At just 22 years old, French rapper Mohamed Sylla, better known by his stage name, MHD, is already making his mark on the international music scene. The rising star performed at U Street Music Hall this past Friday to a venue packed with eager fans.
MHD, whose stage name is a play on his given name, got his start two years ago when he posted his first single to YouTube, “Afro Trap Part.1 (La Moula).” The single garnered so much attention that he began releasing more videos, and eventually, his eponymous debut studio album. By the end of 2015, MHD had quit his job as a pizza delivery man and was pursuing music full-time: this commitment led to a commercial deal with Adidas and a record deal with Universal Music affiliates — Artside in France and Capitol Records in America.
MHD, who is half-Guinean and half-Senegalese, grew up in the 19th arrondissement in Paris — known for its large population of immigrants, particularly those of North African descent — and has cited his neighborhood as a key source of musical inspiration. MHD classifies his music as “Afro Trap,” a genre that conflates the rhythms and beats of trap music with the language and themes of African music. His hit tracks include “A Kele Nta” and “Wanyinyin,” which include lyrics in Zulu. A tribute to the concept of duality, the album artwork for his debut album, “MHD,” features a photo of him in black and white with two outstretched hands, each dripping with paint: one is covered with the colors of the French flag and the other with those of the Senegalese and Guinean flags. “MHD” reached number two on the French charts in 2016, effectively launching MHD’s career and leading him to tour across France, various countries in Africa, and now, for the first time, the United States.
Although his rise to popularity has primarily taken place in France, MHD’s performance at U Street Music Hall made it clear that he has a strong, if small, group of fans based in the U.S. Even before the concert began, the space was abuzz with excited energy. For the audience, attending this concert was not a spur-of-the-moment decision — it was there for MHD. It was understandably exciting to see a fast-rising star in such an intimate venue: U Street Music Hall holds up to 500 audience members, a relatively small crowd for an artist who has performed for crowds of over 60,000. However, the audience at the venue had the energy of a much larger group and MHD treated them as such — even without props or a large stage, his presence filled the room.
As soon as he came on stage, almost every phone in the audience shot up to take photos and videos, and most remained aloft for the duration of his performance. MHD spoke to the audience almost exclusively in French, and the response suggested that few, if any, of the audience members were solely English-speaking. Most of the attendees were young African French-speakers, though there was also a notable presence of French teenagers from D.C. Fans who knew the words to most of MHD’s songs, though his most popular numbers naturally elicited the most upbeat responses — he performed “Afro Trap, Part.4 (Fais Le Mouv)” twice, once as the encore because the audience response to it was so overwhelming.
For hits like “La Moula,” “Fais Le Mouv,” and “Afro Trap Part.7 (La Puissance),” the audience seemed to know every lyric, even singing entire verses while MHD held the microphone out. The excitement was energizing and powerful; MHD stopped at one point to remark, “L’ambiance est incroyable,” — “This atmosphere is incredible.”
One of the most distinctive aspects of MHD’s concert was the call-and-response interaction that filled many of the pauses between songs. One of the most popular phrases he yelled was “Oh, vous êtes fatigués?” to which the audience would respond, screaming and jumping, “On n’est pas fatigué!” — “Are you tired?” “We’re not tired!” MHD constantly checked to make sure the audience’s energy level was high, even admitting that he was tired and making it clear that the energy of the crowd was fueling his performance.
There seemed to be an overwhelming sentiment of camaraderie: being an MHD fan in America is not common, and the audience members were aware that they were among people who understood their love for his music. The audience response to MHD was positive and vibrant; unlike what is often seen at American rap concerts, people felt inspired and excited to be seeing MHD perform.
Although past French musicians tend not to achieve mainstream success in the U.S., the reaction to MHD at his performance at U Street Music Hall suggests that he may be one of the few that makes his name known. Using his D.C. reception as an indicator, MHD is on track for a large-scale takeover.