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For decades, New York and LA had a stronghold over the American hip-hop industry. And although recent years have seen Atlanta and Toronto dominate the US charts, there are still many obstacles for rap artists from other regions hoping to break the mainstream.

But there’s something brewing in these underdog states. The DMV area – which includes D.C., Maryland and Virginia – is a hotbed of talent that’s had few moments in the sun. In 2017, GoldLink created a powerful endorsement for the area when he dropped Crew – a smooth anthem featuring fellow Washington D.C. rapper Shy Glizzy alongside Baltimore singer Brent Faiyaz. At the time of writing, Crew has racked up over 56 million views on YouTube, and it’s been nominated for the Best Rap/Sung Performance award at the Grammys alongside tracks from Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and SZA.

“I didn’t anticipate [Crew] being so big but I knew it was something special,” GoldLink tells me on a snowy day in London. The community spirit of the collaborators seeped into the DNA of the track, and he credits this for its rampant success. “It was one of the most natural and organic songs I’ve ever made, and a lot of that was because of these guys.”

GoldLink also reps his area by incorporating the go-go genre into his style. Go-go has traditionally been the region’s black sound, enjoying prominence from the mid-60s and 70s through to the old school hip-hop era and the more modern bounce beat. But it never quite managed to achieve nationwide success – fans of The Wire might recall Stringer Bell telling a character from D.C. that he “can’t stand that go-go shit”. While it has its roots in funk like most popular black music genres, go-go differs slightly as it exists primarily as a dance hall sound. GoldLink’s 2017 album At What Cost, which includes DMV artists Mya, April George, Kokayi and Wale, was a candid love letter to his hometown that also conjured a nostalgic reimagining of the go-go sound – which GoldLink has called ‘future bounce’.

Despite GoldLink’s recent surge in success, the 24-year-old remains steadfast in his goal of putting D.C. on the map. The state’s other flag-bearer, Wale, hasn’t been able to do it alone: despite his commercial success, a lot of serious rap fans are still waiting to be convinced by him. Fat Trel – who, like Wale, is signed to Rick Ross’s Maybach Music label – has reached a stage in his career where a mainstream breakthrough seems unlikely. But GoldLink thinks that, with all the dark times his city has been through, it’s important now more than ever that D.C. is recognised globally for its music culture, which derives from its African American roots. While we’re on the subject of identity, he describes himself as “the epitome of black rap,” and it’s not just an inflated ego talking. “It’s more than being just black. It’s chic, eccentric, Afrocentric, fun and international and that’s what rap is,” he adds.

On his track We Will Never Die, GoldLink raps, “Goddamn, young Link straight from the slums runnin’ shit here/ You don’t know what I been through for us to start gunnin’ round here“. It’s a reminder that despite how far he’s come, his humble beginnings aren’t a distant memory. In 2017, it’s reported that there were 89 shootings and 116 homicides in the D.C. area. I can sense that GoldLink laments these kinds of statistics, but also acknowledges that no matter how much the city undergoes change through gentrification, it’s something he can’t ignore. “It’s not always love, but we find a way to get along,” he says of the community he grew up with.

GoldLink shines a colourful, rhythmic light on D.C.’s rich music culture, and in 2018 we can expect him to be “sticking to his guns, collaborating with more artists and trying to evolve”. Atlanta rap was barely known before OutKast welcomed us on Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and it took Drake to truly put the Six on the map. Whatever happens from here, GoldLink will go down in history as an artist who gave the DMV an anthem of its own to proudly boast about.

Photography: Jack McKain

At What Cost is out now via RCA
GoldLink appears at Sónar Barcelona, 14-16 June