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Slingshot's 2021 Artists To Watch

Alto saxophonist and composer Immanuel Wilkins is one of our Slingshot artists to watch in 2021.
Dana Scruggs
Alto saxophonist and composer Immanuel Wilkins is one of our Slingshot artists to watch in 2021.

It's a new year, which means new opportunities for fresh faces to rise above the noise. NPR music partner stations spent the last three months listening to emerging musicians and selected 17 for our annual Slingshot list of artists to watch. Some have been honing their crafts for years and are finally primed for impact. Some released their first project in the past year. Packed with discoveries, our 2021 Slingshot list is a celebration of innovative artists, many of whom had a big 2020 and don't have any plans to slow down now.

You can stream a playlist of these artists via Spotify and Apple Music.

Arlo Parks

British R&B singer and songwriter Arlo Parks creates songs filled with warmth, empathy and attention to literary detail. It's easy to hear why Parks was shortlisted as a breakthrough act for the BBC's Sound of 2020. Her star will continue to rise on the strength of her magical debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, set to be released later this year. Parks' songs welcome you into a charming world of beauty. She has a stunning musical maturity for someone so young, not to mention a singular voice. —Bruce Warren, WXPN


Do a quick google search of Bakar and you'll see his music labeled as everything from experimental indie rock to hip-hop to soul. Give his music a listen and you'll realize that all of these descriptions are equally accurate. Genre aside, his music (especially the vocals) is sonically raw, which is not to say he doesn't sound polished. Bakar sounds like a real human performing well-crafted songs that haven't been over-produced using studio tricks — and trust me, these songs don't need any extra touches to stand out. The British artist had a No. 1 radio hit in 2020 with the song "Hell N Back;" the song surpassed Kings Of Leon's record for longest climb to the top, confirming radio's adoration of and commitment to the longevity of an artist with only a handful of songs. The new single "1st Time" contains one of his most memorable hooks yet, further establishing Bakar as one of the most exciting artists to watch this year. —Amy Miller, KXT

Bartees Strange

This genre-agnostic young brother was raised on opera, gospel and funk in a country-loving suburb of Oklahoma City before he discovered the ecstatic release of hardcore shows. His 2020 album, Live Forever, was full of big heartland emo hooks with nods to DaBaby and TV On The Radio. It was the debut album of the year and you'll be hearing it a lot throughout 2021. —Larry Mizell Jr., KEXP


"How could I be the shortest man in every single room I walk into but be consistently the closest to God? / Maybe 'cause I'm always high." BERWYN is a poet, and a good one. His word play is clever, but more importantly, it's personal. You hear him grapple with himself in a way that is so honest, it feels sometimes like you shouldn't even be listening. His arrangement usually includes piano, complementing the intimacy and letting the quiet determination of his voice ring clear. He writes about being born in Trinidad and Tobago, moving to London at 9, becoming a dealer by circumstance, but knowing he's meant for more. He's determined in his writing, determined to go even higher. And I believe him. —Justin Barney, Radio Milwaukee


It's true, we've got a soft spot for Claud's ruminative indie pop. Discovered through SoundCloud demos and DIY shows in Chicago, the artist formerly known as Toast is the first signing to Phoebe Bridgers' Saddest Factory Records imprint. Their tender, dreamlike melodies touch on relatable coming-of-age themes like unrequited love and the vulnerability of youth, but Claud also makes room for underrepresented snippets of life and love within the young LGBTQ+ community. Look out for Super Monster, Claud's debut album, when it drops on Feb. 12. —Michelle Bacon, 90.9 The Bridge

Freak Juice

Tulsa R&B band Freak Juice is helmed by guitarist Tori Ruffin, who has spent decades as a sideman, but only recently stepped into the spotlight with his own compositions. On the band's late 2020 release, They Call Us Juice, Ruffin, who has toured and recorded with names like Prince, Fishbone and Morris Day, doesn't shy away from hard topics. He tackles politics ("Hypocrite") and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre ("Dirty Little Secret"), wrapping it all in a professional musicianship that rocks as hard as it grooves. Keep an eye on Ruffin in 2021 as he reprises his role as the guitarist in the fictional band Sexual Chocolate in Coming 2 America (the sequel to Eddie Murphy's 1988 comedy) and lends his music to events and performances marking the centennial of Tulsa's Race Massacre. —Julie Watson, Live from Cain's

Genesis Owusu

When I first heard "Don't Need You" from Genesis Owusu, I was struck by the fresh, yet familiar feel of the track. I immediately googled him to find out more, but there's not too much on this young Australian artist, save a few singles and an 2017 EP. I love the mix of confidence, swagger and humor in his jazzy, hip-hop delivery, and the song just jumps out of the radio. With his debut album Smiling With No Teeth dropping in February, I suspect we'll be learning a lot more about Genesis Owusu soon. —Russ Borris, WFUV


Gustaf is a throwback art punk band from Brooklyn with rave reviews. They've opened for many high-profile acts, including Beck, even though their debut single, "Mine," is less than four months old. Fans of Talking Heads and Television will want to keep an eye on this band. —Benji McPhail, Colorado Sound

Immanuel Wilkins

At 23, Immanuel Wilkins has toured and studied with some of the most talented musicians in the world. Performing with Bob Dylan and Solange Knowles, lessons with Ron Carter, touring with Wynton Marsalis and Jason Moran and absorbing all the offerings that Juilliard could provide in four years has positioned him to advance his career beyond the challenges of the past year. Wilkins' Blue Note debut, Omega, garnered critical acclaim and a spot on the New York Times' Best Jazz Albums of 2020 list. It presents a poignant audio portrait of the Black experience in America at a pivotal moment in time. This year will find Wilkins continuing a work in progress with New York dancer and choreographer Sidra Bell and appearances on projects by bassist Ben Wolfe and pianist James Francies. —J. Michael Harrison, WRTI

Jensen McRae

Jensen McRae was born and raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles in a mixed-race family immersed in music. She knew from the first time she heard Alicia Keys streaming through her mother's stereo as a toddler that she would spend her life making music of her own. Now 23, McRae is poised for a monumental 2021 with her long-awaited debut album set to drop any minute now. Though she only has a few songs currently available, each one reveals her to be a songwriter most adept at placing listeners inside her experience, and showing how universal that experience can be. —Anne Litt, KCRW

Joy Oladokun

From rural Casa Grande, Ariz., Joy Oladokun is the daughter of two Nigerian immigrants. Weekend concert binge-watching with her older sisters inspired her love for music. At 10, she heard Tracy Chapman solo with guitar in hand, which prompted her to pick one up herself. She pursued her path to LA to make music and then wound up in East Nashville, finding common ground among the creative community. From quarantine isolation, Oladokun released her latest album, in defense of my own happiness (vol. 1), an examination of emotion and empathy. The album features a song for the Black Lives Matter movement, co-written with Natalie Hemby, "Who Do I Turn To?" and another one railing against systemic racism, "I See America." As she finds her footing in a Southern city as a Black queer folkie, Oladokun is a fierce voice demanding equality. —Jessie Scott, WMOT

Namir Blade

Nashville's Namir Blade seemed to emerge out of nowhere last fall with Aphelion's Traveling Circus, a sci-fi, hip-hop concept album that marked his debut on the respected indie hip-hop label Mello Music Group. In reality, the 28-year-old rapper and multi-instrumentalist producer has spent the better part of his life finding — or, more accurately, fashioning — his artistic identity, beginning with his discovery of video game soundtracks at age 6. Now he's harnessed his sonic tinkering, Afrofuturistic outlook, theatrical wit and emotional vulnerability in music that feels both ahead of its time and in step with its moment. —Jewly Hight, WNXP

Nana Adjoa

The Ghanaian-Dutch singer has a lot to say about the state of the world on her debut album, Big Dreaming Ants. Nana Adjoa delivers probing songs about racism and nationalism, the power of women and the stifling power of small talk. She studied to be a jazz bassist before moving on to write her own music, but brings that music's melodic agility, as well as the shifting rhythms of Ghanaian highlife, to these timely songs. —David Christensen, opbmusic

Samm Henshaw

South East London's Samm Henshaw dropped "All Good," an upbeat and positive anthem (accompanied by a Samsung-sponsored video) at the very end of 2020. It's a huge single (inspired by a fan photo of a smiling dog) that comes with the promise of more new music in 2021. Even though Henshaw has already played the big festivals, sold out shows in London, toured with Chance the Rapper and collaborated with EarthGang and Pharrell, 2021 is sure to be his biggest year yet. Be on the lookout for his debut full-length LP, coming out on his own Dorm Seven label. —Brian Burns, WUNC Music

S.G. Goodman

Kentucky singer-songwriter S.G. Goodman blends the sounds of traditional country and folk with moody electric grit and progressive ideas. She is brutally honest when shedding the layers addressing the social and economic complexities of living in the rural south, but does it with the grace of someone who respects the land and the people whose stories she's absorbed along the way. —Vasilia Scouras, Mountain Stage

Sports Team

England seems to be one step ahead of us again. Sports Team released their debut album this past year and it's become as essential to my daily existence as wearing a mask. These six young Brits are celebrating their salad days by making indie rock exciting and hilarious again while discovering the perfect blend of Pavement and The Strokes. The songs are laden with hooks and Alex Rice joins the ranks of the best frontmen of 2021. —Rick McNulty, KUTX

The Grand Alliance

An intergalactic supergroup has landed in Denver and they go by the name of The Grand Alliance. The creative collaboration is made up of R&B singer Kayla Marque, multifaceted artist Sur Ellz and producer Crl Crrll. —Bruce Trujillo, Indie 102.3

Tobi Lou

A multidimensional musician from Nigeria by way of Chicago, Tobi Lou's next LP, due in 2021, tackles issues like COVID-19, #BlackLivesMatter protests in the wake of George Floyd's death, and the #EndSars movement. And he's already had his signature breakthrough moment on TikTok with the song "Buff Baby." —Ayana Contreras, Vocalo

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