Universal Launches Def Jam Africa as Its Latest Big Bet on the Continent

Def Jam is going international. A little more than a half a year after launching Def Jam South East Asia, Universal Music Group today announced Def Jam Africa, a new division based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Lagos, Nigeria, that will focus on “hip-hop, Afrobeats and trap talent in Africa” and report to Universal Music Sub-Saharan Africa & South Africa Managing Director Sipho Dlamini.

Over the past few years, the major labels have invested more aggressively in Africa – both to market streaming services and, especially, to sign talent — and Universal now has offices in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Senegal, and Morocco. Until recently, however, the company’s ventures there haven’t had as much freedom to shape their brand identities as their U.S. counterparts.

Def Jam Africa could change that. “In the U.S., [Universal Music has] Republic, Interscope, Def Jam, Capitol – labels that can each define their own DNA,” Dlamini told Billboard in an interview in the new “Africa Now” issue. “In Africa, we’ve only ever operated Universal, and under that umbrella you might have jazz, gospel, dance, and hip-hop. What Def Jam Africa allows us to do is create an aspirational label. If a kid is making hip-hop, we want him to say, ‘I want to sign to Def Jam Africa.'”

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Taking Def Jam to Africa and other markets could give Universal additional leverage at a time when the major labels are competing more with indies to sign emerging hip-hop acts. “Def Jam is a globally recognized brand, synonymous with excellence in hip-hop,” Def Jam Recordings interim chairman & CEO Jeff Harleston said in Universal’s announcement. Fittingly, the new division’s logo combines the image of a tonearm Def Jam uses on its vinyl releases with a map of Africa.

Much of that talent is in hip-hop – or in genres that contain elements of it. Nasty C is already being marketed with Def Jam in the U.S., for example, and Dlamini described the rapper as “hip-hop – not an African version of hip-hop, but hip-hop.” Nasty C has already had a hit in Japan with “Chatanoshi,” a collaboration with Universal Japan rapper JP the Wavy.

While Def Jam Africa may be best positioned to sign talent on the continent, it will also work with its international counterparts to set up artists for global success. With Nasty C, for example, Dlamini told Billboard that Def Jam’s team in New York set up writing camps in the U.S., including a weeklong one in Atlanta. “Nasty C is as much a Def Jam artist in New York,” Dlamini says, “as he is an artist from South Africa.”

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Def Jam Africa already has a roster that includes South African rappers Cassper Nyovest and Nasty C, as well as several Nigerian acts. Although so far international interest has focused on the Afrobeats scene in Nigeria and Ghana, Dlamini said that this is “just the beginning” of the continent’s potential to shape popular music. “It’s not about trying to build a conveyor belt where we churn out the same thing over and over,” he said. “There are pockets of excellence all over Africa.”

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