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

BBC Sound Of 2024: Soul sensation Elmiene kicks off the countdown
BBC Sound Of 2024: Soul sensation Elmiene kicks off the countdown

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

Schoolfriends made fun of his tastes, calling him an “oldhead” who was out of touch with the grime scene of the mid-2010s.

“My mates would be listening to a record and I’d recognise the sample, like: ‘Yo, that’s Dionne Warwick!’

“And they’d be like, ‘Who are you talking about?’

“It made me feel a bit to the left of everything that was going on.”

But his obsession eventually paid off.

After going viral with a cover of D’Angelo’s Untitled (How Does It Feel) in 2021, he was endorsed by Missy Elliot, Pharrell Williams and Questlove.

Rushed into a studio, one of the first songs he wrote, Golden, was hand-picked by the late fashion designer Virgil Abloh, and previewed at his final show for Louis Vuitton.

Since then, the musician has released two EPs, steeped in the smooth vocals and poetic lyrics he soaked up as a teenager, while co-writing for Stormzy and jamming in the studio with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake.

Now, he’s been voted into fifth place on 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.

BBC Sound Of 2024: Soul sensation Elmiene kicks off the countdown
BBC Sound Of 2024: Soul sensation Elmiene kicks off the countdown

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

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

But in another sense, he’d been preparing for this career his whole life.

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

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

“The whole school would stop me and go, ‘Sing for us!’ It was a weirdly demanding label to have.”

He didn’t know it then, but the experience of being “school famous” was going to be advantageous.

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

Then, one of his housemates filmed him singing D’Angelo in the back garden.

Unhappy with his 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, this is a possibility.'”

D’Angelo’s ghost

Before long, he was in the studio, testing his songwriting skills for the first time. Paired up with a producer called Dan Hylton, he walked in with one simple demand.

“I said to Dan, ‘I want to have a crack at a conventional song. Like, verse, chorus, hook – a normal song’.”

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

“She always told me about her golden years in Sudan, back in the 1950s, the dog she used to have and all of that stuff. So it’s all about nostalgia and looking back.

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

BBC Sound Of 2024: Soul sensation Elmiene kicks off the countdown
BBC Sound Of 2024: Soul sensation Elmiene kicks off the countdown

Even so, Elmiene was “really nervous” about playing it to anyone. “It seemed too intentional an attempt at writing a song,” he says.

Fate decided otherwise.

The song came to the attention of Louis Vuitton’s musical director Benji B, who played it at Virgil Abloh’s final show for the fashion label, two days after his death from cancer, at the age of just 41.

Elmiene’s lyrics stopped the audience in their tracks. His reflections on a “miraculous” life from someone whose “blades have been blunted”, seemed to encapsulate the beauty and tragedy of Abloh’s life.

“That was a mad, fateful coincidence,” says the musician. “But from there, the song ended up taking it’s own wings.

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

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

With only a few original songs to his name, he was suffering from pre-stage jitters, then something inexplicable happened.

I got out, stumbled through the first song, and started singing a cover of Bilal’s Soul Sista. That’s my song, I know it back to front, and I kind 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 quite explain it. For one thing, D’Angelo isn’t dead. But the vision felt like an affirmation.

“I thought back to all of his records that I loved, especially the live ones, and I was like, ‘This is it. Right now, I’m on the stage [like] he was’. And that let me fly off. The feeling was incredible.”

BBC Sound Of 2024: Soul sensation Elmiene kicks off the countdown
BBC Sound Of 2024: Soul sensation Elmiene kicks off the countdown

Other artists would get swept up in the moment, chasing the first flush of success. Elmiene is different. Softly-spoken and reflective, he deliberately took a year out before releasing a follow-up to Golden.

“That was my manager’s advice,” he says. “They were like, ‘You’ve had this lightning in a bottle moment but, when things like this happen, you have to take it in slowly and discover what made the lightning strike in the first place.’ So that year was a very important year.”

‘Such a loverboy’

He used that time to develop his song-writing, developing an unabashedly intimate soul sound, built around quiet percussion, mellow pianos and his deep, mesmerising voice.

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

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

Having studied the greats, he’s aware of the pitfalls of fame, but insists “I have faith in myself”.

Paraphrasing an Anderson .Paak lyric – “You said I changed, but I didn’t do all this stuff 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’s all about how you change.”

The same philosophical optimism underpins his music. Even on his current single, Someday, he turns a break-up into a motivational message: “Someday, I want to love like the love I had with you“.

Such an unabashedly romantic outlook separates Elmiene from his musical ancestors.

Is he mindful that Prince and Usher’s hyper-sexualised lyrics would play badly in 2024?

I’m just not that kind of guy,” he laughs. “Like, Joe is my favourite R&B artist ever and his music’s all about sex and passion, but it never crosses my mind to make those kind of songs.

“Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, you’re such a loverboy’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, ‘cos I’m not into 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 the BBC Sound of 2024 by a panel of 149 music critics, broadcasters, festival bookers and previous nominees Jorja Smith, PinkPantheress and Tom Grennan. The rest of the top five will be announced this week.

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