First conducted in 2003 by the public service broadcaster’s news website, the annual poll of tastemakers aims at identifying the brightest emerging music talent. 

This year, the voting panel included some 160 industry tastemakers including DJs, music critics and TV, radio and web producers, as well as artists like Stormzy, Billie Eilish and AJ Tracey. The scheme also saw singer-songwriter Holly Humberstone, London-based singer and rapper Berwyn Greentea Peng and Griff make the top five. 

“He has a unique perspective on Britain,” BBC Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac, who voted for Sound of 2021, said of Salieu. “His songs are exquisitely produced, with enough restraint for Pa’s voice to shine through and have the space to tell the stories of his life. They are stories of friendship and family, of violence, exclusion and racism, and they act as timeless evidence of British street life at the turn of the new decade.”

At 23, Salieu is best known for his debut single ‘Frontline’, which mainly tackles life and violence in Coventry, where he has lived since the age of eight. He is also behind the 2020 mixtape Send Them to Coventry.

“Since Gambia I was sent straight to Hills and [went] nowhere else. Watching the ends [streets] change, watching the years go by, nothing really changed. The violence just went worse. More youth clubs closed down. Survival– that’s what I learned in Hillfields,” he said. 

“I didn’t see crackheads or crack-fiends like that in Gambia. When I was a kid going to school [in Coventry], you have to pass fiends. You have to pass night workers. It was the morning, but night workers were still about, you know what I’m saying? Never did I know most of my friends were going to turn into crackheads, most of my friends are going to die from the circumstances of the ends. That’s what I learned here. Real life.”

Salieu credits his aunt, a folk singer in The Gambia, as a constant musical presence during his childhood. “She’s always been around and she goes to so many Gambian and Senegalese events. Folk music is part of your past and who you are. Back home, that’s what it means.” He, however, noted that his foray into music came out of nowhere. “I just saw a studio and fell in love with it. I was like, ‘Woah, I like how my voice sounds in this.’ I could basically make my voice into an instrument.”

On what message he intends with his music, Salieu disclosed that he wants to build and unify. “That’s what we lack,” he said. “Where I come from, we lack compassion. It’s going to have to come from me. I’m not a punchline artist. Everything I say is exactly how I feel and exactly what I see and exactly where I’m coming from. My message is: just build, build, build. Break down or make it out. Protect your energy. Protect everything.”

Previous winners of BBC Music’s Sound of include US rapper 50 Cent, pop singers Adele and Sam Smith and 2020 Mercury Prize winner Michael Kiwanuka.

Read Salieu’s full BBC interview here.