul culture. Straiker and the extras wear lepis, the indigo loincloths emblematic of the Peuls. The Peul way of life, intimately tied to cattle farming, is depicted thanks to a herd of cattle. Susu culture is also present thanks to extras from this ethnic group and to the loincloths worn by the elders seen towards the end of the clip.
Buruklyn Boyz (feat. Mr Right)
If there’s a crew capable of challenging the supremacy of the Guinean rappers from Kumasi in African drill, it’s the Kenyan group Buruklyn Boyz. The four members (Ajay, Mr Right, Mr Brown et Uncle Tom) grew up together in Buruburu-Phase 1, a housing development dating from the 1970’s, very well-known in Nairobi, and predominantly middle-class. Since September 2020 the Buruklyn Boyz have been one of the most popular groups in the country, surpassing even the stars of gengetone (the urban Kenyan music popular for the past few years. Expressions from their song “Billie Jean”, released in Septembre 2020, have become wildly popular with young people in Nairobi, who appreciate their flow using sheng (a coded slang derived from Swahili). It should be pointed out that the group also stands out by rapping over original rhythm tracks, notably with the use of guitars and by not copying Pop Smoke’s style, the American rapper responsible for the explosion of drill. Fans of drill should definitely check out their singles “Nairobi”, “Wild”, and “Woosh Woosh”. Furthermore, the Buruklyn Boyz have asserted themselves with the aesthetic visual quality of their clips, highly influenced by The Crips, the celebrated gang from Los Angeles. The clip for “Piga Lean” is no exception and the group is shown wearing the famous blue bandanas of the American gang. The song’s title designates a way of dancing to drill, and the refrain gives indications to dancers. Mr Right also asserts the supremacy of the group on the drill scene. And when is the Kusami-Nairobi connection coming?
Jay Bahd (feat. Skyface SDW, Reggie, Kwaku DMC, City Boy, Kawabanga & O’Kenneth)
“Y3 Y3 DOM”
Only 21-years-old, Jay Bahd is one of the key figures on the Kumaso drill scene. On his latest single “Y3 Y3 DOM”, on which he invited most of the musicians on Life Living Records, the emblematic label of asakaa music, was conceived as a true war anthem. The refrain, sung in unison, one of the particularities of the Kumasi style, signifies “we are numerous” in Akan literary language. Jay Bahd and his partners rap loud and strong : the drillers from Kumerica (a nickname for the Kumasi) have arrived as an organized gang and are here to stay. The idea for the clip was to explore the historical and cultural roots of the Ashanti kingdom, in particular its warrior past and its resistance to British colonization. An interesting approach and far from anodyne, considering the importance of England in the evolution and the transmission of drill, and their way of reclaiming this music. The clip was shot in the village of Kunsu and depicts a sorcerer priest who prepares the rappers armed with swords and spears physically and spiritually for the battlefield. The title of Jay Bahd’s album released June 21st, 2021, Return of Okomfo Anokye, pays homage to the legendary sorcerer priest celebrated for his great powers and considered responsible for the expansion of the Ashanti kingdom in the 17th Century. In the video, the artists wear traditional clothes on which are stitched adinkras (Akan symbols) and small sculpted objects symbolizing the history of the Ashanti people, its way of life, its philosophy and its warrior spirit. It is no doubt the most ambitious Ghanaian drill clip made so far.
Black Sherif has been one of the new Ghanaian sensations of 2021. Only 19-years-old, he was the most-streamed artist in Ghana in August, scoring far higher than the national stars Sarkodie and Shatta Wale. Launching himself two years ago, the career of the young rapper from Konongo, east of Kumasi in the Ashanti region of the country, took off thanks to the hit “First Sermon” in which he announced with confidence his arrival in the game (“Coming like raging storm, fasten up your belt!“). But it’s thanks to the follow-up, released in July, “Second Sermon”, that the name Black Sherif was on everyone’s lips this summer. In this song the rapper describes in detail the authenticity of his life: life on the streets, and the bad life of gangsters and drug dealing. The young Kwaku Frimpong did not grow up in the streets, he chose to live it and to tell stories, the way a gonzo journalist immerses himself in his subject-matter. What delighted the Ghanaian public was his original way of rapping-singing over a drill rhythm track, and integrating the heritage of highlife and dancehall in this new style. The clip for “Second Sermon” alternates sequences shot in the working-class quarter of Konongo and those shot in the chic neighborhood of East Legon in Accra. In this way revealing Black Sherif’s desire for social climbing. The clip cleverly multiplies hidden references to several cultures. The young rapper wearing a durag is accompanied by twelve companions, a reference to Jesus’s apostles. Another example, one of them crosses two swords above his head, a reference to an adinkra (an Akan symbol), which signifies courage and heroism. And in the final sequences of the clip, the rapper Yaw Tog appears, leader of asaaka (the drill from Kumasi), as well as Kweku Flick, another rising star of Ashanti rap. And, at the end of the year, Black Sherif gave himself the luxury of a remix of “Second Sermon” with the Nigerian superstar Burna Boy.
We continue our tour of Africa with one of the best rap groups in Angola, the Mobbers. The collective founded in 2014 and based both in Luanda and in London includes eight male rappers. The group had its first big successes thanks to “Tá Quase”, which combined trap with the sounds of kuduro, and the hit “Palpitar”, which introduced the baile funk rhythm to the genre. In 2020 the collective became even more popular thanks to the excellent song “L.O.M.” and especially with “Nuvens”, which featured T-Rex and which for fans of the genre is the best drill track produced in Anglola so far. With “Tumulto”, the Mobbers prove once again their supremacy. Altifridi starts things off with a very solid flow, then LipeSky shifts into high gear before Xuxu Bower ends the song with a very muscular verse. Black and white clips are always effective, and with the alternating overhead and low-angle shots the viewer senses the immense power of the Angolese crew.
Dee Koala (feat. K.Keed & Blxckie)
Dee Koala is a female 23-year-old rapper who lives in the township of Khayelitsha in Cape Town. Since 2018 she has had a string of critical successes ( “Whuzet”, “Friday Freestyle”, “4 The Khaltsha”), which has allowed her to collaborate with big stars such as the singer Moonchild Sanelly and the rapper Costa Titch. For the song “Spazz”, she invited K.Keed, another young female rapper from Cape Town, to collaborate on the track. K. Keed somewhat steals the show, since she raps the first verse and the refrains with a disconcerting insolence and fluency. Until recently K.Keed had been keeping a low profile. Her excellent EP Religion released in 2020 had only been heard by a small number of people on Soundcloud. It’s safe to say that with this featuring on “Spazz” her career will now be taking off. This doesn’t take anything away from Dee Koala’s talent, whose verse in isiXhosa is just as incredible. The song ends with a verse by Blxckie, the new star from Durban. The clip, which was released in August, features magnificent sequences filmed of vegetation and around the basin of a villa.
Back to the subject of drill, but once again in an Africanized version, this time Mali style, thanks to the rapper Yacou B-OG. The 21-year-old rapper from the Magnambougou quarter of Bamako has become popular in the country over the past year, thanks in part to a collaboration with Sidiki Diabaté (“On est comme ça nous”). His hit “Ciwara”, released in August, is without doubt his best track so far, thanks in particular to the innovative production by Buba Cash, a beatmaker from the Attbougou quarter in Bamako. The producer had the brilliant idea of collaborating with musician friends who played the basic rhythm track with sabars, a type of standing drum found in Senegal, Mali, and Gambia. Buba Cash composed and structured the song entirely over this rhythm track. He also added a vocal sample from a Zulu festival, whose musical culture fascinates Buba Cash. Yacou B-OG truly rises to the occasion on this particularly sophisticated production. His flow in Bambara is very impressive and the way he places his voice over the rhythm track evokes the French rapper Freeze Corleone. The word “ciwara“, the name of the song, designates a ritual headdress mask in the shape of an antelope horse common in Bambara culture. The ciwara comes to reward the hardest workers, and the general idea behind this song is that whatever one undertakes in life, one must work as hard as possible in order for their dreams to come true.
Ish Kevin made a name for himself on the local scene in the spring of 2021 by importing drill to Kigala with the excellent track “Amakosi”. In June, he released the collective drill song, “Brocode”, which was also the occasion to discover other excellent Rwandan rappers (Og2Tone, Ririmba and Kenny K Shot). The clip “Babahungu T.M.A”, released in September, is probably his most accomplished so far. The rapper can be seen in different neighborhoods of Kigali, and the images are striking. The song is influenced by trap, and Ish Kevin’s flow in kinyarwanda is truly impressive. A new star to watch closely.
Ktyb (feat. EMP1RE)
The Tunisian rapper Ktyb is no newcomer on the scene. Active for the past ten years, he became famous after the 2011 revolution under the name of Katybon. In the mid 2000s he recorded with Vipa, another pioneer of Tunisian rap, the classic “Tamtati”. And then the facetious rapper disappeared for a few years. He returned to the scene in 2017, under the new name Ktyb and quickly had a hit thanks to “About”, a song rapped in English in the style of the American rapper J. Cole. His experimentations and his style close to comedy evoke the styles of the French rappers Grems and Disiz. Since then, Ktyb has remained visible on the scene and has become highly prolific in recent months. In August he released one the biggest hits of the summer in Tunisia, “Fool” featuring 4LFA and Mahdi Machfar. And at the end of September he followed it with “BAYAN” featuring the highly agitated rapper EMP1RE. Once again, what makes Ktyb so popular is his flow, which oscillates between edgy rap and very groovy sung choruses. The clip, shot on on the roof of a building at sunset, stands out for its blue and orange pastel tones.
Moozlie (feat. 25K)
Moozlie is one of the best South African female rappers. The 29-year-old woman, a native of Benoni, a township east of Johannesburg, has had a string of hits for the past decade with songs like “Recipe” and “Getting Cash”. Her latest album, Spirit of an OG, released at the end of December 2020, was written and recorded during the COVID-19 confinement period. The occasion for her to go back to her rap roots : both in the words inspired by “kasi rap” which describe the social conditions in the black townships and by the music strongly inspired by 1990’s American hip-hop. One example is the song “Asibasabi” based on a soul sample and the sounds of organs and horns, and which features 25K. This South African rapper released one of the strongest albums of South African rap in 2021, Pheli Makaveli. For the clip of “Asibasabi”, Moozlie went to Atteridgeville, a suburb of Pretoria, where 25K is from. The video was shot in the streets and the dominance of black, white and red colors indicates that one of the inspirations for it was the clips of Californian hip-hop.
Moms Loup (feat. Yacou B-OG)
Moms Loup is a young rapper from Bamako. For the past few years he has livened up the music scene in Mali thanks to cheerful hits like “Bodji” and “Nouchiii Boy” in which he pays homage to the Ivory Coast’s language and culture. The song “Wallaye”, a track from his mixtape Mise à jour, a collaboration with Yacou B-OG,is the highly anticipated encounter between two of the most popular rappers in Mali today and the two hit it off spectacularly. The song, like all of Moms Loup’s hits, was produced by Gaspa, one of the best Malian beatmakers and a specialist of “Mandingo afrobeat”. The clip was shot in the streets of the Malian capital.
Rwanda All Stars
The director Julien Bmjizzo and the youtubeur Babalao have brought together eleven of the most popular current stars in Rwanda for a song entitled “Kamwe”. This was the occasion to discover the figures who are creating today’s music in Kigali and in particular kinyatrap, the booming trap scene in Rwanda. Based on amapiano music and brilliantly produced by Li John, who has put particular emphasis on the log drums, the synthetic percussion sounds inherent in the South African genre and which is currently sweeping the world, and East Africa in particular. The collective dimension is in fact a key element of amapiano and it is common to hear a large number of rappers follow one another in the productions of DJ Maphorisa and of Kabza de Small. Among the artists present on “Kamwe”, the Rwandan rappers that stand out are Bushali (3rd refrain), B Threy (6th), Bull Dogg (8th), Papa Cyangwe (10th) et Khalfan (11th). And the polished clip highlights the innovative fashion designs and choreographies. A welcome introduction to the current Rwandan music scene.
Abyusif (feat. Perrie)
Egypt is the kingdom of trap, with artists like Wegz, Marwan Moussa and Marwan Pablo, who have taken it to heights not attained elsewhere. But the king, the godfather, the leader of the movement is the rapper Abyusif. He is a huge influence on the younger generation and notably on his protégés in the El-Mexic collective he created and which include Abo El Anwar, Lil Baba et Desso. In October he released his hit “Mamlaka”, for which he invited Perrie, a Moroccan-Egyptian musician who has joined the El-Mexic crew. Perrie became known in 2020 through the hit “Shigella”. And she wrote, produced, mixed and mastered the four tracks on the EP 12:01 A.M which she released in 2021. The clip for “Mamlaka” is wonderfully creative, no doubt one of the best of the year.
Zou Dollar Shamping Lebou
We end the year with Zou Dollar Shamping Lebou, who is one of the best Senegalese rappers of his generation. The 21-year-old grew up and lives in Bargny, on the southern coast of the Cape Verde Peninsula, thirty kilometers from Dakar. He made a name for himself recently thanks to the clips “Da Fess” and “Touss Nak”, which highlighted his native city and Lebous culture, a community of fishermen in Senegal he is a member of, along with the rapper Paco Briz. The video of the song “N.L.M”, a track from his first mixtape, pays homage to his people through multiple symbolic references. The first sequence shows Zou Dollar fishing. He wears the emblematic green waxed overalls of his fishermen’s community. In the second sequence, a woman performs a ritual for him so that the protecting spirits of the Lebous (the khamb spirits) will watch over him. In the last sequence, the rapper is seen in a burning field, wearing red and black, the colors of the Diarifs, the chiefs of the Lebou ethnic group. The video was made in Bargy and directed by Kainri Pictures.