In most of Africa, hip-hop carries itself as a second class citizen. It’s seldom the leader of any chart or ranked list, existing as a popular niche genre that often blends with other local cultures as a hybrid.
The most prominent American rap songs in Africa are immensely popular—Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is currently the anthem—but local rap talent struggles mightily to reproduce that level of success from the same consumer base.
Despite this failure to show support for homegrown acts, the power of hip-hop lies in the South of the continent, as rappers from South Africa continue to drive the pulse of the culture.
Much of the hip-hop in South Africa is derived from Western beats and samples mixed with localized rhythms and accents and drives the urban culture of the continent. African hip-hop began in the ‘80s, emerging from the urban centres of Cape Town and Johannesburg. In the late 2010s, when young South African rappers including AKA, Nasty C, Cassper Nyovest, Kwesta, and Riky Rick gave the continent more than the music, the movement achieved continental dominance. These artists arrived with an influential lifestyle, partnering with luxury brands, and releasing albums that grew into classics.
The moment South African rap is currently experiencing in 2019, began 20 years ago when an older generation of Nigerian rappers, who were inspired by American legends such as 2Pac and Biggie, moved ahead of every other city in visibility and influence. Rap artists from Lagos, including Modenine, M.I Abaga, and Naeto C, dominated the late ‘90s and early 2000s. But today, the country is more famous for its Afrobeat offerings.
African hip-hop still borrows elements from the US, but artists are primarily processing the genre through regional filters. Rap is also finding new life as part of the dance culture in West Africa and successfully merging with traditional genres across culture lines in the Southern and Eastern countries.
From Lagos to Johannesburg, Accra to Nairobi, we’ve compiled a list of 10 hip-hop artists from Africa who are currently changing the game.
Raised in Johannesburg, Nasty C’s influences run wide, but his best work has come when he’s in trap’s embrace. Whether he’s bragging about his exploits on “Hell Naw,” or agonizing over a lover on “SMA,” his fluidity of form is his greatest strength. It isn’t a stretch to say the prince of African hip-hop is making the most unifying rap music in all of Africa. Nasty C’s sophomore album, Strings And Bling, features a collaboration with A$AP Ferg on “King,” a performance he prefaced with a freestyle on Sway In The Morning. Strings And Bling is arguably one of the best rap LPs released by an African artist in the past five years.
Falz’s “This is Nigeria”—an adaptation of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”—threw him into the ring of social activism in Nigeria. He’s walked that path to a landmark album, Moral Instruction, which was directly inspired by Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. “Talk,” the lead single off the LP, is a summation of Falz’s advocacy against inept governance in Nigeria. “Four year tenure, three year holiday,” he fires at corrupt local political office holders, with a call-and-response delivery inspired by the Old Roger nursery rhyme. Although he’s faced heavy criticism for his opinions, his message is clear: Africa can be greater, and the Black man needs to break free from his colonial chains and take responsibility for their growth.
South Africa’s king, Cassper Nyovest emerged from the streets of Johannesburg as a champion of the people, and in wielding that support, he’s authored one of Africa’s most prestigious careers. Now on his fourth studio album, with a collaboration list that stretches through the continent’s elite, Nyovest sits at the zenith of Africa’s rap realm. His lyricism is his strongest suit, as evidenced by his contribution to Talib Kweli’s “Fuck the Money.” On the “Doc Shebeleza” remix with Burna Boy and M.I, he creates one of Africa’s classic rap records. If mushy rappers are your thing, you’ll love “Destiny” featuring Goapele. Nyovest’s concerts routinely fill the largest stadiums in his home country. You can feel the power behind him when you soak in “Tito Mboweni” and “Mama I Made It.”
At the heart of the viral Zanku dance movement from Lagos, Nigeria, is Zlatan Ibile. His crude, swashbuckling style is representative of his ghetto roots—Zlatan was raised in the city’s poorest neighborhoods—where life is simple, aspirational, and lived in the moment. Zlatan represents all that is good and bad with Nigerian life. He comes from the side of town that is plagued by a lack of resources and poor education. But that disadvantage fueled creativity, allowing Zlatan to tell unique stories. The rapper rose fast in 2018, spreading his influence and dance via collaborations with other Afrobeat heavyweights. Listeners can find Zlatan’s best verses on Burna Boy’s “Killin Dem” and Naira Marley’s “Am I A Yahoo Boy.”
Khaligraph Jones succeeds by releasing music in abundance. Remember Gucci Mane’s legendary project run? If any rapper in Africa could match that feat, it’s the Kenyan emcee. Due to his diverse fusion of sounds, you can find Jones charting beyond his home city of Nairobi. He connects across so many borders because of the nature of his art. Existing in a place of hardship helped form Jones’ career, which he endured as a child growing up in Nairobi’s Eastlands. This history is layered into Jones’ discography, making for a heartfelt listen every time.
A local legend boasting over a decade at the top of the charts, Sarkodie is a bastion of quality rap music on the continent. He is most famous for taking the Twi language—in which he primarily raps—to the mainstream. His hit records (“Adonai,” “Painkiller”) litter an entire decade of African music, with his signature rapid-fire flows and his great use of slang. Sarkodie’s latest release, Alpha EP, is a bite-sized offering featuring the best rap music from Ghana.
Show Dem Camp (SDC)
Comprised of rappers Ghost and Tec, Show Dem Camp (or SDC) has built a career on consistency and quality. Since making their debut in 2009, the duo has remained active with a string of projects. Their most notable EPs, a three-volume series titled Clone Wars, continues to enjoy underground acclaim. In 2017, SDC began a push for mainstream involvement, assembling commercial fusion production for their Palmwine Music series. Balance is one of SDC’s strengths. Lyrically, Tec and Ghost are rap twins. Whether they’re sharing a flow pattern, or attacking a beat, or just handing each other batons on verses across a plethora of themes, SDC sound in sync. Think conscious music, with a heavy dose of YOLO.
Of all the new voices coming from West Africa, Kwesi Arthur, a native of Tema, Ghana, is the wave’s most exciting act. At 24, Arthur is the youngest Ghanaian to have a BET nomination—in the viewer’s choice category for Best New International Act in 2018. Since releasing his first hit in 2016, “Grind Day,” which was followed by a remix featuring Sarkodie and Medikal, he’s extended his run by moving through local sub-genres. Arthur uses his musical gift for good, bringing to light the challenges faced by young Ghanaians. His 2019 album, Live From Nkrumah Krom, Vol 2: Home Run, offers listeners a spectrum of his gifts. Part preacher, part lover, part dancer, Arthur draws you in with gyrating riddims while unfolding a reality that connects with Ghana’s growing youth population via rap.
Cape Town’s AKA has been described as a lot of things: Proud, vulnerable, dramatic, eccentric, and bearing an abrasive personality that attracts beef with other rappers. Depending on who you’re asking, there is a belief he’s the true king of Africa’s rap scene. To their point, AKA’s discography is the stuff of rap royalty. Touch My Blood, his recent LP, extracts gems from the urban centres of Cape Town and Jo’burg to create a conveyor belt of massive party records, soulful reflections, and the odd dance record.
Octopizzo comes from Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. From a place of disadvantage, he’s worked his way up, building one of the most premium rap brands on the continent and inspiring millions of young people. His latest album, Next Year, is a dynamic listen, combining multiple genres; “We Can” samples straight from ’90s New York influences, while “Jazzy” packs the class and horns of jazz into an elegant three-minute ride. On “ Babylon,” the Kenyan digs into trap influences, complete with Migos-esque adlibs. With Octopizzo, everything is always in flux; one minute he’s dedicating his LP to his mother, and the next, he’s taking shots at his only other local rival, Khaligraph Jones.