We saw some phenomenal musicians break through in 2020, from Megan Thee Stallion to Phoebe Bridgers, Doja Cat and Grammy-nominated Chika to pop-rock upstart Yungblud. With a whole new year ahead of us, we look to the future and the six new names set to go stratospheric in 2021.
These six extraordinary women, all truly individual and exceptionally talented, represent a wide range of experiences and perspectives—get ready to load up your playlists with Priya Ragu, Cookiee Kawaii, Lous and The Yakuza, Mulatto, Beabadoobee and Girl In Red.
Before she turned 20, Marie-Pierra Kakoma had lived in war-torn Congo, a post-genocide Rwanda and a rough neighbourhood in Belgium, all before becoming temporarily homeless in her late teens. All this and more is explored in the 24-year-old’s exceptional autobiographical debut album, Gore, which she released in 2020 under her artist name Lous (an anagram of ‘soul’) and the Yakuza (meaning loser or outside the norm). “Gore is a genre of horror movie that’s so bloody and violent and so trashy sometimes that it becomes absurd and funny. My life has been so atrocious that I’d rather laugh about it than cry. I want to represent the darkness of life that no one wants to see because when you identify something, that’s when you can heal it.”
Sung and rapped in French and produced by Spain’s El Guincho, tracks such as Dilemme and Solo are as intimate vocally and lyrically as they are sonically global. “To me, everything is international. We lose something when we make it for a ’territory’. I only think about the music and connecting with human beings to share a message.”
In a little over a year, the polyglot (she speaks French, Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda, Dutch and English) has not only become one of the hottest names in music but a formidable face in fashion too, starring in campaigns for Celine and Louis Vuitton. Kakoma has a host of projects lined up for 2021 including designing a work-space in Brussels, building hospitals in Rwanda, and writing a novel and album number two. “The whole thing is going to be a clap-back season,” says Kakoma, with a huge burst of laughter. “I’m going to be like Adele! My heart has been broken, girl, and people need to know about it.”
On Dilemme, the lyrics speak of how life made you feel ‘mean’—yet you radiate positivity.
“I’m a very happy person, that’s for sure. From a young age, I chose to be happy, but the problem was life. Living started to haunt me because I felt like life was a burden. To be breathing every day and to be going through all this mess and trauma, I couldn’t take it anymore. At the time, I was not the happy person I am today. I got hurt so much that I turned into that bad person. I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted to change before life changed me.”
What’s been your most-liked post on Instagram this year?
“It used to be my album artwork until I did a post recently about colourism. I’d been attacked by around 2,000 crazy people on Twitter, mostly Black men, who woke up and decided I was an ugly person because I was Black. Firstly, I’m not [ugly] and secondly, this is what colourism is. It’s a real problem in the Black community. So many people hate us already, why are we going to hate each other? I wanted to [tell] women to be unapologetically yourself.”
Photography: Fabien Vilrus
Styling: Elena Mottola
Hair: Yann Turchi
Make-up: Aurore Gibrien
Beatrice ‘Beabadoobee’ Laus was born in Iloilo City, Philippines, before moving to London at age three. “I grew up in Camden, which is a very vibrant place. There’s a lot of culture,” says Laus. She picked up the violin at five, followed by the guitar at 17 after discovering rock legends such as Pavement, Dinosaur Jr and The Smashing Pumpkins.
Laus’s 2017 beautifully gentle debut Coffee amassed hundreds of thousands of streams in just a few days and she signed to Dirty Hit, home of British pop-rockers The 1975. “I just wanted to create music and it was also a healthy way of expressing myself,” she says. Subsequent EPs Patched Up, Loveworm and Space Cadet drew more definitively on her rock and punk influences and her fanbase swelled—Laus now has 889,000 followers on Instagram and nearly 14m monthly listeners on Spotify. “I hope to share and spread awareness of social injustices, regardless of how much they affect me personally,” she says about how she uses her platform.
Laus’s famous fans include Harry Styles and Taylor Swift—“she sent me the most lovely cardigan for her album launch”—while Marc Jacobs enlisted the 20-year-old for his recent Heaven campaign. “It was really fun. I used to be scared of shoots and now I’m into it. I want to build that relationship with fashion.”
Her debut album, Fake It Flowers, was released in October 2020 and went to number eight on the UK Albums Chart, propelled by songs (including Care and Sorry) that reflect on everything from young love and hair dye to mental wellness and self-harm. “I want to continue to make music and encourage more people to play the guitar and express themselves,” says Laus of her 2021 plans. “I’d love to keep inspiring girls to be creative.”
How do you think you’ve grown creatively from Coffee to Fake It Flowers?
“It’s much louder [laughs]. Before recording [the album] I went on an arena tour with The 1975 and it inspired me to make music to fill that size of venue. My live band also contributed a lot in helping me grow the sound and expand from being in the bedroom.”
Your song Charlie Brown is a brilliant way to talk about mental health. How did writing it help you to think about your own emotional wellness?
“Thank you. Writing music has helped me express a lot of my own feelings and it’s a healthy distraction for me. Singing also helps me get it all off of my chest. Now, more than ever, we need to make sure to check on ourselves and those we care about.”
Photography: Megan Winstone
Styling: Theo White
Hair: Roger Cho
Make-up: Grace Ellington
3. Priya Ragu
While it could be described as R&B, Priya Ragu’s music isn’t like any R&B you’ve heard before. Her as-yet-untitled debut album might be bathed in the influences of Musiq Soulchild and Lauryn Hill, but more acute are the sounds of Ragu’s Sri Lankan heritage, from stunning Kollywood samples (the Tamil-language film industry) to tabla (traditional hand drums).
“My brother and I call it ‘Ragu Wavy’. It’s all we are, from both Indian and western worlds,” says Ragu, whose self-written music is produced by her brother Japhna Gold. After their parents escaped the Sri Lankan Civil War, the siblings were raised in St Gallen, Switzerland, but later moved to Zürich. “It’s a very multicultural place. There’s a small, but good music scene. There’s also a lot of mountains and greenery.”
Ragu picked up the violin at seven and then—reluctantly, she laughs—joined her father’s band at 10. “We played a lot of freedom songs from Sri Lanka at weddings and even puberty ceremonies, traditional in South Indian culture.” At 16, she sang Alicia Keys’ Fallin’ to her brother who insisted she perform live with his band the following week. Her strict parents, however, forbade her. “I was devastated,” she recalls. “It made me feel so unheard, so silenced.” Unwilling to outwardly defy her folks, she spent the next few years sneaking out to open-mic nights while working as an accountant at an airline.
Two years ago, Ragu decided she needed to give music a go and moved to Brooklyn for a few months, returning home in 2019 with an album’s worth of songs. She was signed almost immediately to Warner Records and since then things have spiralled: she’s performed at a Ted Talk, while her stunning debut single Good Love 2.0 has been remixed by Little Dragon. “It’s about a love that goes beyond religion, beyond caste, beyond colour. It’s the feeling nothing can tear you apart because it’s so strong,” she says of the record. Nowadays, her parents are “super proud” and she’s enjoying her burgeoning pop-star life. “Being able to realise my ideas and see them come to life without worrying about budget or boundaries is amazing.”
Which song of your own are you most proud of?
“My next single because it’s about celebration and diversity, and it is heavily influenced by Tamil culture. I’m proud to be Tamil and that’s really felt in the song. It’s a joyful, happy song because I also want to remind people via the video that during times like this, it’s important that we don’t forget how to celebrate.”
How would you define your personal style?
“It’s an extension of my music. It’s a mixture of western and South-Indian style. I love Amesh Wijesekera, which is all handmade and gender-inclusive. I’d like to work with more South-Indian designers in the future.”
What are your ambitions, both for your music and yourself, for 2021?
“To make a name for myself and to find the purpose in it. I still have to figure that out [laughs].”
Photography: Megan Winstone
Styling: Theo White
Hair: Roger Cho
Make-up: Grace Ellington
Despite being two decades old, Jersey club music has only recently made a name for itself thanks, largely, to TikTok. And the single that’s exploded things exponentially is the instantly addictive, charmingly instructional Vibe (If I Back it Up) by Vanice Palmer, also known as Cookiee Kawaii (cookie is her favourite snack, while Kawaii means “cute” in Japanese). Since January 2020, Vibe has been remixed by Tyga and has appeared in more than 1.9m TikToks with views in the tens of millions. The single has been streamed more than 100m times while Palmer has built more than 600,000 followers on TikTok and 169,000 on Instagram. But the anime and video-game obsessive who hails from the New Jersey suburb of Irvington has had to fight hard for those numbers. “When I found out Vibe was going viral, I went crazy commenting on every video and tagging me and my producer,” says Palmer. “You have to take advantage of that moment and let people know it’s your song because the community is very young and [they don’t always] understand the importance of someone getting recognition.”
Both of Palmer’s parents were DJs and as a child, she was exposed to everything from jazz to techno. At Catholic school, she joined the choir and by nine she was obsessed with the Annie musical soundtrack and writing her own poetry. Having released music that has combined all these influences, and more, since 2011, Palmer is far from an overnight sensation but the success of Vibe couldn’t have come at a better time. Despite working several jobs including dancing, hostessing and UberEats, Palmer was on the brink of being broke. As the song blew up, her bank account started to recover and she now has a new apartment and a new car. Since then, she’s dropped the mixtape Club Soda, Vol 2 and is now working on her debut album. But her priority is ensuring other acts get the credit they deserve. “If you want to be a successful music artist who tours the world, you have to harness your viral moment. Millions of plays can translate into money in your pocket if you do it the right way.”
How would you describe your personal style?
“Unpredictable. Sometimes I’m in sweats and sometimes it’s ultimate drag and fabulous. I’m pretty daring, I like to try new things and be expressive. Everything should have flair.”
What’s been your highlight of 2020?
“My song going viral has been a stressful process, but it’s the ultimate blessing. Nothing great in life comes easy so it’s all worth it in the long run. It wasn’t the song I thought would change my life, so for it to happen when I’m a week behind on rent? I just want to keep putting that light on Jersey club and I’m really excited for next year.”
Photography: Molly Matalon
Styling: Cece Liu
Hair: Evan Frausto
Make-up: Andrew Colvin
5. Girl In Red
Marie Ulven, 21, has cultivated an enthusiastic following over the past four years—and all from her bedroom. Born in Horten, Norway (“I used to hate it but now I kind of love it there because I appreciate the quietness,”), Ulven released her lo-fi lovestruck single I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend on SoundCloud as Girl In Red in 2016. Since then, she’s gone from a handful of streams to more than 150m plays on that track alone. As inspired by The Smiths as she is by Taylor Swift—“They’re from the different sides of the spectrum, but they actually sound very similar”—her music encompasses pop structures and melodies, but with indie energy.
Throughout 2019 and 2020, queer-centred singles such as Girls and Bad Idea! helped further establish Ulven as one of the most important voices in pop. “I don’t think I made a deliberate decision to actively use female pronouns. I had just come to terms with my sexuality when I started to write in English,” she says. “I wrote We Fell In Love In October about my first girlfriend [and it’s] about fully embracing love.”
Her youthful, beguiling songwriting immediately connected with queer kids along with everyone else. With fans including Billie Eilish and 1.7m Instagram followers, how is she enjoying pop star life? “I don’t see myself as a pop star,” she laughs, “Especially now I’m home all the time. I kind of felt like a pop star when I was on tour, but now I’ve been home for a year, I’m just living a very day-to-day life.”
How’s the new album sounding?
“This is some Girl In Red 2.0 shit! I’m really expanding, but I’m still in the same universe I’ve always been in, which is just my world I guess. It’s different because I’ve grown so much as a producer and songwriter. There are some great songs on there.”
What have you learned about yourself this year?
“I don’t think I’m very patient. That’s what I learned, mainly after getting a dog. You’re dealing with something in your life that has its own wishes, it makes you understand that you’re not the centre of attention.”
What are your ambitions for 2021?
“As a human, I want to love myself because I don’t and for my music, I just want it to exist in the world for people. World domination, baby! Or a good year at least for everyone.”
Photography: Jonathan Vivaas Kise
Before she became a rapper, Alyssa Michelle Stephens—AKA Mulatto—joined the family tradition as a drag racer (as in cars, not queens). “Hell yeah, it’s in my blood,” laughs Stephens when asked if she was any good. “I was doing doughnuts on four-wheelers at eight years old.” Two years later, she shifted her ambitions to music. Her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia is steeped in history, known as the “cradle of the civil rights movement” and associated with musicians such as Usher, Andre 3000, TLC and Donald Glover AKA Childish Gambino. “I grew up on video shoots, in the studio, backstage at concerts,” Stephens recalls. “My dad would build these cars with the candy paint, big rims and hydraulics and rappers would rent them for their video shoots. Growing up around this lifestyle in Atlanta inspired me.”
She first became known in 2016 via Lifetime’s TV talent show The Rap Game. She won but turned down the prize of a record deal to instead focus on building her own following, which she’s done to great success. After releasing four mixtapes and working with the likes of Janelle Monáe and Future, it was 2019’s outrageously bold Bitch From Da Souf that proved to be the breakout hit. Her most recent single, the City Girls-assisted In n Out has had more than 6m views, while Muwop featuring Gucci Mane has almost 40m. “He’s a legend to trap music. His southern slang and flow influenced my own style. I still can’t believe I’m in the club kicking it and FaceTiming my favourite rapper.” She received a further boost this year when Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion invited Stephens to join the set of WAP alongside Rosalía, Kylie Jenner and Normani. “Showing the fans, blogs and industry that women can come together reverses the stigma that says there can only be one female rapper at the top. We’re taught to compete and beef with each other, WAP said otherwise.” With more than 8m followers across social media, and plays and streams in abundance, does Stephens like being a rap star? “It has its pros and cons,” she says, “but nothing outweighs my love for the music.”
After a heightened year in the US, as a public figure, how important to you is being outspoken about race, feminism and colourism?
“I have a heavy impact on the youth. A lot of people my age, especially women, look up to me so I feel a responsibility to educate and bring awareness to matters that affect my community. Incorporating Breonna Taylor in my music video was me using my platform to bring light to the situation. My lyrics and persona speak for independent liberated women so I’m all for feminism and women empowerment.”
What have you learned about yourself in 2020?
“It taught me flexibility. You have to adjust to changes and get creative in times like this.”
Photography: Josiah Rundles
Styling: Todd White
Hair: Keshaun Williamson
Make-up: Melissa Ocasio
Nails: Sharnise McMichael