Soul sensation Elmiene kicks off the countdown

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By Mark SavageBBC Music Correspondent

Sarah Louise Bennett/BBC Elmiene performs at the BBC's Maida Vale studiosSarah Louise Bennett/BBC
The 22-year-old was studying creative writing and considering a career as a security guard before music called him.

Like his heroes Prince and D'Angelo, Elmiene is immersed in the history of soul.

Growing up in Oxford, he devoured the classics, studying the liner notes and tracing the connections between his favorite artists.

His classmates made fun of his tastes, calling him “old” out of touch with the grime scene of the mid-2010s.

“My friends were listening to a record and I recognized the excerpt, like: 'Yo, it's Dionne Warwick!'

“And they said, 'Who are you talking about?'

“It made me feel a little left of everything that was going on.”

But his obsession finally paid off.

After going viral with a cover of D'Angelo's Untitled (How Does It Feel) in 2021, he received support from Missy Elliot, Pharrell Williams and Questlove.

Rushed to a studio, one of the first songs he wrote, Golden, was selected by the late fashion designer Virgil Abloh and previewed during his last show for Louis Vuitton.

The musician has since released two EPs, infused with the smooth vocals and poetic lyrics he imbibed as a teenager, while co-writing for Stormzy and performing in the studio with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake.

Now he has been elected fifth BBC Radio 1's Sound of 2024 – chosen by a panel of more than 140 critics, DJs and musicians.

Not bad for someone who, just two years ago, had only written one song.

Pierre Girardin ElmienePierre Girardin
The British-Sudanese artist titled his debut EP “El-mean” to explain how his name should be pronounced

“I wrote a song for my GCSE music class and I thought, ‘That’s not really my thing,’” he laughs.

“It became a joke among my friends. Everyone was like, 'Yo, you could stack it, but you're sitting there on the couch playing Street Fighter!'”

But on the other hand, he had been preparing for this career his whole life.

Born Abdala Elamin, he was nicknamed “Michael Jackson's kid” after performing a mash-up of Man In The Mirror and Adele's Skyfall in his seventh-grade music class.

“At the time, I had a bit of an afro and I was one of four black kids in school, so it became a big part of my personality,” he recalls.

“The whole school stopped me and said: “Sing for us!” It was a strangely demanding label.”

He didn't know it at the time, but the experience of being 'school famous' was going to be beneficial.

In 2021, Elmiene was happily studying creative writing at Bournemouth University, with a job as a security guard awaiting her in Oxford after graduation.

Then one of his roommates filmed him singing D'Angelo in the backyard.

Unhappy with her performance, he asked her to delete it – but she insisted it was worth posting online.

By the time he woke up the next morning, the world had “gone crazy.”

“There were messages from labels. Missy Elliot had retweeted it. I was like, 'OK, that's a possibility.'”

D'Angelo's ghost

Soon after, he was in the studio, testing his songwriting skills for the first time. Teamed up with a producer called Dan Hylton, he arrived with a simple request.

“I said to Dan, 'I want to try my hand at a conventional song. Like a verse, a chorus, a chorus – a normal song'.”

The song they came up with was Golden, based on a poem Elmiene had written the year before about her Sudanese grandmother.

“She always told me about her golden years in Sudan in the 1950s, the dog she had and all that. So it's about nostalgia and looking back.

“I remember Dan and I walked out of the studio to go to the chicken shop, and we were still humming the tune. Dan was like, 'That's the sign of a good song.'”

Pierre Girardin ElmienePierre Girardin
The musician is part of a new wave of British R&B that has also given birth to Mahalia, Ella Mai, Sekou and Cleo Sol.

Still, Elmiene was “really nervous” about playing it to anyone. “It seemed like an overly intentional attempt to write a song,” he says.

Fate has decided otherwise.

The song caught the attention of Louis Vuitton music director Benji B, who performed it at Virgil Abloh's final show for the fashion brand, two days after his death from cancer at the age of Only 41 years old.

Elmiene's words stopped the audience in their tracks. His thoughts on the “miraculous” life of someone whose “blades were blunted” seemed to encapsulate the beauty and tragedy of Abloh's life.

“It was a crazy and fateful coincidence,” says the musician. “But from there, the song ended up taking on its own wings.

“People usually ask if it was an intimidating feeling, but for me it was confirmation that I was doing something right.”

Further confirmation came three weeks later, when he played his first real concert with a band.

With only a few original songs under his belt, he was suffering from pre-stage stage fright, and then something inexplicable happened.

I went out, came across the first song and started singing a cover of Soul Sista by Bilal. It's my song, I know it perfectly, and I sort of went into a trance.

“And that’s when I saw D’Angelo’s ghost in the corner of the room.”

He still can't explain it. For one thing, D'Angelo isn't dead. But this vision felt like an affirmation.

“I thought back to all his records that I loved, especially the live ones, and I was like, ‘This is it. Right now, I'm on stage (like) he was. And it allowed me to soar. The feeling was incredible.”

Def Jam / Polydor ElmieneDef Jam / Polydor
Elmiene has worn an afro comb-over since her school days, which is part of her trademark look

Other artists would get caught up in the moment, chasing the first hit. Elmiene is different. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, he deliberately took a year before publishing a follow-up to Golden.

“That was my manager’s advice,” he says. “They were like, 'You had this lightning in a bottle, but when things like this happen, you have to slowly digest it and find out what caused the lightning in the first place.' So that year was a very important year.”

'Such a lover'

He used this period to develop his songwriting, developing a decidedly intimate soul sound, built around gentle percussion, soft pianos and his deep, haunting voice.

But it was also a time of confusion and recalibration. The two EPs he released in 2023 were meant to prepare himself for the changes his life was about to go through.

“These songs are here to remind me who I need to be, as I move on to what’s next.”

Having studied with the greats, he is aware of the pitfalls of fame, but insists: “I have confidence in myself.”

Paraphrasing the words of Anderson .Paak – “You said I changed, but I didn't do all that just to stay the same” – he says transition doesn't have to be negative.

“You will change, that’s something I’ve accepted, but it all depends on how you change.”

The same philosophical optimism underlies his music. Even on his current single, Someday, he turns a breakup into a motivational message: “One day I want to love like the love I had with you“.

This resolutely romantic vision separates Elmiene from her musical ancestors.

Is he aware that the hypersexualized lyrics of Prince and Usher would be poorly played in 2024?

I'm just not that type of guy,” he laughs. “Joe is my favorite R&B artist of all time and his music is all about sex and passion, but that never occurred to me. spirit of making these kinds of songs.

“Everyone says, 'Oh, you're such a loverboy,' and I say, 'Yeah, 'cause I don't like all that other stuff.'

“I'm more romantic. I'm more Donnie Hathway or Stevie Wonder. I'm not Rick James.”

Elmiene was chosen for BBC Sound 2024 by a panel of 149 music critics, broadcasters, festival organizers and previous nominees Jorja Smith, PinkPantheress and Tom Grennan. The rest of the top five will be announced this week.



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