Photo Illustration by Max-o-matic

Rap Goes Global, On A Local Level

Some thought streaming would homogenize the music people hear around the globe. Instead, it’s boosting hip-hop artists building careers in their own languages

LONDON — In the video for his recent single "Du Lundi au Lundi" ("From Monday to Monday"), French rapper Stanislas Dinga Pinto, better known as Niska, stretches out on a gold chaise lounge in the palatial grounds of a hilltop château, ­surrounded by exotically dressed models and balaclava-­­wearing members of his crew.

It's a fitting metaphor for Niska’s place among the new wave of French rap royalty that’s taking over the charts in the world’s fifth-­biggest music market.

"As a young man from the hood, my songs strike a chord with my generation," says the 25-year-old, whose third album, Mr Sal, was released by Universal France on Sept. 6 and topped the French charts for five consecutive weeks.

Niska is the latest example of a trend that’s transforming the music business around the world. Thanks to the way streaming has altered the music landscape, hip-hop artists of almost every nationality are dominating radio, streaming and overall music consumption in their home countries and, more significantly, in their own languages — in some cases even outperforming established international superstars like Drake and Ed Sheeran.

“Some people thought the switch to streaming consumption would homogenize global music, but it’s actually done the opposite,” says Stu Bergen, CEO of international and global commercial services at Warner Music. “It’s given local artists a great avenue to reach fans in their own country who are eager to embrace music in their own language that tells stories that resonate with their personal lives and experiences.”

This new reality, already starkly evident in Europe and now emerging in Asia and parts of Latin America, has turned on its head the way music usually takes hold, forcing the majors to play catch-up with local indies to maintain market share. And those majors, which have traditionally focused on the business of global stars, are fighting to control the local markets.

“What we are trying to avoid in some of these new emerging markets is the hip-hop business growing outside of the major-label system,” says Adam Granite, Universal Music Group (UMG) executive vp of market development. “It gives rise to some incredible entrepreneurs who perhaps were forced to develop their own respective businesses outside of the majors. We want to get ahead of that and not see that trend continue in places like India or Thailand.”

In Europe, with its polyglot mix of languages and proudly independent nations, hip-hop artists — many from independent labels — are already dominating the charts in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and even Nordic countries like Finland and Norway.

“Streaming has broken a lot of the bottlenecks that you had in the market before," says Antoine Monin, director of artist relations and labels at Spotify France. Those bottlenecks included the need to be signed by a label, get radio play and sell your record in stores. “Now urban artists can access a large audience without those things.”

But the majors still have a big part to play. Leading the charge in Germany is Vladislav Balovatsky, better known as Capital Bra, who was the most streamed artist in Germany in 2018 (over 1.4 billion streams) and the first-ever act to score eight domestic No. 1 singles in a calendar year — all while on German indie labels Team Kuku and Ersguterjunge. The Ukrainian-Russian immigrant signed with Universal Music Germany in January and released his latest album on Oct. 4. It went straight to No. 1 and its lead single broke domestic streaming records. Other hip-hop acts flying high in their home markets include Italy’s Capo Plaza and Sfera Ebbasta, Dutch rapper Boef (recently signed to Sony), the duo Karpe in Norway, JVG in Finland and Kontra K in Germany.

In France, which has had a robust hip-hop scene since the 1990s, Niska’s five-week run at No. 1 was preceded by fellow rapper Nekfeu, whose third album, les étoiles vagabondes (also on Universal), held the top spot for 11 consecutive weeks. The release strategy included putting out two versions — one with 18 tracks and a second two weeks later with 34 tracks.

Driving the move toward their mainstream adoption on their home turfs is a streaming consumption model that prioritizes local repertoire over global acts, allowing local hip-hop acts to grab multiple chart spots every time a new album is released. That, in turn, forces radio and TV stations to get behind them, further growing their fan bases.

"The influence of streaming from an album to the singles chart is crazy-­big at the moment," says Dominique Kulling, BMG’s executive vp Continental Europe repertoire and ­marketing. "It doesn't necessarily reflect the market."

High profile controversies around European hip-hop acts have stoked the flames. German rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang provoked outcry for the line "My body is more defined than those of Auschwitz inmates” on their 2017 album Jung Brutal Gutaussehend 3 (Young, violent, good-looking 3, or JBG 3). When Kollegah and Farid Bang won best rap at the Echo Awards (Germany’s equivalent of the Grammys), previous winners handed back their awards in protest, leading to the event being indefinitely scrapped.

But there is no doubting the growing dominance of hip-hop in key markets. According to Spotify data, the genre’s share of listening in Europe has grown by an average of 20% every year for the past five years. Local-language hip-hop acts now account for almost half of all hip-hop listening on Spotify in France, Germany and the Netherlands, and around 30% in the Nordics.

 

Local-language hip-hop is also consistently in Spotify’s top 10 most-­engaged playlists in Europe, says Sulinna Ong, Spotify’s head of music, U.K. and Ireland. The trend is even more pronounced at Deezer, where the top 10 hip-hop artists in Germany this year are all domestic. In France, it’s nine out of 10. In Brazil, local acts take eight out of the top 10 spots, with Lil Nas X and Post Malone the only U.S. acts to feature highly.

“Consumers relate to these artists,” says Junior Foster, the head of global artist relations at Deezer. “It isn’t about the influx of American artists talking only about an American perspective. Now you can touch base with an artist from your own your area, living in the street next to you, talking about things that are relevant to you.”

It’s also no coincidence that many of the scene’s biggest names come from immigrant backgrounds largely marginalized by mainstream culture. Deutschrap, as local-language hip-hop is called in Germany, for instance, is dominated by artists from Muslim backgrounds, says Natascha Augustin, senior creative director at Warner Chappell Music Germany.

“It was like punk rock —very do-it-yourself and this created an intense fan bond, resulting in a huge number of followers,” says Augustin, who has signed many of the leading German rappers to Warner Chappell, including Summer Cem and Capital Bra, helping the company overtake Sony/ATV as the top domestic publisher in Germany for the last two years.

To keep up with the new world order, major labels have increased investment in signing and developing local hip-hop artists in all key and emerging markets. Deals vary from traditional label contracts to bespoke service-level partnerships in which artists benefit from the promotion, distribution and marketing clout a major label can bring, but still retain a degree of independence and a bigger share of the profits.

"What we are offering is a service level, to different degrees," says Frank Briegmann, UMG president/CEO Central Europe and Deutsche Grammophon. "Some artists want a distribution offer, some want more marketing, and some independent hip-hop labels we do deals with want to feel the power of a major company cross over their artists."

Kulling says the shift toward service-­level deals offered by BMG — along with Universal, Sony and Warner — reflects the independent mindset of many hip-hop acts. “We deal with rap artists who have new ideas, who basically put the business, in terms of contracts, upside-down,” she says.

“We have changed our structure to be able to respond to these urban genres,” says Brook Demissie, director of GOLD LEAGUE, an urban-focused imprint of Sony Music Germany launched in 2019 as part of a companywide reorganization of Sony Music Germany. "Our deal structure has changed. Our way of communicating has changed."

But global domination is still the ultimate — and most profitable — goal. To grow their market share, labels, publishers and artists are encouraging multi-language and cross border collaborations. They include Warner-signed French rapper Aya Nakamura teaming up with Italy’s Capo Plaza for a remix of her song “Pookie.” Niska’s French No. 1 single “Réseaux,” meanwhile, was remade for international listeners with verses from British rapper Stefflon Don and Quavo. There’s also a German version starring local hip-hop star Nimo.

Collaborations such as these are helping European hip-hop artists to cross borders and generate hits outside their home countries. Last year, Aya Nakamura became the first French artist since Edith Piaf to top the Dutch singles chart with “Djadja.” Niska’s “Mr Sal” topped the charts in Belgium, as well as in his French homeland.

Niska describes his style as “gangsta rap with a thread of humor” and says when he started out, his fans were exclusively young men. “Today,” he says, “men, women, children, teens, grown-ups, people of all colors and origins know the lyrics to my songs.”

Additional reporting by Heidi Taksdal Skjeseth.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Billboard.


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