Syllart Records: an interview with The ‘Motown Of African Music’


It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to call Syllart Records the Motown of African music. Set up in Paris, 1978 by super producer Ibrahima Sylla, the label – also  known as Syllart Productions- has a catalogue some 30,000 titles deep, with over 1000 of those records produced by Ibrahima himself. In a run that lasted over 30 years, Syllart signed up names such as Baaba Maal, Alpha Blondy and Selif Keita- and broke them out of the world music ghetto to have wider pop success. Beyond these big successes, the label also released numerous underground classics, the majority of which still remain uncatalogued on Discogs. Of those that have made it onto the site, you can expect to spend three figures to score some of the best – check out Gestu de Dakar’s 1981 LP Diabar for some crazy Afro Latin dance tracks, with an even crazier price tag.

When Ibrahima passed away in 2013, Syllart could easily have fallen away. Instead, his daughter Binetou Sylla, then only 24, stepped in to take control of the business she’d grown up around.  Now she’s looking to push Syllart firmly back into the limelight with a new compilation; Afrodias' Génération Enjaillement. The album rounds up 17 of the new wave of artists from Africa and the African diaspora who are fusing hip hop with African aesthetics, using a deftness of touch and a forthright embracing of their own heritage to push rap into unfamiliar new directions. The ambition of the compilation is plain to see – Sylla has gathered together artists from Britain, Haiti, Guyana, Ivory Coast, France, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Mali, Belgium, the USA and more, and managed to make the whole thing whole together. It stands as a fascinating snapshot of kids delivering an update of the move that made Fela famous – blending American club jams with local aesthetics and getting something new in the process.

We phoned Binetou to talk about how she was moving Syllart forward. She apologised for her bad English (unnecessarily as it turned out) and proceeded to lay out her take on a new musical movement

Is this the first thing you’ve done since taking over Syllart?

Not the first thing, no. I did something with a Malian singer in November, and I’ve made some re-issues of afro-funk music, but this is the first project I’ve managed from A to Z. And also it’s the first project of pure rap music for the label. It’s something new. We’ve worked with African popular music, but this is the first time we’ve worked with rap, hip hop, afrotrap music.

Do you think there are any fans of the label who will be resistant to you moving it forward?

Ummm. I think it’s true that some of our followers are going to be surprised. But at the same time, I’m 27- I’ve run the label since I was 24, so I’m going to continue with new projects in a new way. I think people will understand this. Also, I can’t be unaware of what’s happening in the diaspora with afrobeats and afropop. It’s like, if you don’t understand this, and work with this and you’re one of the biggest African labels? For me, that would be weird. So it’s natural. I’m going to be doing different projects though – I’m not choosing one thing or one type of music. The label has released so much different music over the years – the important thing is to make a connection between the old and the new, and show that this new generation want to show the African roots of their music, and show how complex their music is. It’s very important for us as a label, because we’ve produced music for 30 years. It’s very cool to see this new generation bring this music to modern ears, and that they’re making new sounds, afrobeats, afrotrap, electro – the continuation is very cool for me.

I’ve heard you use a few different terms to describe the music on the compilation, do you think it needs a genre name? Should it just be called rap?

My opinion is that we don’t have to look at this fresh music, which is very diverse – it’s different in South Africa or in Nigeria – we don’t have to say there’s one word for this. If we do this we’ll make the same mistake we made with ‘world music’ in the 80s. It’s why, on my compilation, I said it was “music of the enjoyment generation” – I refused to make a new word to sum up the music; this is rap music. I didn’t choose to put [current Nigerian Afrobeats stars] P Square, or Davido, or even Wizkid on this, because to me they don’t make rap music, they make AfroPop, and for my compilation I really cared that I only choose rappers and MCs. It’s a mixtape of hip hop, hip hop from Africa and the African diaspora. The artists show their African roots in different ways, sometimes in the music, sometimes in the way they dance or feel, it’s more a state of mind than a single kind of music that can be explained in one word. I’m working on the second volume of the project now, I want to continue to show this movement.

It seems to me that the one linking thread through the compilation is an engagement with American hip hop

I can’t really say that, because then all the story would be about America. This project is about a generation from Europe, from Africa, from the Caribbean who aren’t shy of their African heritage, they aren’t shy about creolising between the Western and the African. Hip hop has been in Africa for over 20 years – it’s not new to have a rapper in Africa, what’s new is that the current MCs are more proud, more confident to show the afro side of their music. It’s new that when people see a video of, say,  Wizkid, they are seeing an artist who isn’t shy, they can see an artist who takes a Western culture, who listens to Chris Brown and all these American artists, but who also wants to be African. The two sides can be mixed and can be attractive, and that’s the link through the compilation, and the spirit of Afrodias.

So with such a broad back catalogue, are you going to encourage any of the producers to sample any of the music you own, to bring it up to date?

Yeah, yeah, of course. I want this. As I said at the beginning of the interview, it’s a symbol of our label, being like a Motown of African artists, we had very big traditional and modern artists in the 80s and 90s, and we have to continue to produce a new generation. For me also it’s important to show the world that African music is very powerful, it’s very rich. We were doing important music in the 70s and 80s, afrorock, afrofunk, very important stuff, but the new projects take this music, assimilate this music, and have modernised it. We have some rappers who sample some of our catalogue, and I know that this is just the beginning – all the roots of hip hop, of blues, of jazz is from Africa, so if some new producer, some new beat maker wants some inspiration, I think it’s a good place to look.

Afrodias' Génération Enjaillement is available now via Syllart Records 

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