Last October, British-Congolese rapper C Cane was standing on a train platform in Enfield, North London, when she glanced at her phone and discovered she’d gone viral. Cane had recorded a freestyle at BBC Radio 1Xtra, in which she rapped in Lingala, the most widely spoken language in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A few days later, a 10-second clip of the performance took off online. “I had my Facebook popping off, my Instagram popping off, my Twitter was stupid. It was just mad, I missed my train and all sorts,” said Cane. “I wouldn’t have thought spitting in Lingala would’ve been a big thing; it’s just like second nature to me. So to have so much attention from doing something that I was taught to do from young was just like, Whoa.”
A few days later, French music producer and record label owner Binetou Sylla came across the freestyle. At the time, Sylla was putting together a compilation of African and diasporic hip-hop she intended to call Afrodias’ Génération Enjaillement. “I saw it and thought that if people in are England affirming their Africanness, we need to make it happen for the album,” said Sylla. “I contacted her, and two months later I was in London.”
Sylla and Cane’s meeting, facilitated by social media, offers a potential glimpse into a future of African music in which diasporic artists might be able to make global connections that were previously unthinkable. Sylla, who is French of Malian, Guinean, and Senegalese origins, inherited the historic Paris-based label Syllart Records after the death of her father in 2013. The elder Sylla, Ibrahima Sylla, was a musical titan who produced some of Africa’s biggest names for over 30 years. Afrodias' is the first project she has put out under the label.
On the compilation’s opening track “Kota,” which is the Lingala word for “enter” or “welcome,” Cane begins by rapping in English and then switches to Lingala over an amped afrotrap — or afrogrime, as some have taken to calling the nascent genre that blends contemporary hip-hop sounds with African music— beat made by Brussels-based Malian producer C.T. Koité. There’s a similar theme across Afrodias', on which mix of artists from across the diaspora rap over mostly uptempo trap beats, promoting, in the words of Sylla, “an African state of mind.” They rap in variations of French, Ghanaian pidgin, English, Kreyòl, Lingala, Ivorian Nouchi, Yoruba, Bambara, and more, on songs that could be easily span dancefloors in cities like Abidjan, Paris, London, or Cayenne.
Rap has been popular across Africa for decades. Some of the continent’s first hip-hop groups began forming in Senegal and Mali; the Dakar-based group Positive Black Soul, which formed in the late ‘80s, was an early example of African artists taking inspiration from their American counterparts. More recently, there has been a reverse form of this trend, with American rappers like looking to African music and artists for inspiration and collaboration. J Cole’s 2011 hit “Can’t Get Enough,” for example, sampled “Paulette,” a song released in 1980 by the Guinean group Balla et ses Balladins and produced by Syllart Records.
But the relationship between American hip-hop and African music goes back much further than than the 1980s. “The relationship is corporeal: the people who created hip-hop are black Americans, and their heritage is African,” said Sylla. “Rap is an oratory art, it’s a culture of mastering speech, and the punch lines and lyricism that go into it are very African. It’s quite close to griots, who are symbolic figures of oratory art.”
On a chilly and cloudy day in North London, Cane and Sylla shed a little more light on the past, present, and future of African and diasporic hip-hop.
“Rap is an oratory art, it’s a culture of mastering speech, and the punch lines and lyricism that go into it are very African. It’s quite close to griots, who are symbolic figures of oratory art.”—Binetou Sylla
What can you tell me about Syllart Records and Afrodias'?
BINETOU SYLLA: Syllart is an African and Afro-Latin music label founded in Paris in 1978 by Ibrahima Sylla, my father. It had a major catalog of some 30,000 titles. My father was a producer of African music, from all of francophone Africa and some of lusophone Africa. He discovered Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, Oumou Sangaré, Ismael Lo, and Alpha Blondy. My father produced 1,400 albums himself, something like 100 a year. I took over in 2013 with my mother after my father’s passing. I'm 27, and so there is a generational thing; there is a transmission between generations.
Afrodias’ is a hip-hop mixtape that mixes rappers from Africa and rappers from the African diaspora: the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. There are 18 songs, 22 artists, and 12 countries represented. We released the disc on June 24 this year. It’s really a project I did to promote artists that aren’t in the spotlight. I also chose artists who have an African sensibility to their work, and I made sure to include Caribbean artists, for example, because for me Africa is in the Caribbean as well. It’s something close to my heart. For me, Africa is also outside of the continent.
What did you learn from the process of making this compilation?
SYLLA: Everything. Afrodias’ is the first project I’ve produced from A-Z, so I learned everything. But my advantage is that I have networks in Africa. That is what helps me. That's my thing, I own it. We have a label that is respected in Africa, so when I go to see artists in Africa they know who we are and can trust us.
Making this album was easier for me than it would have been for someone directly from Universal, for example. In fact, they don’t do it, because they know that there is an audience, but in Africa it’s really hard to make compilations. To get the rights to the music, the producers, etc., you have to know who to talk to. And the African artists don’t trust the big labels. They don’t want to sign anything because they are far away, they don’t know much about the process. My particularity is that I’m a woman and I’m African. That reassures them I think. The project was ambitious but I did it in five months.
Afrodias’ isn’t in the “world music” genre, and that’s a first victory for me. When you go on iTunes, it’s under "hip-hop/rap. “World music” is a trap. Wizkid, Davido, Iba One, Kiff No Beat should be in the same category as Kendrick Lamar and Young Thug because they are rappers. They shouldn’t be labeled world music because they are African.
Do you consider it an afrotrap album?
SYLLA: No, it’s not just afrotrap. I’m not into categorizing music by terms that were invented four months ago. There are songs on the mixtape that are older than the term “afrotrap.” Afrotrap is trap done with an African spirit. So in this case I prefer to say that it’s a hip-hop mixtape.
“Wizkid, Davido, Iba One, Kiff No Beat should be in the same category as Kendrick Lamar and Young Thug because they are rappers. They shouldn’t be labeled world music because they are African.”—Binetou Sylla
Cane, why do you think people connected with your Lingala freestyle so much?
C CANE: One, because there’s not so many people that do it. I don’t think there’s ever been anyone that’s spat in an African language on grime. Two, we don’t have really have any Congolese ambassadors who are pushing Congo when it comes to music in the U.K. We have a lot of comedians, but not artists. The Congolese community really stood up when I released that. I go to Congolese functions now and people will be like, "Oh my God, that’s C Cane."
I can’t ever turn away from African music, it’s in my blood. And plus, we have a lot of family functions where all you listen to is Congolese music, so I can’t escape it even if I wanted to. I’m always surrounded by it. My mum plays it all the time; she doesn’t really listen to English music. So when she’s around, all I hear is Congolese music. I wake up to Congolese music, go to sleep to Congolese music. Anything, down to like funerals, it's still Congolese music.
How do you see the breakthrough of more African artists into the U.K. and U.S.?
CANE: I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s about time, to be honest with you, because African music has been lit for time. It’s actually been cold for time. But I love the fact that people are appreciating it more and it’s coming to the levels of, let’s say, U.S.A. hip-hop. Drake and Chris Brown are hollering at Wizkid for tracks. I think that’s sick. It’s about time.
What is it about the timing?
CANE: I reckon it's social media and the platforms that are now available to us. Beforehand, you weren’t really able to see it unless you had, like, CDs and DVDs from your country. Now you can just go on YouTube and you can find everything you want.
What are your thoughts about the collaboration for Afrodias’?
I think it’s sick cos I don’t know of an album that has so many artists from different regions speaking in their native languages.
Could that be popular in the U.K.? Does it matter if it’s popular?
CANE: It matters because there’s no one doing it and it’s so creative and people should listen to it. When I did it, I didn’t think I was capable of doing the track that I did. I was just like Wow, yea, so different. That was the first track I’ve ever done in two languages. Because of that, I’ve done many more tracks like that since. I reckon it’s needed, and it should bang in the U.K. With the right push behind it, I don’t see why not.