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10 UK Artists to Watch This Year

Here's 10 Black British artists to keep an eye out for this year.

Last year saw us lose game-changing artists like Prince and Sharon Jones amongst a slew of other tragedies, including the election of a racist, misogynist and unqualified US President. Nonetheless, in such a testing climate music has the ability to question, re-focus and bring up for debate issues affecting us all.


The 10 artists in this list are all innovators in their own rights, whether carrying the baton for UK grime, rallying for change, forging their own scenes or paying homage to their African ancestry and the greats that inspired them, we’re sure these acts will be making waves into 2017 and beyond. So get to know them.

Stream our Apple Music playlist below and read about the individual selections underneath.

Ray BLK

22-year-old South Londoner Ray BLK embodies an expression of female black Britishness we have been waiting for. In the video for "50/50," a track calling out time-wasting lovers, she pays homage to the hair shops of South London. Always rooted in her own experience, BLK delivers tales of London life through sultry vocals and finger snapping beats. Her songs are relatable and memorable—the hook for "50/50" stayed well and truly lodged in my brain for days.

This year has already provided the singer with an impressive list of accomplishments to put under her belt, she’s collaborated with Stormzy (on track "My Hood"), supported Kelela at her London show earlier this year, and taken home the BBC Sound of 2017. The release of her EP Durt has only made it a better year.

Singing of heartbreak, the trials and tribulations of life and odes to the complexity of her hood, Ray BLK offers anthems to the black British experience, which look set to stand the test of time, make sure you lend her your ears if you haven’t already.

She spoke to us here earlier this year about Black British womanhood and calling out homophobia.

Gaika

Gaika has been on our radar ever since his chilling track "Blasphemer." His special brand of dark dancehall and bashment-infused soundscapes have seen him carve out a space entirely his own. A youtube commenter, described him as "Jamaican Death Grips" and the subtle menace that bubbles beneath his tracks certainly earns him that title.

Following a debut EP in 2015, Machine, and an early feature on avant-garde de-colonial label NON Worldwide’s Compilation, the artist recently dropped his latest EP Spaghetto on Warp Records, and headlined London’s XOYO earlier this month. He’s collaborated with Mykki Blanco and is on the experimental edge of sound art, shaping dystopian soundscapes which rub up against what the world expects of a black male artist. Even if you can’t put a name on it, watch out for more sonic innovation from Gaika.

Nérija

They’ve been backed by tastemaker Gilles Peterson, and sold out their self-titled debut EP launch show at this year’s London EFG Jazz Festival. Nérija take their name from the Hebrew word meaning "lamp of god," and the all-female jazz band are certainly lighting the way.

Their seven band members include Shirley Tetteh on guitar, Sheila Maurice Grey on Trumpet and Nubiya Garcia on tenor sax, amongst others who are tearing up the jazz scene on their own terms. They’ve played jazz festivals up and down the UK and are proof that independent artists can make ripples; using crowdfunding to record and release their first EP.

Their hard work paid off, earning them a nomination for Breakthrough Act at the Jazz FM Awards, (no small feat with Kamasi Washington and Christian Scott also up for awards). With influences of township music and hip-hop seeping through their compositions, we hope Nérija will be a part of the fabric of the UK’s Jazz scene for a long time yet.

Obongjayar

Obongjayar’s gravelly voice paints melancholy in a new light. You’ll be hard pressed not to stop in your tracks after hearing his debut single "Creeping," which booms the solitude and struggle of London life through any speakers. This soul-stirring artist, originally from Nigeria, arrived in London aged 17 and has been perfecting his craft, causing ripples in London and Norwich scenes ever since.

Spewing confessionals over sparse beats and glitchy soundscapes, Obongjayar’s aesthetic is definitely rooted in the sound of 2016. Yet packed with poetic imagery, visceral delivery and vulnerability, his work is a breath of fresh air. It’ll leave you feeling hopeful about the potential for nuanced representations of masculinity in the music we hear.

His debut EP Home has dropped recently, you download it here for a taste of melancholy and grit. Check out the arresting video for "Creeping," directed by none-other-than Frank Lebon (the equally-talented brother of the man behind Frank Ocean’s stunning "Nikes" visuals). You can expect to see Obongjayar gracing stages around the capital before long, not one to be slept on—for real.

Nadia Rose

Winner of this year’s MOBO Award for Best Music Video, Nadia Rose is 22-year-old rapper from Croydon, South London unafraid to grab opportunity by the scruff of the neck. Relatively new to the scene, Rose quit her job two years ago to try rapping full time and hasn’t looked back since.

From headlining London’s Born and Bred Festival this summer (a weekend long celebration of grime, hip-hop, garage and more) to opening for legends like Busta Rhymes, Rose is taking new found success in her stride. Spitting over club bangers like "Tight Up" with playful lyricism and cockiness she’s a contender for a seat at the table with top UK rappers like Lady Leshur and her cousin Stormzy.

Freely rapping about female sexuality, success and nights out, Nadia’s tunes are the perfect soundtrack for getting ready before hitting the club. Her EP Highly Flammable, which features plenty of tracks to set the club on fire, cemented the argument on why she should be one of your new favorite rappers. Peep her "Skwod" video above.

Kojey Radical

To be honest, Kojey Radical should have been on our list of ones to watch in 2016. The 23-year-old poet and rapper (a Londoner hailing from Ghana) has had a stellar year, supporting the likes of Ghostface Killah and Saul Williams, selling out headline shows at London’s Jazz Cafe and Cafe OTO, and a nomination for MOBO’s Best Newcomer Award, all whilst being unsigned. And the young artist shows no signs of letting up, posting “I'm trying to live and die one the greatest performers who ever lived.”

Whilst mainstream media might be slow to wake up to this wordsmith’s talents, the energy and love at his shows suggests he’ll be fine without their recognition. His hard-hitting lyrics and gripping visuals speak specifically to a young diaspora, thirsty for authentic tales of our lives in Britain and our complex heritages.

His EP 23 Winters, with the tagline “We’ve come a long way from being scared to say our African names when asked,” was conceptualised around conversations with his father about Ghana, adulthood and responsibility. Spitting political fire over neck breaking trap beats on tracks like "Gallons," Kojey fearlessly dissolves the rift between poetry and rap, bridging the gap with weighty lyrics speaking to the difficulties of black life in Britain. Even if “they don’t wanna see me righteous running riots with my people,” we certainly do. There’s no telling what he’ll drop in 2017, but it will—no doubt—be fire.

Youth Man

Youth Man are not for the faint hearted. A punk band based in Birmingham, their high octane songs earned them a slot at this year’s first UK Afropunk Festival. Guitarist and lead singer Kalia soars from dulcet, vulnerable tones into heavy roars colliding with bass lines moving faster than the speed of light.

The independent band have been tearing roofs off gigs around the UK and are have just announced that they’ll be supporting Sacremento’s hardcore punk band Trash Talk on their UK/EU Tour. If you can’t catch them causing musical riots across the EU, listen to their EP WAX that dropped earlier this year.

Brother Portrait

Brother Portrait dropped "Seeview/Rearview" last month and had us speechless. His lyrical and visual homage to the dual nature of being a black British immigrant speaks volumes and we can’t wait to see what he drops in 2017. One third of alternative hip-hop group Black Other, Hadiru Mahdi (aka Brother Portrait) cut his teeth in London’s spoken word scene and is now ready to drop his EP, navigate in:limbo.

If the poignant honesty of his offerings up till now are anything to go by, we’re in for a treat. His voice is one in a growing chorus of black Brits opening up about their experiences, bringing seismic shifts in Britain’s music scene. Give thanks and nod your head to the beat.

Flohio

Young MC Flohio had the chance to represent her ends SE16, Bermondsey when supporting acclaimed producer Clams Casino at his XOYO gig last month. A member of TruLuvCru, a group of creative friends looking to make their mark on Britain’s art and music scene, Flohio understands the power of collaboration.

In the summer, she featured on "SE16," a stunning collaboration with production duo God Colony, that pairs distorted off kilter beats with industrial-come-tropical instrumentals that will reconfigure how you view the term ‘grime.' The video, directed by none-other-than Gaika, takes us on a lo-fi tour of South London. Flohio topped off a killer year with a set at Boiler Room’s November party, sharing the bill with 19-year-old prodigy Sam Gellaitry and Areaboyz. Forgive us for saying we told you so when Flohio gets the attention she deserves and fully blows up this year. Wrap your ears around her debut EP Nowhere Near asap!

J Hus

“I’m an ugly man making sexy money” sings J Hus in the viral video for his 2016 hit "Friendly"—we hope the self deprecation is just for show. His tongue-in-cheek lyrics (that never shy away from objectifying the female form) ride over afrobeats infused rhythms—there’s no denying he delivers bangers.

Though he lost out to Abra Cadabra on his MOBO nomination for Best Song, and has kept a lower profile this year than in 2015 (when he dropped his debut EP The 15th Chapter and supported the ever problematic Young Thug), J Hus’ growing popularity is undeniable. Even if awards aren’t ready for him yet, the club dance floors certainly are. "Dem Boy Paigon" and "Lean and Bop" are just a few of his 2015 hits, and with hints of a new album to come, the 21-year-old Newham rapper of Gambian heritage shows no signs of slowing up.

Photos
"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

This Photo Series Is a Much-Needed Counter to Violent Images of the Black Body

"Infinite Essence" is Nigerian-American photographer Mikael Owunna's response to the one-dimensional narrative we tend to see of the black body.

This beautiful, thought-provoking photo series affirms what we already know—that the black body is magical, no matter what odds are against us.

Nigerian-American photographer, Mikael Owunna, touched base with OkayAfrica to share his new photo series, Infinite Essence. The series is Owunna's response to America's issue of police brutality, like the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Walter Scott, and the viral and violent images of the dead black body we've seen as a result.

"It has become frighteningly routine to turn on the television or log onto Facebook and see a video or image of a black person either dead or dying, like images of Africans dying in the Mediterranean," Owunna says.

"With this series, I work to counter these one-dimensional narratives of the black body as a site of death and destruction with imagery capturing what I see in my friends, family and community—love, joy, and ultimately, magic."

Owunna worked on Infinite Essence for the past year, and says his creative process began with a feeling. As he notes further, it's was a process of trial and error.

"I was beginning to explore my own spirituality and journey and learning about how black, queer and trans people in particular were respected for their magical abilities in many pre-colonial African societies. I was meditating on this idea of magic and how I can capture that in my work, harkening back to the 'Final Fantasy' video games and anime series I grew up on. How could I capture all of this? I did two pretty disastrous test shoots using long exposures and lights, that did nothing for me artistically.

It had none of the feeling I was looking for. So I went back to the drawing board. I pulled up Google image search results of magic in Final Fantasy and kept scrolling and scrolling and staring at images that had that emotional tug, that spiritual capture of magic and transcendence that I so wanted to bring into the work. As I was staring at the works, a voice in my head told me glow in the dark paints, and then from looking at that I found the world of UV photography. As soon as I saw some sample works in that space, I knew that was the direction the project would go and it was all steam ahead."

Shooting this series was the first time Owunna collaborated with makeup artists Karla Grifith-Burns and Davone Goins to bring his vision to life. "It was powerful and inspirational and brought so much structure to my feeling and thought," he says.

Owunna settled on the name of his series after reading about Odinani, the Igbo traditional belief system.

"Seeking to understand the basics of that, I came across brilliant writing by Chinua Achebe wherein he used the phrase 'infinite essence' and that clicked everything around it," he says. "When I can name something, it brings it to life in my head in stunning color."

Click through the slideshow below view Owunna's series, Infinite Essence. Read his artist statement for the project, where he speaks more in depth of Achebe's work on infinite essence here. The series is also on display at Owunna's solo exhibition at Montréal's Never Apart Gallery from today until April 7, 2018.

"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

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