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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

MHD: Meet the French rapper whose sound speaks to the world

MHD’s second album, ‘19’, reflects not only his Parisian roots, but US Trap, West African Highlife and Afrobeat

French rap sensation MHD has just released his second album. Courtesy OJOZ
French rap sensation MHD has just released his second album. Courtesy OJOZ

Even by rap’s global standards, the rise of young French sensation MHD is a dizzying diaspora story. His second album 19 may be named after the hyper-local 19th arrondissement of Paris where he grew up, where French rap has long thrived among migrant communities, but his sound speaks to a global audience and has a far-reaching history.

Raised by his Guinean and Senegalese parents in France, MHD rose to fame with a sound he popularised as Afro-Trap: a fusion between poppy West African Afrobeats, with its twinkly, melodic lineage in Highlife music, and the hard-edged Trap that originated in the American South, and which has kept US hip-hop moving forward in the past decade or so.

His Afro-Trap video-single series now numbers 10 and features mega-hits like Champions League. It is an irresistible, dance-orientated set of rap tracks, each with an average of more than 50 million YouTube views. French rap has a rich, diverse history going back decades, forged by North and West African migrant diasporas in the big cities, but none of MHD’s forebears have ever broken beyond the language barrier to reach such huge audiences around the world.

In 2017, at the peak of London grime crew Boy Better Know’s success, Skepta and friends took over the city’s O2 Arena for a sold-out one-day festival, and MHD was the only non-British artist on the main stage. It had seemed like a slightly esoteric billing for such a London-orientated event, but his set brought the 20,000-strong crowd to raptures.

“His set had the biggest reaction of the whole day,” BBK co-founder JME tells me subsequently, visibly impressed – “everybody kept asking me after the show: who was that French guy?”

Moving somewhat beyond the Afro-Trap theme that made his name, his second album feels looser and more danceable than most American rap, and more focused and complex than some Afrobeats. It also manages the unenviable feat of bringing together the wildly varied and disparate sounds of the black Atlantic diaspora into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. And the parts are pretty noteworthy, reflecting the young Frenchman’s soaring profile.

Nigerian Afrobeats megastars Yemi Alade and Wizkid, and legendary Malian singer Salif Keita provide guest vocals, linking MHD’s unique sound to African music past and present. Meanwhile British-Jamaican rapper and singer Stefflon Don adds a dancehall flavour to the hummable chorus of Senseless Ting, the rhythm switching noticeably to the Caribbean, with the insistent shuffle of 21st century reggae pulling the two vocalists along. But throughout, MHD’s stamp remains on it all.

19 - Album by MHD
19 is MHD's second album to date

On what is a long album, it is not a surprise that one or two tracks misfire slightly. Moula Gang, his homage to his crew, suffers from its slightly placeless, Diplo-style EDM production – arguably the weakest side of musical globalisation in the era of web 2.0 – although to be fair, even this seems likely to get a large festival or club crowd going.

Generally, the album rarely drags. On Bravo, an utterly infectious guitar riff and rhythm casts West African sunshine over the housing projects of the Paris suburbs – reflecting the role he adopts on stage, as MHD becomes the conductor of a dance party for anyone and everyone who wishes to participate.

Indeed his dance moves – most notably, Le Mouv – have been a big part of his viral, 21st century digital appeal; helping his fame spread when imitated by celebrities like Didier Drogba.

For all of the giddy head-nodding energy of the rap and club tracks on 19, perhaps it is the slower and poppier end of his sound that really highlights MHD’s appeal. The reflective and heartfelt delivery on Feeling is accompanied by sparkly guitar lines and a shuffling rhythm that recall his West African predecessors from the thriving mid-century Ghanaian Highlife scene; you can actually hear the evolution of the sound traced through the so-called Hiplife fusion with American rap that followed it in the 1990s, and gave way to the more digitally futuristic Afrobeats of the 2010s.

Perhaps MHD is the next in this lineage, French-born but in love with his roots: channelling both the older African music he heard his parents playing while growing up, and the energy of current stars like P-Square and Wizkid; artists he followed online as a fan and is now collaborating with.

French rap sensation MHD has just released his second album. Courtesy OJOZ
MHD IS an ex-pizza delivery-man from a poorer part of Paris Courtesy OJOZ

Indeed it is the album’s lead single Bella, an unapologetic pop singalong, featuring Wizkid on the chorus, that will draw the most attention. Following the Nigerian star’s collaborations with Drake and biggest album to date, last year’s Sounds From The Other Side, it’s clear that Afrobeats stars can now reach global audiences beyond those with an esoteric interest in what is now so rarely called “world music”.

Canny use of platforms like YouTube has helped to do the same for MHD, as he has acknowledged in interviews. As a teenager growing up in London with mediocre, school-level French, I recall listening to tapes of ’90s heroes MC Solaar and Saian Supa Crew, and the soundtrack to the classic film La Haine – but this was always a niche fandom; French rap stayed largely within its borders, and those of Francophone African countries.

Of course, the internet has exploded the narrow confines and channels of music discovery since then – this fact in itself is no longer news. But even in recent times, a non-Anglophone artist has rarely shot to global fame as quickly as MHD (one other example might be Colombian reggaeton singer J Balvin). As recently as three years ago, the young rapper raised as Mohamed Sylla was a pizza delivery-man in one of Paris’s poorest and most maligned suburbs, playing football with his friends and writing lyrics to amuse himself, but with no real dreams of being a pop star.

Paris’s 19th arrondissement received a great deal of unwanted media attention after it became clear the Charlie Hebdo terrorists were born, raised and radicalised in that same neighbourhood. In an article about the attacks, one foreign correspondent explained it as “a mix of gentrified apartment buildings, working-class streets and a patchwork of high-rises troubled by gang turf-wars”. MHD’s route out of that world was unexpected, and has been phenomenally vertiginous – his YouTube videos now have more than half-a-billion views – but we shouldn’t forget that it’s not the mechanisms that are important, but the reason people around the world are listening: the deliriously joyful sounds of an irrepressible young musical talent.

MHD's album 19 is available now.

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