LONDON — Britain can be an insular place. A parlor game here involves trying to list as many famous Belgians as possible, on the basis that few people know any. An equivalent exercise with French rappers would be even tougher. France is one of the world’s largest rap music markets, but its neighbor on the other side of the English Channel pays little attention.
The lack of interest is reciprocated. French rap is full of borrowed English words: The F-bomb is often detonated in lyrics, especially in “le rap hard-core.” But the prevailing influence is American; British rappers struggle to command attention. Stormzy, probably Britain’s highest-profile MC, topped the British charts when he released his debut album in 2017. In France, he did not even make the top 200.
Can the differences between these opposing citadels of European rap be bridged? The answer lies not just in Britain and France, but also in Europe’s former colonies in Africa.
West and Central Africa contain numerous English- and French-speaking nations that reflect the presence of Britain, France and Belgium as colonial powers until the 1960s. Imported styles of pop music from sub-Saharan Africa have been adopted and transformed by British and French musicians who have roots there.
Omo Frenchie is a London-based rapper who toggles between English and French in his songs. “Rapping in French is a lot harder,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s the language and the pronunciation. In French, they’ll go the long way around saying even simple things. But the good thing is that when you do find a nice line, it sounds amazing.”
Frenchie, who would not give his real name or age, is actually a trilingual performer. He also uses Lingala, one of the languages of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that emerged from Belgian colonial rule in 1960. Frenchie was born there but moved to London with his family as a baby.
The first time he used French and Lingala in a song was in 2013. The occasion was a guest appearance on a track by the musician Afro B, another Londoner with a Francophone African background. After it came out, Frenchie noticed a surge of interest on Twitter, with people asking: Who’s this guy that’s speaking French? “From then on, I knew that that was my niche,” Frenchie said.
He is not alone. Yxng Bane (pronounced Young Bane) is an up-and-coming rapper from London with a clutch of British chart hits under his belt. Like Frenchie, he has Congolese ancestry. The 22-year-old, real name Larry Kiala, grew up speaking English and French at home, before later learning Lingala. Last year, he teamed up with a French rapper called Franglish for the song “Makasi,” which was recorded in Paris.
His linkup with Franglish — a hybrid name to strike fear in the hearts of the Académie Française, the zealous gatekeepers of the French language — was forged through their shared African heritage. The French rapper also has a Congolese family background (“makasi” is the Lingala word for “strong”). Their collaboration illustrates the growing influence of African music on British and French rap.
The shift is partly driven by demographic change. The proportion of Britons from a black African background doubled between 2001 and 2011, when the last national census took place. (France does not record the ethnicity of its citizens.)
The strong influence of African music on British rap derives from the popularity of Afrobeats, a blend of West African, Caribbean and American urban music, which originated in the 2000s in Nigeria and Ghana, former British colonies. It crossed over into British urban music in the early 2010s. The first Afrobeats hit in Britain’s top 10 came in 2012 with D’Banj’s “Oliver Twist.” (The song’s video featured Kanye West, who signed D’Banj to his record label.)
Since then, numerous variants have sprung up, a dizzying profusion of subgenres with names like Afroswing and Afrobashment. The proliferation is partly a fad. “I feel like if you’re going to put the word Afro in it, there has to be that African element,” Omo Frenchie said. “A lot of it is watered down,” he added. “It deserves a little bit more.”
But the overall hybrid style, moving easily between Chicago drill, Drake’s sing-rapping, Caribbean dance hall and West African urban pop, is more than a trend. It has taken root in the mainstream as a newly dominant mode of urban music in Britain. Its geographically profuse sound is epitomized by a rising star of British rap, Octavian, who was born in France to African parents before moving to London as a child.
The equivalent genre across the Channel is Afrotrap. It was pioneered by MHD, a musician from Paris who is one of the best-known rappers in France. He created Afrotrap in 2015 when he posted a video of himself on social media freestyling a rap over a song by the Nigerian Afrobeats band P-Square. Last year, he became the first French rapper to play the Coachella festival in California.
But MHD’s career hangs in the balance. In January, he was arrested on charges relating to a man’s violent death in Paris. MHD denies any involvement. Nonetheless, the genre that he created has become embedded in French hip-hop. The rapper Niska drew on Afrotrap in his album “Commando,” the No. 3 most-streamed album in France in 2017.
In an email exchange before his arrest in December, MHD, 24, whose real name is Mohamed Sylla, said that his ambition was “to export my music to an international audience.”
“In France, this kind of mixture was new,” he said, referring to Afrotrap. He felt an affinity, he added, with his British peers: “The English have this ability to mix things up and fuse genres. They are lucky to have a public that is hyper-open to these blended sounds.”
Afrotrap draws on Coupé-Décalé, a dance music style from the Ivory Coast. It is harder and faster than the British Afrobeats and its offshoots. “The African music sound in France is different,” Frenchie said. “No one in the U.K. has jumped on a beat like that. It’s predominantly an African sequence.”
But there are areas of overlap as well as divergence. MHD has bolstered his profile in English-speaking markets by collaborating with Afrobeats singers such as Nigerian star Wizkid. Last year, he played shows in London. Niska followed in his footsteps in February. Traffic across the English Channel is building in volume.
“I feel like there’s a big wave with the Afrotrap music coming from France,” Yxng Bane said. “I feel that it’s getting highly recognized.”
And his own efforts at an Anglo-French rapprochement in rap will continue, he added.
“Just keep your eyes open,” Yxng Bane said. “Got some more Francophone for them. It’s coming, it’s coming.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.