ATL To The Motherland: The Rise of Afro-Trap

It’s Saturday night in the Alexandra township of Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s early March and summer is just winding down. The dark sky is clear, air is warm and the energy is buzzing with lively youth who are looking for a motive as the clock strikes 22:00. Eighteen to 30-somethings are filling up the area’s popular venue Stoep 15, which my host tells me is “strictly hip-hop.” Groups pool Rands, the local currency, for buckets of ice, liquor and Black Labels from the bar. They find a spot to hold down. Others light up dagga and puffs of smoke rise to the ceiling.

The space is made up of a roof and an L-shaped wall. No other walls surround the location, so it opens up into a backyard. By 12 a.m., the place is packed. Future, Rich Homie Quan and Baby Cham blare from the speakers. It would appear that American hip-hop and Jamaican reggae were the only sounds worshipped. But vibes shift to another level when Kwesta’s “Ngud’” drops. The rapper from Katlehong, a township east of Joburg, was at the top of the charts in the country. The same response followed when the DJ played other South African heroes Cassper Nyovest, Emtee and Nasty C, who rapped to trappy beats.

“I think between 2010 and 2015 trap got really popular thanks to the internet,” Thulane Twiice says on the music scene in South Africa. Twiice is the co-founder of Book of Swag, a start-up creative agency at the center of youth culture in Johannesburg.

African artists based in the continent and second-generation Africans in Europe have been embracing the southern hip-hop subgenre. In turn, they are creating new sounds that pay homage to their traditional local music and are bringing new narratives in English, French, Zulu, Swahili and other African languages to trap music. Many of the themes remain the same. Some rap about flossing women, money and other worldly possessions while others rap about the struggles happening in their countries and maintaining African pride in a Westernized society.

ATL to the World

Trap music began as a southern hip-hop phenomenon in Atlanta in the 1990s and was a term only associated with the drug-dealing lifestyle. Today’s trap is recognized by its heavy basslines, 808 kick drums and samples of dramatic classical instruments that give songs a dark cinematic effect. Now, it is a global treasure that has knocked down the walls of mainstream culture in the past two years. Videos of youth dabbing to trap go viral everyday. The movement crept into the living rooms of middle America as a display of victory for a star black quarterback on the football field and as presidential candidates and white TV hosts tried to emulate. The music inspired Trap Karaoke, a global touring event for trap enthusiasts.

Additionally, a new family of sub genres have surfaced. Trap Soul, an album by wildly popular R&B singer Bryson Tiller, recently went platinum. There’s also TrapHouseJazz, gospel trap, and samba trap. We even learned that trappers need love too a la “Trap Queen,” Fetty Wap’s number one hit last summer.

In the mid-2000s, trap crossovered as Atlanta rappers T.I., Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy, to name a few, gained wider success. African youth who already listened to hip-hop, identified. “I would say hip-hop music in this generation is more like pop music, so in every classroom in every country in the world, you have a rapper in it,” says Jovi, a rapper, musician and producer from Douala, Cameroon. “For African kids, it’s very powerful when you can see mainstream music performed by people who look like you.”

In time, African artists began to incorporate elements of trap into their music. “African trap” or “afro-trap” can mean many things. Some artists are rapping over trap beats similar to American artists, while others are deliberately infusing African sounds.

For instance, MHD, a 21-year-old Afro-French rapper of Senegalese and Guinea descent, broke out in late 2015 for creating what he calls “Afro-Trap.” He spits with heavy blows over afro-beats and 808s, borrowing the screechy and incoherent ad-libs often heard in trap as a call and response. The videos of him and his friends mobbing through Paris in streetwear and football jerseys have been blowing up on YouTube. One visual, “Champions League” has more than 35 million views and peaked at No. 19 on the French music charts.

 

Another promising act is Nasty C, a 19-year-old from Durban, South Africa, who is rumored to be in talks with Jay Z’s label Roc Nation. On “Juice Back” (2015) and his high-charting “Hell Naw” (2016), he finds a solid balance of storytelling and turn-up vibes, all while adopting the American style of trap beats. Similarly, rapper Emtee follows the same format beat-wise on his award-winning 2015 cut “Roll Up,” but masterfully switches between English and Zulu rhymes.

“As much as most of it sounds America-centric, the stories are very local and relatable, hence the addition of native languages to sounds like trap,” Twiice explains.

As far back as 2013 and possibly earlier, African artists have been releasing trap-inspired records. Ghanaian rapper Dex Kwasi, who was born in Dallas, Texas, reps his ties to the motherland on ”Trappin in Africa.” The following year, Treasure, a Ghanaian who spent time in Atlanta, dropped “Wonakobo,” a trap record that he raps over in “English, Twi and pidgin rappin,” according to OkayAfrica. The same year, Kiff No Beat, an Ivory Coast group put out one of their biggest tracks “Tu Es Dan Pain,” another trap record. And Cassper Nyovest released “Doc Shebeleeza,” an ode to a legendary kwaito (an early 1990s style of South African rap music) artist.

Meanwhile, others are flipping trap and taking it to new heights sonically. “There is traditional music in Cameroon where you can see where trap and that music meets,” Jovi explains. Jovi calls his hip-hop “mboko.” On his song, “Cash,” he fused 808 kick drums with Ewanga, a style of Bitkusi dance music that originates from the central region of Cameroon. On “Positioning,” another song from his 2015 Mboko God album, he finds a hybrid point where njang, a rhythm from the Northwest region of Cameroon, meets with trap beats.

“Every hip-hop producer has a twist to their music. Scott Storch had the Indian strings. Dr. Dre had the piano riffs. And the Soulquarians had jazz. When I produce my hip-hop, I sample from African music and I respect the rules on both sides to come up with a hybrid that sounds good,”Jovi says. “But at the end of the day you have a disadvantage because it’s new to people’s ears.”

Rapper and singer Lady Jay from Accra, Ghana, knows the struggle of creating a new sound but is sticking to her guns. Her style of music “tragbaza” plays with trap bass and drums from the Volta region of Ghana. “Where I’m from in Ghana, the people don’t understand the music I created,”Lady Jay says. So she decided to release her tragbaza track “Venus” featuring popular Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie on-line. “I knew the world, they would accept it and they would get it.”

 

Jay was inspired to incorporate trap into her music after hearing a Dex Kwasi record. She worked with a producer named Kuvie to create her own fusion. It’s all about the bass, Jay said.

“Everyone has understood that you just need to play with the bass [and] you have trap right there. You have to infuse it with something that makes your individual trap sound unique because there’s so much trap out there,” she adds.

For Mashayabhuqe KaMamba, that means making his sound and content “Digital Maskandi” relevant to young music listeners while keeping where he comes from in mind. “I’m singing in a traditional way with a little bit of trap, little bit of soul, little bit of maskandi and I make it friendly to the ear,” the South African artist says. That was my whole goal and I’m still trying to chase that.” Maskandi is Zulu folk music that he has put a modern twist on.

Mashaya credits the internet for spreading his music. His 2015 Black Excellence Show EP was well-received and he speaks with excitement about playing his first international show at AfroPunk Paris this past June, as he’s overcome so much. As an ‘80s baby, he grew up in a time of political unrest in South Africa that threatened his family’s life and led to them moving from place to place. He tries to incorporate these sentiments in his work. “Like how important it is for a South African kid to love your culture and also be able to educate yourself about other things that were there in the past,” he says.

The artist is proud to bridge generations in his music, a factor that has given him a fan base that ranges in age. “Which is why a 50-year-old granny will call up and say, ‘Please play Mashaya’ and a 16-year-old is like, ‘Mashaya is my friend,’” he jokes.

And this is the overall beauty of black music. That even as new riddims, beats and grooves emerge, underneath it all, there is really nothing new under the sun. Musical exchanges between blacks worldwide have been going on for decades, contributing to the evolution of music into dozens of genres. Hip-hop itself, is offspring of African rhythmic patterns passed down through blues, gospel, funk, reggae, jazz and spoken word stylings, so it is no wonder that these sounds are coming full circle. There will always be a connective rhythm that links them. For now, trap is the vehicle of expression driving us until the next generation decides something new must takeover. —Natelege Whaley (@natelege_)