The Best New Artists of 2021
Featuring Azanti, Ayra Starr, Gyakie & more
Featuring Azanti, Ayra Starr, Gyakie & more
From the beginning, championing new, exciting music has been a fundamental tenet of The NATIVE’s vision, as one operating at the forefront of African youth culture. Achieving this goal in the 21st century has come with its own unique challenges and requirements, but nothing quite beats the rush of hearing music from a rising musician and being certain that they’re bound for the next level.
2021 offered those condensed moments of elation for many of us, introducing us to a wide array of artists from across the continent and the Black diaspora who are making exciting music that channels the angst of their youthful years, the bombast of their surroundings, and the euphoric pop music of their motherland.
Whether it is Kamo Mphela’s hyper-vivid interpretation of Amapiano or Lojay’s breezy fusion of R&B and Afropop, the artists spotlighted below have played key roles in lightening the burden of emerging from our prior collective precarious year—a.k.a. 2020, a.k.a the year of the pandemic—and are placed to continue to define the trajectory of music from the continent and beyond in 2022. Get familiar!
Last November, Abuja’s Apex Village collective introduced their latest signee, Azanti. The 18-year old singer, songwriter, record producer has a unique sound which he describes as R&B fusion owing to its commingling of multiple genres such as R&B, Trap soul, Hip-Hop and Afropop. Since stepping into the scene last November with his collaborative EP, ‘YP & Azanti Vol. 1’, alongside Apex Village marquee name PsychoYP, Azanti has made a remarkable entrance in a very short period, gaining the attention of industry heavyweights and peers alike.
From writing credits on Mr Eazi’s ‘Something Else’ EP, to backup vocals on Joeboy’s standout single “Police,” Azanti has proven he’s deserving of a spot in this scene. In September, Azanti released his debut self-titled solo EP ‘Azanti’, an 8-track outpour of love, romance while still maintaining his ground and swaying listeners with his harmonious and infectious melodies. Collaborating with producers such as Malik Bawa, Jaylon and more, Azanti delivered a splendid 22-minute run on the project. With every new record release, feature and guest appearance, Azanti never fails to remind listeners, fans and himself why he decided to make music in the first place.
Ria Sean crept her way into our radar and our hearts following the release of her breakout single “Money Bag,” which was her first release after signing to Aristokrat Records. Since then, the singer and songwriter has consistently wooed us with her unique aesthetic, talent and high level of artistry in both her music and visuals. Ria’s most recent project is her debut EP, ‘FLUID’ which is a collection of mesmerising and heart-warming songs that sounds like that girlfriend of yours that whispers in your ears and gives you advice and a wave of emotions floods in.
Her lyrics always have a message behind them tailored with an ear sweetening beat and rhythm, which have played a huge part in her success. Some of our favourite tracks like “Satisfy My Soul” and “Lemonade” have placed her among the leading female singers who are using their voice and music as a way to challenge the status quo. Ria Sean makes it a mission to keep her fans on their toes with her art and music but still keeping with what makes Ria, Ria.
There’s a strong case to be made for Kenya being one of the strongest hubs for Drill music in Africa—it’s perhaps the second most vibrant behind Ghana’s Asakaa movement. At the very centre of Kenyan Drill’s emergence is Buruklyn Boyz, a creative collective with rappers Mr Right and Ajay as its leading names. The pair initially came up as rap artists with versatile palettes, but it was the authenticity with which they reaped their Buruburu locale that was the main draw. It’s fitting, then, that their name-making, viral single from late last year is named after their country’s capital city.
A few months after Ajay released the first set of Drill tracks, “Psycho” and “Trapping,” the pair decided to fully hone in on the rap sub-genre, debuting “Nairobi” to rave reactions. In the year since, they’ve followed up with solo and collaborative tracks, cementing their status as the leading lights of Drill music in Kenya. Apart, their strengths are apparent; Mr Right is operates in clever raps and sticky hooks, while Ajay traffics in menacing flows and dead-eyed lyricism. However, when together, they meld effortlessly, whether it’s sharing joyful aspirations on “Dream Ya Kutoka Kwa Block” or tagging each other in on the reverential “Location 58.”
Tapping into the influence of Chicago Drill more than any of their African peers, Buruklyn Boyz’ brand of Drill is lyrically vibrant and musically haunting. The rappers’ lingual mix of Sheng, Kiswahili and English sprinkles is always matched by phenomenal production and eccentric melodic samples that lend their work a bluesy yet explosive feel. Throughout this year, and at this moment, it’s impossible to claim any other artists made more exciting Drill music than Buruklyn Boyz.
Dennis Ade Peter
Jonzing World brought us their latest signee Ruger in January with the release of the track “One Shirt,” featuring label boss D’Prince and Rema. Since his first ever appearance, there was no doubt that Ruger was an Afropop superstar in the making. Effectively kick-starting his career, he released his debut EP, ‘Pandemic,’ in February to rave reviews. The 6-track set finds the artist tying sounds such as Dancehall, Afropop and more together to create his own unique mixture. The EP touches on topics such as love and self-confidence, explaining why he’s deserving of a place in this scene. He quips assertive lyrics such as “Man I spit fire to the mic from day one” on the opener of the tape, making public declarations of his entrance into the scene.
Weeks later, “Bounce” would become a fan favourite off the EP and score Ruger his first smash hit. Closing out an eventful year, he recently followed up with his sophomore EP, ‘The Second Wave’. The project title is inspired by the initial tape, and serves as a worthy follow-up to round up an amazing year for Ruger. Already, his sophomore project is endearing him to more fans and listeners across the continent, including standout tracks such as “Dior” and “Snapchat,” which hooks listeners on first listen. Ruger’s certainly going to be in this scene for a long time and we’re rooting for him.
You blink twice and Amapiano has a new budding superstar on the block. Among the genre’s several breakout stars of this year, Young Stunna left arguably the most indelible mark on pop culture via a viral video. You know it, the one where the now-hugely popular DJ Uncle Waffles leads 2021’s ultimate groove moment with her entrancing dance moves while “Adiwele” lifts her spirit and that of the crowd as well. In South Africa’s burgeoning Amapiano scene that shows no signs of slowing down, the Kabza De Small-produced banger is the biggest validation of Young Stunna’s powers as a vocalist and hit-maker.
Prior to that moment, though, Young Stunna was already earning his stripes, putting on impressive performances on Dzo 729’s “Baoxelelela” and Dlala Regal’s “Dlala Captain.” Linking up with Kabza would prove pivotal for his career, paving the way for star turns on “Sgija” by fellow Piano Hub affiliates Skroef 28 and Nkulee501, and “Bopha,” the smash hit headlined by producer duo Mellow & Sleazy, which also featured a stunning appearance by DJ Maphorisa as his vocal alter ego, Madumane. To strengthen his case as a wunderkind, Young Stunna delivered his debut LP, ‘Notumato,’ a vibrant set of ‘Piano bangers driven by his ability to find a pocket and roll out magnetic delivery patterns. It’s an album stuffed to the ears with wonderful highlights, a strong indication that there’s a lot more where those came from.
Viral mob flick songs with catchy hooks have been a stock in trade for Kumasi’s drill scene for the better part of the last 18 months, giving rise to stars like Yaw Tog, City Boy, Jay Bahd, and Reggie. In Black Sherif’s world, though, both snarling bars and teasing choruses are not disparate elements operating as separate units; instead the Konongo native blurs the line between both art forms, complimenting his vociferous flow with a rhythmic sheen.
Blacko came to popularity in the middle of 2021 when his song, “First Sermon” went viral, seeing the musician adapt the drill influence of the Asakaa boys but enliven his flows with a confessional urgency that mined the details of his life for inspiration. But it is on “Second Sermon,” the follow-up to “First Sermon,” that Sherif’s gospel came into sharp focus. Making a tribute to a loved one who died and the gritty realities of life in his hood, Blacko captures these details over a jolting instrumental by Ghanaian Stallion, catapulting himself to regional fame. “Second Sermon” attracted the attention of Burna Boy who featured on the remix of the popular song. While the wait for Blacko’s debut project, he has solidified his position as one of the most important Ghanaian acts operating today.
Kamo Mphela came into this year as something of a known commodity. On Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa’s 2019 collaborative, genre-defining album, ‘Scorpion Kings,’ Kamo put in a star-making turn on one of the standout hits, “Sandton,” effectively setting herself up for superstardom. The following year, she dropped ‘Twentee,’ a brief, low-stakes collection of songs, while putting in stellar shifts on a handful of hit singles, including MFR Souls’ “Amanikiniki” and Busiswa’s “SBWL.” All of this set the stage for a banner year run, effectively driven by her magnetising pull as a singular voice in Amapiano.
An accomplished dancer before fully exploring the possibilities of stepping in front of the mic, Kamo Mphela’s music is deliberately tilted towards eliciting visceral reactions. Her beat selection is firmly planted on the dustier side of the Amapiano spectrum, and her delivery is a rap-indented, propulsive flow with a seductive edge. Entering the year on a mission, and with a refined, self-assured skill-set, Kamo released ‘Nkulunkulu,’ a 4-song EP with its title track as the instant smash hit. Then came “Thula Thula”—via NTS’ Amapiano Now compilation—and “Dubai,” both songs emboldening her love for fusing ‘Piano and rap into an infectious whole. Combined with stunning features on Vigro Deep’s “Slender” and Sha Sha’s “iPiano,” Kamo Mphela’s undeniable 2021 run proves that she’s only getting started.
Ghanaian singer and songwriter Gyakie, daughter of the music legend Nana Acheampong, has intelligently strutted her way into pan-African superstardom, which is clear due to her overwhelming hit song “Forever,” and its Omah Lay-assisted remix. The track was the front-runner off her late 2020 debut EP ‘Seed,’ but she’s building her mainstream appeal some time before that.
Since beginning her professional music career in 2019 and dropping her first single, “Love is Pretty,” Gyakie has continued to beat the odds and excel in her path to stardom. She was able to still pursue her art and complete her studies all at the same, showing her level of dedication. Asides from the release of her hit singles “Forever” and “Need Me,” Gyakie has had a good year packed with collaborations, including Fiokee’s “Follow You” with Nigerian singer Chike, D-Black’s “Sheege,” and Mayorkun’s “Desire.” Gyakie continues to prove that she’s a force to be reckoned with and has so much more to give.
It’s crazy how Lekan Osifoso Jnr., popularly known as Lojay, made a huge, life-changing turn this year. From club speakers to performing at the O2 arena in London, 2021 has gotten better and better for the young rising star. After releasing his collaborative EP, ‘LV N ATTN’ with renowned producer Sarz, his world has never been the same. “Monalisa” has been arguably one of the biggest hits of this year and is still making waves, racking up numbers in all streaming platforms and being nominated for several local and international awards. Other tracks like “Tonongo” and the recently released single “Only Fans,” alongside DJ Neptune and Zlatan, has also been huge hits for the artist.
Asides from the catchy and groovy hits singles, what really distinguishes the singer is his distinct high-pitched tone and voice which beautifully blends in with the beat. Interestingly enough ‘LV N ATTN’ isn’t his very first project; he dropped his first solo project in2017 called ‘Midnight Vibes’ which highlighted his raw skills as a singer and songwriter. After graduating college in 2018, he decided to immerse himself fully into his music and it is undeniable that all the commitment and hard work has really paid off. From the look of things, there is no slowing down for Lojay anytime soon and we can’t wait to see what he has in store.
It’s not every day we see newcomers release a debut EP and a debut album in the first 6 to 7 months of their career. 19-year-old singer, songwriter and performer Ayra Starr got activated to Mavin records in January and has since then been a force to be reckoned with in the music scene. Earlier this year, the wunderkind brought to listeners her self-titled debut EP, a 5-tracker which finds the artist flaunting her powerful yet soulful vocals track after track, resonating on matters such as love, heartbreak, romance, self-confidence and more.
Few months after the release of her debut EP, Ayra Starr made a comeback with her debut album ‘19 & Dangerous’, an 11-track LP which she worked on throughout the lockdown period in 2020. Back in August, she shared with the NATIVE that she’s put her all into the album: “I’m allowing myself to grow. This album will speak for me in rooms where I am not there”. The album cuts across matters such as self-love, self-elevation, romance, becoming, growing up, and heartbreak, whilst giving a glimpse of her colourful and vibrant world where she certainly lives on her own terms. Delivering standout tracks such as “Cast” and “Bloody Samaritan,” you can tell that the Gen Z’er is clearly living by her own rules, stating and reaffirming listeners that she’s not doing this by mistake–she was made for it.
Although her career just kicked off this year, Ayra Starr in such a short time has proven star quality and will definitely be here for a while. With a voice as powerful and dominant and a pen game as vulnerable and honest as hers, Ayra Starr is truly the star of the moment.