Trends and hype have always played a part – for better and for worse – in the development of the UK music scene. This almost compulsive need to find the new, the soon-to-be trendy, keeps things moving, but it also makes it hard to digest everything that’s going on, especially in cities as fruitful and restless as London. There’s a large takeoff runway for the sounds that will be global, but there’s also another runway, a landing strip, for artists from different parts of the world. Rough diamonds that there get the resources and means to shine even more.
From West Africa (Nigeria) to East Africa (Somalia), passing through the Middle East (Saudi Arabia), we highlight 5 unique talents with their own stories of travel and migration, of transplanting ways of life and reappropriating cultural expressions, resulting in a colorful range of music like no other, from British neo-soul to Afrobeat.
One of the most interesting singers to pop up in the UK in the last couple of years is actually from Saudi Arabia. His full name is Abdul Rahman Hajaj – known simply by his last name – and he came to prominence in 2021 when his heartbroken hit “Learning to Live With You” featured as the opening track on one of Spotify’s most influential playlists (Fresh Finds Pop). Contrary to everyone else, Hajaj shunned the ease of digital tools and recorded his six-track debut EP Last Call for Coco exclusively on tape. Analog machines and precision-played performances: an old-fashioned approach to getting closer to that key sound of the ‘60s and ‘70s – the golden age of soul music.
It’s been a while since a soulful and velvety voice like Hajaj’s didn’t leave us with this feeling, this desire to fall in love with old R&B again. It’s no coincidence that all this magic has taken place in the same land where Amy Winehouse and so many other neo-soul talents came from. Last Call for Coco was recorded mostly in 2017 in London, during his vacation times in the summer months, but the path to get there includes hundreds of songs that he’s written and curated over the past decade, starting at a Swiss boarding school and spending college stints in the US and Spain to study business administration.
Continuing in the field of R&B, but not necessarily retro, we come across the moving songs of Faisal Salah, better known by his stage name FaceSoul. Somali by birth but based in London, he found in music a path of healing, a way to re-enlighten and connect with others. His beautiful voice is a little hoarse, always charming. And it’s the staple for the immersive play of vocal harmonies that run through the nine tracks on his 2021 album Ysra. A progression of melodic layers that rise up and caress the soul, as if we were listening to him sing in a temple. There’s also some spoken word to complete the spiritual vibe.
By the time Ysra was going to come out, FaceSoul performed some of his songs – first “Through the Dark” and then “Grow” – on COLORS, giving him a boost and bringing him closer to a global audience. He kicked off 2022 by posting Sing from My Soul, a wonderful live performance filmed on location in Cornwall, a peninsula of beaches and boggy terrain, in England’s rugged south-western tip. In both cases, we can see him in action looping his own voice and building those musical totems. A few months later, he released “Give Thanks,” another uplifting-sounding single, inspired by faith and gratitude.
There’s always music that is difficult to classify. It may sound familiar, at times futuristic, and at other times ancestral. All these sensations arouse the songs of an artist as unique as Obongjayar. There’s a lot of Afrobeat, many electronic sounds, some modern R&B, and that sorcerer’s voice, a bit theatrical and nocturnal, that enchants us with his singing, sometimes also with his rapping and his spoken words. Beyond the useless labels that were attached to him before, such as “neo-grime” or “afro-soul”, his experimental nature remains valid in his first and most recent album of 2022 Some Nights I Dream of Doors.
Obongjayar was born in Calabar, Nigeria, under the name of Steven Umoh. At 17, he and his mother moved to England for a better life, mainly to avoid an abusive father and husband. Hip-hop was his main influence, as well as his musical refuge in those years. His debut EP Home came out in 2016, followed a year later by another EP, Bassey, this time with a closer approach to African rhythms, thanks to the involvement of jazz drummer Moses Boyd. By that time he had already caught the attention of Ibeyi’s producer, Richard Russell, who got him collaborating with Damon Albarn and Kamasi Washington.
A few years ago, Azekel Adesuyi burst onto the scene with significant collaborations with Massive Attack and Gorillaz. Born in Nigeria but raised on the streets of East London, he always defined himself as a singer-songwriter and producer, combining his passion for classic soul music with his attraction to futuristic electronica. The cover art of his debut EP Circa is a clear tribute to Otis Redding, but the retro vibe doesn’t go very far: those decade-old early tracks sound closer to James Blake than James Brown. It was undoubtedly his next two EPs – 2015’s Raw, Vol. 1 and 2016’s Raw, Vol. 2 – that garnered the most attention, receiving good reviews and endorsements from artists like Prince.
In 2018, Azekel released his debut full-length album Our Father in a series of chapters, gradually building on its narrative progression: Family (Chapter 1), Mental Health (Chapter 2), and Youth (Chapter 3). In mid-2020, during the pandemic, Azekel released the single “Learn to Love”, as a preview of a second album that just came out in March of this year. Analyze Love includes 15 tracks recorded in London, Nigeria and Ghana, and it stands as a true testament to his producing, singing and songwriting skills, tackling different topics such as fatherhood, kinship, love and community. A year before, he stopped by the COLORS studio to perform another of his new songs: “Chocolati”.
Last but not least, here is the lady. Of this short list, Greentea Peng is the only one who was actually born in the UK, although her parents are immigrants: her mother is African and her father is Arab. Her real name is Aria Wells and she hails from one of the South London boroughs.And she was always a traveler, even before starting her career as an artist. “I know that I was born in England. I don’t necessarily feel like I’m meant to be in England, because from as young as I can remember, all I’ve joked about is moving to the jungle,” she stated in an interview for Highsnobiety. Aria traveled extensively in Peru, where she bought the tea that inspired her alias. And she came to live for six months in Mexico. Right after that trip, she began to shape her first EP Sensi, released in 2018.
Since her debut, Greentea Peng has been placed in the realms of neo-soul, though she made it clear from the start that she can just as magically spill over into R&B, reggae, dub and hip-hop. Wasting no time, she released another EP, 2019’s Rising, backed by the smash hit “Mr. Sun.” That same year she was invited to record a performance at A COLORS SHOW. In 2020, after being chosen among the 20 rising stars according to The Observer and having the privilege of collaborating with The Streets, Aria released her single “Hu Man”, a song whose first verse makes it quite clear what it is about: “Searching for balance, praying for clarity.”In mid-2021, finally, she released her full-length album Man Made.