Mohamed the Man: a Conversation with French Rapper MHD

by Sundai Johnson

Photographed by Jake Harrison

Photographed by Jake Harrison

With a subtle command of the camera, he stands, pivoting slightly left, slightly right. A dip, and rise of a close-shaven chin, bright with red-dye. His bold, youthful features paired with the disposition of a wise, and much older man, are evidence of a life lived beyond its years.

Redefining variations of trap music, not solely in terms of sound, but also in terms of content, twenty-four year old French rapper Mohamed Diaby, more widely known as MHD, is an artist stretching the narratives put forth through a genre of music that he calls Afro-trap. He sit downs, his manager between us to translate and pass me his French.

In the romantic lilt of his home tongue, MHD explained that, “ [he] started doing music two years ago by doing freestyle on Youtube and the internet, and released [his] first album (MHD) in April 2016”. When asked of the kind of story he hopes to tell through his music, he responded with a message that, I later found, is a reflection of his overall character. He stated that, “[His] music is to give motivation to young people, to give them strength and hope”. To young people he says, “believe in yourself and what you can do and what you want and even if you start from nothing”. The determination to be the architect of his future, and what he puts forth through his music, is principle in his work as an artist.

Photographed by Jake Harrison

Photographed by Jake Harrison

You coined your music Afro-trap. Can you tell me more about “Afro-Trap” and how that came to be?

Before doing [Afro-trap], I was in a collective in my neighborhood, 19 Réseaux.  It was trap music, and I would take these songs and the lyrics and put them on Afro-instrumentals. I took the flow of the trap music I had from my first group, and put it on something more Afro in the composition and production of my project.

And with the collective, are you still working with the people you were in the collective with?

Yeah we’re still friends, we still see each other, I still work with some of them--one of them is on my album. All of them have their own projects or things [they’re working on] and if I can help on anything, they know that I’m still here, and we still support each other.

It’s a family.

Yeah, it’s a family.

Your music has a lot of really upbeat, joyful sounds to it,  what has inspired that joy? Because I think with trap music, we don’t always think about it in that way, so in this sense your music brings something really unique to that title. Where does that joy come from?

Since the beginning, I have tried to do it my own way--and I’m like that, I’m always positive. I’m always joyful, and in my own way, I’m always trying to make it different from the others, with no naked girls, no drugs, no violence--because I’m not like that in life and don’t want to play a game and be someone I’m not. For me, it’s natural to be positive and joyful.

Photographed by Jake Harrison

Photographed by Jake Harrison

I like that and feel it’s deeply important at a time where there is a lot of pressure to be and look like what we see and what is around us. It says something to be able to push back against that. So, I just want to talk a little bit about your most recent album, 19,  what you feel you accomplished with the album, and how you feel like it’s different from your earlier work?

On the first album (MHD), it was made very quickly. It was more like dance and joy and happiness-- a lot of energy. It’s now been two years since then--two years between the two albums. I wanted to talk more about myself, more about “Mohamed” the real man, not only MHD the artist. So it’s more personal. I lived a lot of things between these two years. I write more on the second album about myself and about what I live, where on the first album, it was more positive, dance music.

I’m sure fans will appreciate seeing more of a more personal side of you. You’re a younger artist, which is impressive in its own right, but also that gives you the room for a long body of work. So thinking forward, what can we expect from you in the future?

If I’m still here a long time, I will see later *laughing* because now I don’t know. I don’t know yet, but there’s a lot of opportunities I can take-- like with movies and cinema, and executive producing, where I have my own artists. Music yes, but I don’t think I’ll make music all my life.

What do you feel is most important that people know about you or your work?

That it’s not easy--this work and this life. There are a lot of things you can’t do when you have this life. This life is not easy and you have to be really careful about that. You have a lot of attention on you. You also have to be careful of yourself and how you feel it, and how you live it.

As we closed, I asked his manager to thank him for his transparency, and granting me a glimpse of the philosophy behind his work. In response to this, Mohamed so affectionately stated, in a delicately collapsed accent, “I’m joking. I speak English.” Unbeknownst to me,  he did in fact speak some English, but felt more comfortable speaking his truths in his own tongue. While small, this is another example of his commitment to remain aligned with what feels most authentic for him.

Introspective and clearly, quite the comedian, Mohamed is a picture of what it means to be an individual. It does not require defiance in a traditional sense, or a certain demeanor of risque, it is simply, honesty. As we traversed language and interpretation--he seeking to tell a small portion of his story, and I seeking to tell it correctly--this surely was not lost in translation.

His sound is comprised of the lyrical flow of trap, the hip-hop subgenre, over Afro beats. The black and white visuals and piano instrumentals from “XIX”, a track from his most recent album 19, speak to a certain vulnerability in this project, where notions of identity, trust, and loyalty are themes throughout.

What MHD does with Afro-trap is a fusion of cross-cultural sounds, with lyrics that maintain the integrity of his narrative. He is expanding what is defined within the trap-genre, and how we define genre overall. I was reminded recently, in conversation, that we are currently in an era where the lines between genres are blurred. How we define a sound is becoming less attached to the label and more attached to the artist or work itself. I found this to be true in speaking with MHD. Maybe it is not revolutionary, but the ability to define something for what it is, tears down some of the limitations labels give us, in any context. We are forced to listen for what it is, not for what we expect it to be based on its title--its namesake. Sounds a lot like what we are being forced to do with each other as well.

Written by Sundai Johnson

Photographed by Jake Harrison