U.S. hip-hop’s competitive advantage has waned as regions across the world have developed their unique sound and influenced the culture.
Read Part I of the Globalization of Hip-Hop here.
In a recent episode of the Trapital Podcast, I asked U.K. radio host, podcaster, and author DJ Semtex about the need for the U.S. cosign in European hip-hop:
“A few years ago I would have said it was imperative, but now we’re in a situation where the biggest rapper in the world is Canadian, so I think that’s gone out of the window… It’s still important, but you can crush it in the United States of Europe without a US cosign…
Let me put it another way. You shouldn’t be asking me how important is the U.S cosign, you should be asking me how important is the U.K. cosign.”
I normally don’t let anyone tell me what I should and shouldn’t ask on my own damn podcast, but he had a point.
British artists Skepta and Stormzy may still pursue collabs with U.S. artists, but the dependency has cooled. Rappers outside the U.S. have not only found their niche, they’ve established an ecosystem that American rappers now want in on. But for each region to maximize its potential, it will need to develop its own monetization strategy.
“Fight the Power” Made Waves Internationally
Public Enemy’s rise was a cultural inflection point. In the late 1980s, Chuck D used his voice to challenge the American government and media to do better. “Black CNN” was an outlet for the overlooked and misrepresented. That sentiment gained attention across the world. The worldwide class of unprivileged and disenfranchised identified with Chuck D’s lyrics (and to a lesser extent, Flavor Flav’s wildin’ antics).
In 2007, NPR journalist Jeff Chang mentioned the global impact of Public Enemy in an interview:
“The message of Public Enemy represented the conditions of the 1980s, racist, violent incidents going on. But at the same time, what I think people around the world heard in it was a generational change. A way for them to express their own voices.
Take for instance, rappers in Kenya. Kalamashaka comes out, hears Public Enemy, and is all of a sudden inspired just to imitate American rap. But now they rap in Sheng, which is their own language.”
The desire was there, but the infrastructure wasn’t ready to sustain international success. Kalamashaka was ahead of its time. The group didn’t have the backing that drove Public Enemy’s worldwide recognition.
American hip-hop had an established moat. The distribution, marketing, and promotional advantages were all in the United States. Other countries valued the product but didn’t have the resources to replicate its success (yet).
Focus on unique success
As American hip-hop increased its worldwide popularity, the industry tried to strengthen its competitive advantage by tailoring the mainstream U.S. sound for international appeal. More production value, less lyricism.
It’s a business decision that has fattened the pockets of American rappers. But it’s also left space for international artists to serve their own regions since technology had reduced the barriers to entry. The low-hanging fruit opportunities were for artists outside the U.S. to tell the stories that American rappers couldn’t. Many of them followed Public Enemy’s footsteps and shed light on their societal issues.
In France, rap duo PNL made a name for itself portraying life in the banlieue—the housing projects where immigrants often live. As Vogue described the group’s sound, “it’s a different, more realistic view of France, not just Jane Birkin chomping down on a baguette.”
From DJ Booth:
“A co-sign from Drake is commonly accepted as worth its weight in streams… But when Canada’s most famous anglophile requested to remix a song by France’s most prominent rap act, he was rebuffed. PNL, an independent rap group formed in 2014 by two brothers, Tarik and Nabil Andrieu, don’t collaborate with other artists, entertain interviews or acknowledge the press. Sorry, Drake.”
Turning down Drake is a pretty strong flex. It shows PNL’s confidence in its fanbase. And plus, can the OVO Brand risk another booing incident like at Tyler, The Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival? Might be too soon.
Divine, India’s biggest rapper, focuses on class issues from his poor upbringing in Mumbai. His inspirations—Nas and Eminem—showed him how it’s done, then he made it his own. Like PNL, Divine built his brand where he was uniquely positioned to succeed. Even if an American learned how to rap in Hindi, it wouldn’t hit the same.
The international scene is not just limited to music about the struggle. Afrobeats, which is largely party music, has continued to grow in popularity. The sound, which originates from Nigeria and Ghana, has crossed continents. The sound has already benefitted from Drake’s co-sign in 2016 with Wizkid’s feature in “One Dance.”
The rise of Afrobeats is reminiscent of dancehall music’s rise twenty years ago. As a Jamaican, it was dope to see Sean Paul and Beenie Man become stars on the global stage. Every A-List rapper wanted a reggae fusion collaboration. But as The Fader called out, dancehall’s moment came and went because the music industry put the cart before the horse:
“Acts like Tanto Metro & Devonte and Elephant Man had major label deals that didn’t yield the global longevity they implicitly promised… How, for instance, do you bolster record sales with concerts, and ramp up radio spins with tried-and-true station visits, if the artist can’t get a US visa?… Historically, I’ve watched a lot of things stall when you have songs and records that get big to a point and then you’re trying to push them in the Midwest or certain places in the South.”
Regulatory factors were overlooked. Contingency plans were nonexistent. There were no local partnerships to address these solvable issues. Instead of ‘Def Jam Jamaica,’ we got Def Jam Vendetta.
The major labels have seemingly learned their lesson with a more thoughtful approach to the West African market. Sony Music opened its Nigeria office in 2016. Universal Music Group opened its division in 2018. UK’s Afro B was recently signed to EMPIRE. And earlier this year, Warner made a partnership deal with Nigerian label Chocolate City.
Monetization is a challenge
International popularity is no longer an issue for rappers outside the U.S., but monetization is. Music piracy is still rampant across the world. Here’s what I wrote about Indian hip-hop in a recent Trapital member update:
“According to Music Ally, just 1% of the monthly active users of music streaming services pay for their service. Spotify has boasted about its subscriber growth in India, but a majority of those users are likely on free trials and heavily-subsidized promotional offers. Music piracy is also a huge challenge in India. It’s nearly twice as high as in other countries.”
Spotify sells monthly subscriptions for less than $2 in India and still pushes to gain traction. The country’s own digital streaming providers, Ganaa and JioSaavn, are priced lower and have had strong growth, but run at a steep operating loss and needed an influx of capital, respectively.
In Nigeria, where piracy is equally rampant, many artists rely on revenue from ringback tones. Yes, the same ringback tones that made J-Kwon, Chingy, and Boost Mobile tons of money back in 2005. It was a $100 million market in Nigeria in 2017, but that shows how much opportunity there is for additional revenue streams.
Strength in partnerships
The goal of these new Nigerian record labels is to develop the infrastructure so it can better support artists. In thirty years, Nigeria’s population will double. It will surpass the United States and become the third-most populous country in the world. The audience will be there, but the monetization strategy can’t replicate the U.S. and Europe and expect the same success.
If we simplify the industry, there are two ways to make money:
- extract money from fans
- extract money from those who want access to fans
In regions where the fan’s willingness (ability) to pay is lower, artists rely on partnerships, licensing, and branding to earn their keep.
India’s Divine has been at the forefront of this. Instead of relying on streaming payouts from the 1% who pay monthly subscriptions, he’s been on his partnership game. One of his songs was featured in a Netflix original series. This year he released a semi-autobiographical film, Gully Life, about his rise in hip-hop. The film has drawn comparisons to 8 Mile, the Eminem film that navigated its own class issues.
The companies that succeed in these markets will act less like traditional record labels and more like management partners that can add value beyond music production. But that doesn’t mean 360 deals. It means offering a wide range of options to aide monetization, like Roc Nation’s management deals. Smaller deals might start with feature songs on Indian Bollywood or Nigerian Nollywood films, but the opportunities will expand from there.
The U.S. hip-hop market is starting to take after the global hip-hop market, which is a sign of changing times.
One of the most popular exposure-building opportunities in recent years has been The Rap of China, the Chinese rap competition show. When the show launched in 2017, it reached 100 million viewers within its first four hours of airing, and 1.3 billion in the first month. While the show had to adjust its content due to heavy Chinese government censorship, it has lived on to see its third season.
Several contestants prided themselves on rapping in both Mandarin and English. Bilingual lyricism was also a strong theme throughout Netflix’s Rhythm + Flow, the U.S.-oriented hip-hop competition show. In similar fashion, its popular contestants could rap in both Spanish and English. These are not coincidences.
The world has noticed the massive success of bilingual hits like Cardi B, J Balvin, and Bad Bunny’s “I Like It.” Even though a meme-oriented song like “Old Town Road” broke a record set by a bilingual hit like “Despacito,” and even though I wrote an article on how Lil’ Nas X will impact hip-hop, the global landscape will look more like “Despacito” than “Old Town Road.”
There’s an opportunity though, to blend both approaches. Given today’s landscape, someone’s probably working on it as we speak. And more likely than not, that someone lives outside the U.S.
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Trapital is written by Dan Runcie: info [at] trapital.co