Last year was a complete dumpster fire for live music, yet audiophiles were still on board to discover new artists and albums to get excited about, from the super Black-is-beautiful vibes of Sault to the intimate melodies of Nubya Garcia. Musical festivals, like Coachella for instance, may still be on hold, but with COVID-19 vaccines rolling out across the nation — and, let’s be honest, Kamala Harris in the White House– there is a glimmer of hope about 2021, musical artists included.
To mark the occasion, ESSENCE is presenting its list of 2021 artists to watch: singers, songwriters, and musicians who are poised to have breakout moments in the very near future. Some of these acts may already be seeping into your timelines on social media, but you’ll want to follow the names on this list very closely, as many will become new favorites. Keep this link bookmarked and share it with your friends so you can brag that you knew about them first.
Listed in no ranking order, scroll below to meet 21 artists to watch in 2021.
Who is Arlo Parks: Meet the talented R&B singer and songwriter who creates songs filled with warmth, empathy, and pure harmony. Her 2019 EP, Sophie, quickly vaulted her into the British airwaves, making it easy to see why Parks was shortlisted as one of BBC’s breakthrough acts for the Sound of 2020. If songs like “Black Dog” or “Hurt” don’t convince you of her skills, you’ll swear you were always a fan when Collapsed in Sunbeams — her debut album — releases later this week (Jan. 29). Her star is only beginning to rise and her stunning abilities will envelope any welcoming ear.
Where to Start:“Sophie,”“Eugene,”“Last Christmas,” and “Second Guessing”.
Who is Bongeziwe Mabandla: Regarded as the “enigmatic spirit of African Soul,” this South African savant has steadily built a sound for himself that has crossed borders and waters with ease. At last year’s AfroPunk, Mabandla stunned at-home viewers with his blend of Paul Simon vibes and elegant lyrics in isiXhosa, accompanied by his acoustic guitar skills. Global audiences have recently embraced his 2020 effort, iimini (“days”), which beautifully details the rising love and inevitable heartbreak of a relationship, and sees him as an artist cementing his standing as an international voice of truth.
Where to Start:Umlilo (“fire”), Mangaliso (“miracle”), “isiphelo” (#Untitled), and “Ndokulandela” (“I will follow you”)
Who is Elaine: Ndivhuwo Elaine Mukheli is known all over South Africa mononymously as Elaine — and with perfectly good reason. She is the first independent female artist to ever reach No. 1 on both the national iTunes and Apple Music charts, all while studying law at the University of the Witwatersrand. Elements has captured the attention of a young generation, who all view the 21-year-old as a reflection of their voices. Deeply steeped in trap-soul, alt-R&B, Neo-soul, and fluent in her country’s style and vibe — Elaine is a not-so-distant cousin to that of Tsakani Mhinga and H.E.R. Don’t skip out on hearing South Africa’s newest sensation before anyone here in America does.
Where to Start:“Risky,”“I Just Wanna Know,”“Say It,” and “I/You”.
Who is Black Coffee: Nkosinathi Innocent Maphumulo’s Subconsciously has scored 100 million streams, and it hasn’t even officially dropped yet. The internationally-renowned, locally-respected DJ, producer, and singer — aka Black Coffee — has excited dance floors with his brand of home-brewed house music. After making his initial splash with a remix to Hugh Masekela’s Stimela, Maphumulo continues to deliver deliciousness over beats as audiophiles consciously get ready for his upcoming album, which drops Feb. 5.
Where to Start:“Wish You Were Here” [Blond:ish Morning Remix], “LaLaLa”, We Are One, and Pieces of Me.
Who is Peyton: This Houston-to-LA R&B singer-songwriter is a one-of-a-kind wunderkind. Her energy is captivating, yet constrained. Her songs are open and relatable no matter where you come from. And at such a young age, Peyton is already a stand-out artist on the venerable Stones Throw indie record label. Able to cast a spell with a turn of phrase, she has already subconsciously (see what I did there?) infiltrated our earholes with jams like “Sweet Honey” and “Lifeline” being featured on Issa Rae’s Insecure. A personal favorite, Peyton’s vulnerable approach to R&B is wholly her own, and upon listening to her work, you’ll love her all the more for it.
Where to Start:“Tell Me,” “White Nikes in the Rain,” “to spare,” and “Pey-2-O”.
Who is Ian Isiah: The gospel-infused, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn good human being is irrepressible when live on stage. Formerly a creative member of the design team with Shayne Oliver from Hood by Air, Isiah’s energy is turnt way past 11 and the music is along for the ride with its rich and provocative vibes. Simply by being true to self, the genderless creative presses the needle on holier-than-thou aesthetics in favor of pan-everything harmonies that have become Ian Isiah’s trademark sound. Nowhere close to being considered a “one-hit-wonder queen,” this nimble singer-songwriter will have fans chanting “Princess Pouty” in 2021.
Where to Start:“Bougie Heart,”“Princess Pouty” (DJ Haram Remix), “Holy Will”, and AUNTIE.
Who is Gaidaa: If you like trouble, then you’ve already heard of this Dutch-Sudanese hip-hop/R&B badass from the Netherlands. Full disclosure: Trouble is always welcomed at The Playlist. Her pared-back instrumentals, dulcet tones, vivid storytelling, and stunning creativity connects listeners to Gaidaa’s intent: to pull us into the tapestries of her soul. “Morning Blue” is reminiscent of that moment when an act announces their presence and the world listens happily. A necessary entry for ESSENCE’s Artist to Watch list, Gaidaa’s music brings comfort and unity that will always stand out no matter the charge.
Where to Start:“I Like Trouble,”“Morning Blue,”“Nothing Nice,” and Overture.
Who is Black Haüs: There wasn’t enough Black Boy Joy blaring out the speakers last year, and understandably so. It was very tough to scream out “Alright” without following it up with “ENOUGH!” — but for Jeffrey, Taylor, Lyn, and Siid, they made music that was free and soul-stirring. Better known as Black Haüs, this Greensboro, NC quartet has united in the name of beautiful music and blossomed from the small college underground scene. Blending alt-rap with funk and punk rock sensibilities, Black Haüs is equal parts sunshine and shock, making for a layered, emotional experience not to be missed as we dive deeper into this new year.
Where to Start:“Burn It Down,”“Rich Petty,”“Cool Bleu,” and “Oh Shit!”.
Who is Mayra Andrade: Performing since her teenage years, this vocal dynamo placed Cape Verde in her loving arms as her music and stories grew. The 35-year-old composer is easily the freshest crioulo (“Creole”) voice in World music and her efforts to spread Afrobeats has not gone unnoticed. With advice from legendary artist such as Omara Portundo and Orlando Pantera, Andrade’s vocals has changed music and even found Madonna (yes, Madonna) singing in crioulo during her MadameX tour. If you love your Afrobeats with a Cuban-Cabo Verdean touches of spice, then this act — described as the new Cesaria Evora — is one voice to keep on repeat.
Where to Start:“We Used to Call It Love,”Manga, Navega, and Studio 105.
Who is Blxst: A man of many talents, this South Central Los Angeles producer and rapper has put in work for the likes of Kendrick Lamar and YG. Now, his “first impression,” a debut project titled No Love Lost, has kept L.A. in full championship celebration mode. With easily one of 2020’s best EPs as his first one out, respect for his musical growth continues to come in the form of praise from Dom Kennedy, Ty Dolla $ign, and J. Cole. Hearing his music and the accolades show just how far Blxst has come and how much his sound is important to audiophiles going back outside as we near sexy summer SZN.
Where to Start:“Hurt,”“Got It All,”“Gang Slide,” and No Love Lost.
Who is (Liv).e: Pronounced “Liv” — the ‘e’ is silent — and thankfully the music is not. The Dallas, Texas-born Olivia Williams has built recognition in a short period of time because her lo-fi sounds evade categorization. Her supporters range from hometown heroes (Erykah Badu) to underground kings (Jon Bap) to afrofuturists (Janelle Monae) — all who feels like she is from the same tribe. An unpredictable artist, none of her free-flowing ditties are straightforward, pulling back the curtain at the creative process on a ground-level view. It is that sort of carefree risk-taking that will inspire others to do the same with their own passion. Encourage your ears and fingers to tune in to this emerging and innovative talent.
Where to Start:“High Ceilings,”“Stories with Aunt Liv,”F.R.A.N.K., and Hoopdreams.
Who is Larry June: The hustler’s spirit lives within this Bay Area bawse, better known as the “most healthiest rapper in the game”. Formerly signed to Warner Bros. Records, June was still serving organics to streaming services, including the full-length mixtape Sock It To Me, and EPs Larry and Orange Season. June often raps about his treks to Traders Joe’s and his favorite seven-dollar smoothies with relative ease. Count rappers like Curren$y, Zacari, and Chuck Inglish as frequent collaborators who co-star when he produces such autobiographical lines, and keep an eye out for his specialty brand of oranges to (possibly) drop in 2021.
Where to Start:“Lets Get Smoothies,”“Oranges on a Jet,”Good Job Larry, and Larry TWO.
Who is Sault: Let me personally thank Chris Thomas for putting me on to Sault early. Despite critical acclaim, the mysterious British music collective eschew public statements to let the work speak for them instead. Last year’s Untitled series (Black Is and Rise, respectively) found the Inflo-produced projects focusing on Black-centric issues and became a cherish item in many a music fiend’s collection. Sault, who’ve done a fine job of hiding in plain sight in a time of online sleuthing, draw on dub, gospel, and funk to raise a fist against hate and spread love in a Blackalicious way. Don’t dare lose yourself, beautiful, and expect Sault to add more electricity to this post-Negro Solstice environment.
Where to Start:“Son Shine,”“The Black & Gold,”5, and 7.
strong>Who is Bri Steves: Philly’s own sing-rap superstar-on-the-rise is making in-roads thanks to her gritty lyrics and glam sensibilities. Unlike her predecessor Eve, Steves kept it homegrown, attending Temple University while putting in hours with the pen and pad. Proven as an indie star that can hold her own no matter the situation, the “Jealousy” and “Sober” songwriter has worked with Sonny Digital, had Kendrick Lamar bring her out to make Made in America great again, and recently went on tour with H.E.R. For that perfect blend of aggression and vulnerability, keep Bri Steves high on your must-play list.
Where to Start:“Late Night,”“Miami,”“Regrets,”, “Stick Up” and “Anti Queen”.
Kota the Friend
Who is Kota the Friend: Born and bred Brooklyn, Kota The Friend has been exactly that to music nerds and Black people all over the globe. His debut mixtape, Palm Tree Liquor, and his first indie studio project Anything secured his spot as a fresh voice with a next-gen approach. Fota, in this writer’s opinion, was the tipping point for many new listeners who heard about Kota, but didn’t know about the hype. Thankfully, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is a fan. His “Lupita’s Interlude” from 2020’s Everything appeared on President Joe Biden and VP Kamala Harris’ inauguration playlist, and he has enjoyed a career ascent ever since. Be sure to send a friend request to Kota and let these songs get you through your day.
Where to Start:“Black Sheep,”“Church,”“B.Q.E,” and Lyrics to GO, Vol. 2
Who is Due Saleh: In the weeks and months following the killing of George Floyd, Sudanese-American songwriter and poet, Dua Saleh, released a single addressing police brutality in their local Minneapolis. A personal favorite, the non-binary recording artist’s ability to connect with the everyday person is a rarity in an industry full of false-faced people and music. Characterized as a pop star with revolutionary tendencies, Dua Saleh’s music defies genres and crosses media. Saleh acts in theatre in Minneapolis and has a recurring role on the Netflix series Sex Education.
Where to Start:“Warm Pants” (Com Truise Remix), “umbrellar,”“hellbound,” and Nūr.
Who is Channel Tres: There is no one else that you can imagine Sheldon Young, known professionally as singer-producer Channel Tres, as being other than himself. Creating from a healthy place, the critically acclaimed Compton DJ has taken listeners on a ride that sometimes is more exciting than getting to the destination. 2020 was a coming out party of sorts, as collaborators like Disclosure, Tyler, the Creator, JPEGMAFIA, and more have made his name ring bells from sea to shining sea. The divine guides those celebrated moves that come from the self-proclaimed “Controller,” and with the Godmode signee on the right path, you should make Channel the next addition to your audio collection.
Where to Start:“Glide,”“Jet Black,”Black Moses, and i can’t go outside.
Who is Emmavie: Pronounced Emma-Vee, this masterful multi-hyphenate from London is a “star of the now” who specializes in deeply rich R&B full of audio experimentation. Anyone listening to her is destined to kick off the rest of their year on a high note because Emmavie’s “limitless, soulful, future R&B” is Joe Kay co-signed and The Playlist approved. Inspired by Missy Elliot, Timbaland, and The Neptunes, Emmavie boasts a cavalcade of colorful R&B flavors that will have any serious music nerd’s ears wide open. And with certified first-ballot Hip-Hop hall of famers like Phonte of Little Brother and DJ Jazzy Jeff singing her praises here stateside, I hope listeners never break up once they commit to adding her past, present, and future projects to their queue.
Where to Start:“Rather Be,”“Distraction,”Epoch, and High off This (Remixes).
Who is Tobe Nwigwe: By now, there shouldn’t be anyone who doesn’t know the 33-year-old rapper, singer, and avid family man. He has been making music with a close-knit team of his wife, Fat, and their best friend and producer, Nell (LaNell Grant). Viral hits like “Try Jesus,” “A Million,” and “I Need You To (Breonna Taylor)” all have endeared his role in “making purpose popular” to a growing legion of tribes and communities of color. Operating with no publicity and no managers, Tobe and his family are slinging that hope music straight from the trunk. Intermingling conversations like being Black in America with his focused representation, Nwigwe’s art and life are as needed as they are visual. A future H-Town legend doing it big today, Tobechuwu Nwigwe is a name to learn and show respect from now ad infinitum.
Where to Start:“RĖÂŁITY.,”“TEN TOES,”FOURIGINALS, and Tobe From the Swat.
Who Are Seba Kaapstad: This South African four-piece band consisting of Zoe Modiga, Swazi performer Ndumiso Manana, and Germans Philip Scheibel and Sebastian Schuster have each endured severe social splits. Their music as Seba Kaapstad speaks to the turbulences of life, yet set to a melody that motivates you to stay active. In coming together, they show through music how to appreciate life alike as we are as human beings mired in beautiful sound. With expertly written songs and gorgeous arrangements, this quartet’s recent work sits comfortably alongside recent releases by (Liv).e and SAULT as part of a re-Blackening of soul and R&B music.
Where to Start:“Thina,”“Love!,”“Our People,” and Konke.
Who is Devin Morrison: A budding, yet critically acclaimed singer-producer, this Orlando native is a groove-oriented, anthem-making machine. His 2019 debut album, Bussin’, was everything that you loved about the ‘90s with skillful songwriting, and features from the likes of We Are KING, Joyce Wrice, and Onra. You’d never guess that Morrison was inspired by video game soundtracks to make such bops as he does. By the end of his first year post-Bussin’, Morrison had put in time with Phonte, Zo!, Crush, Nao Yoshitoka, and Submerse. Whereas the pandemic has limited output from some of music’s biggest stars, this time has found him activated to put out more music and since then he has been on the upswing. This should make any incoming fan or listener very excited.
Where to Start:“Like 90’s R&B,”“As the Night Moves,”“Swish,” and Bussin’.