21 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Black British Singers

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Even before the British Invasion, music rang loud from the UK. With the constant evolution of music—from blues, jazz, rock, and hip-hop to reggae—a number of singers emerged to represent these genres.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at 21 of the greatest and most famous black British singers to rock the airwaves, not just in the UK but all around the world. Read on to learn who they are!

1. Seal

Seal Henry Olusegun Olumide Adeola Samuel, simply known as Seal, is a renowned singer from Paddington, London, and is best known for his pop, soul, and R&B singles.

He performed at several clubs and with a few bands before releasing his debut single, “Killer,” in 1990, which topped the UK Singles Chart for four weeks.

Another one of his famous songs, “Kiss from a Rose,” ranked within the top 10 of several international charts and sold over eight million copies after its initial release.

With a career spanning over three decades, Seal has won four Grammy Awards and got nominated for several others. He’s received Ivor Novello Awards for his songwriting skills and has sold over 20 million records globally.

2. Leona Lewis

Born in 1985 in Islington, London, Leona Lewis spent most of her youth attending several performing arts schools. After encountering a few obstacles on her path to a music career, Lewis eventually made her mark on the music industry by winning The X-Factor in 2006.

Since her music debut, Lewis has sold over 35 million records. Her hit single, “Bleeding Love,” topped several international charts and sold almost 800,000 copies after its initial release.

Lewis got nominated for three Grammy Awards and seven BRIT Awards. She’s a dedicated activist and supports several humanitarian and animal rights associations.

3. Billy Ocean

Award-winning soul, pop, and R&B artist Billy Ocean is from Romford, London. Born in 1950, he became interested in music during childhood and performed at several London clubs before his big break.

He rose to stardom during the mid-1970s with his single “Love Really Hurts Without You.” This pushed his popularity throughout the 1980s.

Ocean’s hit single “Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run) won a Grammy Award in 1985 for “Best Male R&B Vocal Performance,” peaked on several international charts, and sold over 250,000 copies.

Since the start of his music career, he has sold over 30 million records, released 11 albums, and recorded dozens of singles. Now 73 years old, Ocean still tours and creates music.

4. Estelle

Hailing from West London, Estelle is a prominent black British singer who became interested in music at an early age, discovering hip-hop despite her religious upbringing.

Estelle eventually released her debut album, The 18th Day, in 2004 after getting a connection with John Legend. Although she specializes in recording hip-hop singles, she incorporates other genres into her music, including soul and reggae.

She has released five albums and 16 singles throughout her career. Some of her most popular songs include “Thank You,” “Conqueror,” and the Grammy Award-winning “American Boy.” Besides her music career, Estelle has acted in a few television shows and movies.

5. Julian Marley

Born in 1975, Julian Marley has significantly impacted the British music scene like his father, Bob Marley, through his reggae music. Despite being born in London, he spent some years of his childhood in Jamaica and learned how to play several instruments.

After touring with his brothers in the US during the early 1990s, Marley released his debut solo album, Lion in the Morning, in 1996. Two of his albums, Awake and As I Am, received Grammy nominations for Best Reggae Album.

Most of Marley’s music incorporates his spiritual Rastafarian lifestyle. He has supported several charities, including the Ghetto Youths Foundation.

6. Maxine Nightingale

Born in 1952 in Wembley, London, Maxine Nightingale became interested in singing at an early age and performed at several clubs during her teenage years.

Following the end of her contract with United States Records and her time performing in West End stage productions, Nightingale recorded and released her hit single “Right Back Where We Started From” in 1975. The song ranked eighth on the UK Singles Chart and second on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart.

Other popular singles most avid music lovers know her for include “Love Hit Me,” “Lead Me On,” and “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time).”

7. Maxi Priest

Born in 1961 in Lewisham, London, Maxi Priest grew up listening to R&B, reggae, and gospel music and began singing at an early age. Now, he’s a music artist best known for performing traditional reggae fused with R&B styles.

Before jump-starting his career, he performed through Saxon Studio International, a local reggae sound system. Some of his most iconic hits include “Close to You,” “Crazy Love,” and “Wild World.”

Priest has released over a dozen albums throughout his career. He received three Grammy Award nominations for Best Reggae Album in 1994, 1997, and 2021.

8. Kenny Lynch

Hailing from Stepney, London, Kenny Lynch was best known for his rock-and-roll and pop singles, making him stand out from his contemporaries of the 1960s.

A few years after starting his music career in 1960, he toured with The Beatles on their first British tour. He also appeared in a few films, like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and The Plank.

Throughout his career, Lynch released several singles that ranked within the top 50 of several UK charts. Some of his most notable are “You Can Never Stop Me Loving You,” “Mountain of Love,” and “Up on the Roof.”

9. Dee C. Lee

One of the most famous singers specializing in soul and R&B music is Dee C. Lee. Born in 1961 in Balham, South London, she began her music career as a member of several bands, including the Style Council and Wham!

Lee released her first solo album, Shrine, in 1986. Before this, however, she had already released several singles. One of her iconic songs, “See the Day,” sold over 250,000 copies and ranked third on the UK Singles Chart.

Other notable tracks released during her career include “Selina Wow Wow,” “Come Hell or Waters High,” and “Yippee Yi Yay!”

10. Andrew Roachford

London-born and based singer Andrew Roachford is known for his R&B, pop rock, and soul music. He began his professional music career performing at a few jazz clubs, and then in the late 1980s, he formed the band Roachford.

In 2003, he released his first solo album, Heart of the Matter, which became certified Gold. He’s since released 12 more albums and numerous singles, many of which ranked within the top 100 of several international charts.

“Something Beautiful,” “Family Man,” “Naked Without You,” and “Cuddly Toy” are among his best. In 2020, he dropped “What We Had,” featuring another R&B icon, Beverley Knight.

11. Barry Adamson

From Moss Side, Manchester, Barry Adamson specializes in pop and rock music. However, he has also experimented with other genres, including post-punk and soul jazz. Some of his earliest music work stems from playing for the punk band Magazine.

He released his first concept album, Moss Side Story, in 1989, which ranked ninth on the UK Indie Chart. Some of his most notable tracks released throughout his career include “The Vibes Ain’t Nothin’ but the Vibes,” “The Sweetest Embrace,” and “Jazz Devil.”

Adamson’s interest in art and film from an early age has also led to him working on several movie soundtracks, including Delusion in 1991 and Lost Highway in 1997.

12. Jaki Graham

After spending a few years playing with a jazz-funk band and releasing a few singles after her initial discovery, Jaki Graham, from Birmingham, England, released her debut album, Heaven Knows, in 1985.

Her music genre expertise includes soul, R&B, house, and pop. Her versatility is one of the contributing factors to her success—she has sold over 60,000 records throughout her career.

Graham’s hit single, “Round and Round,” peaked ninth on the UK Singles Chart in 1985. Over her career, she would continue releasing other iconic hits, like “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” and “Mated,” which peaked within the UK Single Chart’s top 20 for two years.

13. Smiley Culture

Born as David Victor Emmanuel in South London in 1956, Smiley Culture was a notable British reggae singer best known for his fast vocals. Before signing onto his first record label, he worked as a reggae sound system DJ for Saxon Studio International, among others.

He released two albums in 1986, Tongue in Cheek and The Original Smiley Culture. Although he didn’t release as many singles as some of the other singers on this list, many resonated with avid reggae fans.

Before his death in 2011, Smiley released a few notable singles that have lasted decades, such as “Cockney Translation” and “Schooltime Chronicle.”

14. Cab Kaye

Nii-lante Augustus Kwamlah Quaye—but most know him as Cab Kaye—was a notable jazz figure among the many black British singers on this list. He came from a family of musicians, spent most of his childhood in Camden, and performed at several jazz venues following his navy service in World War II.

During the 1950s, he toured across several countries and led several bands. His most well-known tracks include “Everything Is Go” and  “Don’t You Go Away.” Kaye’s music style incorporated blues to give it extra pizazz.

In the 1970s, Kaye established a piano bar where he and several other jazz artists could perform for audiences across Amsterdam.

15. Lynden David Hall

From Wandsworth, South Londoner, Lynden David Hall was part of the neo-soul movement of the 1990s. He was a self-taught guitarist, which helped propel him toward an interest in music.

In 1997, he released his debut album, Medicine 4 My Pain, making an impact on the music scene for avid fans of the neo-soul genre. This album’s release earned Hall a MOBO Award for Best Newcomer.

Many of his unforgettable singles, like “Sexy Cinderella,” “Do I Qualify,” and “Crescent Moon,” ranked within the top 50 on the UK Singles Chart.

Hall’s voice had a soulful edge, making him stand out among his early-2000s contemporaries. Despite his short-lived career, he released three albums and 38 singles.

16. Cleo Laine

British jazz and pop vocalist Cleo Laine was born in Middlesex, England. She took singing lessons throughout her childhood and had an extensive lower singing range that took her places.

Eventually, she performed in a band with John Dankworth, whom she married in 1958. Aside from recording, Laine toured and performed at several music halls, from the Blue Note Club to the Adelphi Theater.

A renowned musical theater performer, Laine earned a Tony Award nomination in 1985 for her role as Princess Puffer in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a Broadway musical.

Throughout her career, she received several awards and nominations for her vocal skills. Some fan-favorite songs she recorded include “He Was Beautiful” and “My One and Only Love.”

17. Denise Pearson

Born in 1968 in Islington, London, Denise Pearson‘s career began in the early 1980s in the pop and R&B group Five Star, consisting of her and her four siblings. During this period, she got nominated for a Grammy in 1986, acting as the group’s lead singer.

Following the group’s disbandment in 2001, Pearson contributed her musical talents to other artists, wrote several songs, and appeared in a few West End stage productions.

She released her first solo album in 2014, titled Imprint, which included nearly 20 songs, including fan-favorites “Freak Dance” and “Higher Love.”

18. Dandy Livingstone

Although he was born in Jamaica in 1943, British vocalist Dandy Livingstone moved to London when he was 15. There, he jammed with friends and often recorded their sessions.

In the late 1960s, Livingstone released his debut album, Rocksteady with Dandy, which showcased his reggae and rocksteady showmanship. His music also experimented with ska-inspired sounds.

After his career skyrocketed, Livingstone released over a dozen singles during his career. His hit song “Suzanne Beware of the Devil” ranked 14th on the UK Singles Chart in the early 1970s.

Some of his other well-known songs include “Rudy, A Message to You” and “Everybody Loves A Winner.” Recently, too, after decades of staying under the radar, Livingstone released “They Call Us Legends” (2020).

19. Labi Siffre

From Hammersmith, London, we have Labi Siffre, a singer specializing in various music genres, from pop and soul to funk. Although Siffre went to music school and performed with a few bands throughout the 1960s, he released five solo albums during the 1970s.

His best-known tracks include “It Must Be Love,” which ranked 14th on the UK Singles Chart, and “(Something Inside) So Strong,” which won an Ivor Novello Award in 1988. His voice has a soulful liveliness that enhances each song he writes and releases.

Besides releasing music, Siffre has written a few essays, plays, and poems, showcasing his versatile creativity and expression. He has also been featured in BBC’s series Imagine.

20. Corinne Bailey Rae

Hailing from Leeds, Corinne Bailey Rae‘s earliest experience with singing was through her local churches. She started her career with the indie music group Helen in the late 1990s.

Although she released a few singles before her big breakthrough, adapting from one genre to another took time for her. Then after her self-titled debut album, she skyrocketed to R&B and soul fame.

The album landed the top spot on the UK Albums Chart and #4 on Billboard 200. Her single following this release, “Put Your Records On,” is her best yet, landing the #2 spot on the UK Singles and #1 on the Hip Hop/R&B chart. It also earned Rae two Grammy nominations.

21. Bitty McLean

We end this list with reggae singer Bitty McLean. Born in Birmingham in 1972, he started his music career through local reggae sound systems and occasionally performing with UB40.

McLean made his big break on the reggae scene in the 1990s with his debut album, Just to Let You Know… Some of this album’s popular tracks, like “It Keeps Raining,” ranked within the top 10 of the UK Singles Chart.

Besides reggae, McLean’s other genre specialties are lovers’ rock and ragga. His songs have an upbeat sound that blends well with each single’s tone and lyrics.

Summing Up Our List Of Great Black British Singers

As you have read, black British singers have given their voice to the sound of soul, jazz, hip-hop, reggae, and R&B music. Their exceptional work gained them a huge following all over the world and cemented their spot in music history, ensuring that their legacy lives on.

Our list, however, is far from complete. Over the decades, the UK has spawned a number of great black singers. Who have we left off? Let us know, and we’ll add them for you!

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.