It used to be that black singers were relegated just as background vocals for white singers. Even then, they had to work extra hard for these opportunities.
Despite their distinct and beautiful voices, they were seldom recognized for their talents. But times have changed and now favor them.
In the UK, particularly, we’ve seen the rise of great black artists who made their mark in the music industry. They are proof of the immense talent they carry.
Without further ado, here is our compilation of 15 of the greatest and most famous black British female singers. Read on!
Young fans adore Estelle for her role in the smash hit cartoon Steven Universe. What they don’t know is that Estelle has been rocking the airways for nearly two decades.
Born Estelle Swaray, she is a West London rapper, actress, radio presenter, singer, and songwriter who defies genre boundaries. She’s collaborated with the biggest names in the music industry to blend the best of hip-hop, reggae, soul, R&B, and dance into massive hits.
Her most famous single, “American Boy,” featuring Kanye West, went multi-platinum. Aside from West, Estelle also collaborated with other artists such as will.i.am and John Legend, and Chris Brown.
2. Leona Lewis
The X Factor winner Leona Lewis is a stunning example of reality show fame being just the beginning of a great career. Lewis won the third season of the show in 2006, gaining international attention.
This was the big break that Lewis was waiting for. She was born and grew up in London, to a father of Afro-Guyanese descent and a mother of Welsh and Italian descent.
She attended the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology but dropped out to pursue music. But it wasn’t easy. She had experienced setbacks before deciding to audition on The X Factor.
Her 2007 single “Bleeding Love” went triple platinum in the UK. It achieved double platinum and gold status in many other nations. It was only the second song to go #1 in 35 countries, behind Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.”
3. Jorja Smith
Next on our list is Jorja Smith. She’s a West Midlands small-time artist that climbed her way up from a working-class girl to an artist fighting for a spot on Billboard’s Top 100.
Producers scouted Smith after uploading her covers of popular songs on YouTube. Though she was only 15 and still in school at the time, her talent for R&B was evident.
After graduation, she wrote songs while working as a barista. Since the mid-2010s, she’s been steadily releasing music and climbing her way into the music industry, gathering acclaim as she goes. Her “Be Honest” single has catapulted her into popularity, selling nearly a million records.
4. Corinne Bailey Rae
Leeds-born Corinne Bailey Rae is one of the most iconic R&B voices from Britain’s 2000s scene. Her iconic track “Put Your Records On” kicked off something of a revolution in terms of style and tone in the industry. It became her big break when it was released in 2003.
Bailey Rae’s influences and inspiration stem from a bend of faith, literature, language, and her personal relationships. She grew up Baptist and studied English literature and language at the University of Leeds.
Her latest album was, in large part, inspired by the passing of her husband. But throughout her career, she sold over twelve million records.
5. Shirley Bassey
Up next is Shirley Bassey, well-known for recording three James Bond theme songs. This Welsh-born powerhouse has a voice that can send chills down the spine or make the heart soar.
Bassey was born to a Nigerian father and a mother from Teesside in North England. And while she has a beautiful voice, no one encouraged her enough. So at 14, she left school and sang in local pubs.
Her big break came in 1960 when “As Long As He Needs Me” peaked at #2. From there, her success continued. In 2020, she became the first female artist to chart for an album for seven straight decades in the UK Top 40 charts.
Her greatest hits have been the songs she recorded for the Bond films: “Goldfinger,” “Diamonds Are Forever,” and “Moonraker.” Direct sales are hard to chart for her long career, but it’s estimated that she’s sold over 1.5 million records.
6. FKA Twigs
Our next singer is the epitome of someone whose hard work didn’t go to waste. As early as 16, FKA Twigs was already making music.
At around this time, she was a backup dancer for various artists such as Jessie J, Ed Sheeran, and Kylie Minogue. She appeared in Jessie J’s videos for “Do It Like a Dude” and “Price Tag.” She also began recording demos and collaborating with local record producers.
Her self-released music debut, EP1, finally came out in 2012. EP2 followed a year later. At this point, she was already using the name FKA Twigs. “Twigs” came from the way her joints crack. “FKA” didn’t have any special meaning. She just thought it sounded masculine and strong.
FKA Twigs was able to make a name for herself. She lights up the scene with her dynamic voice and dramatic stylings. These are evident in many of her songs, including one of her successful hits, “Cellophane.”
7. Ella Mai
Named after American icon Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Mai has big shoes to fill and is determined to do so. Breaking into the top 40 on Billboard on multiple occasions, performing on Saturday Night Live, and releasing multiple albums, she is doing her namesake justice.
Born to a Jamaican mother and an English-Irish father, her singing career began when she auditioned for The X Factor season 11. She was part of a trio, but they did not advance in the competition.
Her big break came in 2015 after she uploaded some original songs to SoundCloud. She was discovered and signed to a label, and it had been a whirlwind of events that led to her smash hits “Boo’d Up” and “Trip.”
“Boo’d Up” peaked at #5 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year. Ella Mai also won the Billboard Music Awards for Top R&B Artist and Top Female R&B Artist.
8. Emeli Sande
Sunderland-born Emeli Sande always knew she was going to be a singer and songwriter. She was only 11 when she wrote her very first song, “Tomorrow Starts Again.”
Though she turned down a deal when she was young in favor of education, she eventually turned out to be a renowned singer. Her global hit “Next to Me” charted strongly and put her on the map internationally.
In 2012, her performance was a success at the London Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies. The next year she netted two Brit awards: Album of the Year and Best Female Solo Artist.
Sande has been a star for over a decade, shining as a jewel in Britain’s crown. Not only is she an incredible singer-songwriter, but she also has a degree in clinical medicine. Sande obtained this degree, specifically in neuroscience, in case her music career didn’t work out.
At the tender age of 15, Jamelia was already a signed artist. Her first single under the label failed to chart, and it took her three years before she returned to the music scene.
Born of two Jamaican parents, Jamelia burst onto the music scene at the turn of the millennium with a personality that captivated the UK. Her second single, “I Do,” fared better and was her first successful single. The third, “Money,” was her breakthrough in the UK as it peaked at #5 on the UK Top 75.
All three of her albums hit the top 40 charts, and Jamelia boasts eight top 10 singles. With several Brit nominations, it’s clear that Great Britain can’t get enough of her.
10. Alexandra Burke
Another X-Factor success story is Alexandra Burke, born in Islington, London. She’s the daughter of the late singer Melissa Bell, who was of African and Indian descent.
Burke won the fifth series of the show in 2008. She shifted gears in 2016 when she took up a year residency in Sister Act: The Musical. Since then, she has been in several productions, including Chicago, Joseph, and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Jack and the Beanstalk.
One of her biggest hits is “Hallelujah,” which held the record for selling 105,000 copies in one day. It was also the top-selling single in 2008 in the UK. Her debut album, Overcome, also enjoyed success when it peaked at #1 on the UK Albums Chart in 2009.
11. Little Simz
Marvel fans may know Little Simz from her cameo in Venom: Let There be Carnage. She appeared in that film performing her song “Venom.”
Born Simbiatu “Simbi” Abisola Abiola Ajikawo, Little Simz is a Yoruban artist who grew up in North London. This was where she honed her hip-hop style. Talent agents discovered the young talent a few years ago and appreciated her captivating style and sound.
She has not sold many records yet as she is a new artist, so there is not much data available on her success. But if winning the 2022 Brit award for Best New Artist is anything to go by, she is definitely one black British singer to look out for.
12. Sade Adu
You’ll probably recognize Sade Adu, or simply Sade, as one of the famous Live Aid singers. She and her band, also called Sade, dominated the airwaves in the ’80s.
This Nigerian-born singer got her big break with the song “Smooth Operator” in 1984. The single appeared on her debut album, Diamond Life, which was also a success. It peaked at #2 on the UK Album Chart and won the Brit Award for Best British Album in 1985.
What made Sade different was the allure of her voice. It is deep and resonant, which is evident in the video above. Sade has sold nearly 750,000 copies of her albums.
13. Shara Nelson
Our next black British singer is singer-songwriter Shara Nelson. She was born in London, England, and worked with The Circuit before going on a solo career.
Her career in music began in 1983 with “Aiming at Your Heart,” credited to her and The Circuit. Her debut solo single, “Can’t Get Over You,” came out in 1986.
Nelson had her hit singles in the 1990s following the release of “Daydreaming” and “Unfinished Sympathy.” The latter peaked at #13 on the UK Singles Chart. The song also received critical acclaim. Another hit single, the 1993 “Down That Road,” peaked at #19 on the same chart. She remains an absolute legend in dance, pop, and R&B.
14. Beverly Knight
A soulful artist with a voice that reaches right into the heart, Beverly Knight never misses. An actress, philanthropist, singer, and songwriter, Knight does it all.
Knight was born to Jamaican parents and raised in a religious household in Wolverhampton, England. Much of her soulful sound came from listening to gospel music and other Christian influences in her youth.
Knight’s big break came thanks to her 1995 debut album, The B-Funk. Her record label thought it was the best British soul album. Despite peaking at only #145, Knight won Best R&B Artist and Best Producer in 1996.
One of her biggest hits is “Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda” from her third studio album, Who I Am. The single was her first top 10 in the UK, peaking at #10 on the UK Singles Chart. Consequently, the album got propelled into the top ten of the UK Albums Chart.
15. Helen Parker-Jayne Epega
Last but not least, we have Helen Parker-Jayne Epega. Of Nigerian descent, she wrote and composed the world’s first opera in Pidgin English.
Epega originally began her career as a rapper. However, she pivoted to influences from African music as she developed as an artist. She was able to create her opera with aid and funding from the Arts Council England. Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera has been performed in London, Cape Town, and Lagos.
Epega has not seen large commercial success. But her contributions to music are greatly felt in the London community.
Summing Up Our List Of Greatest Black British Female Singers
Surely, the singers we have included on the list above only comprise a small percentage of black British female singers. But they represent the population of talented artists, no matter where they came from.
They’re also proof of the hard work one puts in, in following their dreams. They show us that without hard work, talent is not enough.
We hope you liked our compilation for today. Show these ladies some support by listening to the hits that propelled them to international success.