Whether it’s indie, rap, rock, Afroswing, grime, pop or anything else, the UK has always had a seat at the global top table. Part of that is an ever-healthy underground music scene, whose breakout stars rise up to dictate how the charts are going to look, but perhaps even more important than that are the behind-the-scenes players shifting and adjusting on a hairpin—the songwriters.
In years gone by, songwriters played a number of different roles. The Brill building in New York, for example, was the motor that ran the earliest iteration of the pop music machine, knocking out hits like The Archies’ “Sugar” and The Shangri-Las’ “Walking In The Sand” (i.e. the “Oh no!” song that was all over TikTok this past summer). Adapting to the ‘new sound’ of the day, shifting styles almost at a moment’s notice, is a talent that isn’t as revered as much as it should be. Writing an era-defining hit that’ll be remembered across the decades is a phenomenal achievement by itself, but the writers of songs that we’ve selected in this list have done it—in some cases—dozens of times and for multiple artists. And their ability to adapt doesn’t just apply to trends: they also have to switch up their style for each new artist.
Songwriting for some of the world’s biggest artists is a tremendous gift, but it’s not always the most immediately recognised or respected. Whether you like the music or not, talent is talent and you can’t ignore that. With that being said, here are 10 Black British songwriters that you need to know today.
You may know Scribz Riley as being the incoming prince of UK R&B, but he’s also lent his pen to some of the world’s biggest players in music. The one-time grime MC from East London is every bit the triple threat: he’s composed and produced tracks for everyone from Cardi B and H.E.R to Chris Brown and Khalid; he’s released a critically-acclaimed body of work of his own in Wish Me Luck; and he’s written songs for the likes of Ella Mai, NAO, SiR, and more. The two-time Grammy Award winner is an unstoppable force all his own and, at 29 years young, he has only just begun. —Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson
With almost 120 cuts to her name, Mancunian export Janée Bennet—aka Jin Jin— has been an active, and extremely successful, songwriter, singer and businesswoman over the last decade and some. Coming to the fore alongside bezzie Jess Glynne in 2014, scoring No. 1 hits including “Hold My Hand” (which landed Bennet a BMI Award), they continue to work together. Unsurprising, given both of Glynne’s albums have topped the charts, racking up those good Platinum plaques along the way. But Jin Jin’s career had begun long before, the former model and undergraduate degree-holder co-writing for Roll Deep in 2008 (“Do Me Wrong”) and releasing her own songs as early as 2009. Now a multi-award winner, Jin Jin has been nominated for an Ivor Novello and worked on many a BRIT-nominated cut. According to Spotify UK, her most popular songs include RAYE and Jax Jones’ “You Don’t Know Me”, Joel Corry, RAYE and David Guetta’s “BED”, YEBBA’s “Evergreen” and Becky G and Burna Boy’s “Rotate”, and there are many more besides. Having set up her own publishing company, Raggamuffin Music, and label/management stable Jinsing, Jin Jin is a one-woman powerhouse whose illustrious career will no doubt inspire many generations to come. Go, Jin Jin! —Chantelle Fiddy
To put it simply: MNEK is a hit-making machine. After finding his voice writing poetry as a child, dabbling in beat-making software along the way, he later uploaded his first tracks to MySpace as a teen. Eventually, he caught the attention of the singer-songwriter Anita Blay (fka CocknBullKid) and through her found his footing in the industry. Credits for pop bands The Saturdays and The Wanted followed, before he eventually made his way as a solo artist. Massive dance/pop crossover hits came in the mid-2010s with Rudimental and Gorgon City; by the second half of the decade, he was crafting hits for Madonna, Kylie Minouge and Beyoncé. That period—2016 to 2018—was transformative for him and by the end of the 2010s, MNEK was the ultimate go-to-guy for artists and record labels in need of a surefire hit. Dance producer Joel Corry and R&B trio FLO are some of the more recent acts that owe a good chunk of their early success to MNEK’s talents, and he has personally shaped the worlds of pop, R&B and dance perhaps more than anyone else in recent memory. —James Keith
Carla Marie Williams
Carla Marie is the lyrical savant behind some of the world’s biggest hits. The North-West London native’s songwriting journey began in 2006, when she was scouted by Brian Higgins—founder of pop production stable Xenomania—to join his team of hitmakers. She spent her time there co-writing songs for the likes of Girls Aloud, The Saturdays, Alesha Dixon and Kylie Minogue, and it wasn’t long before she penned a No. 1 hit (alongside her Xenomania co-writers) in Girls Aloud’s ‘60s-inspired single, “The Promise”, leading her to be recognised by The BRITs. After making her mark within the world of British pop, Carla’s songwriting career really shifted a gear when Queen Bey called on her to collab on “Freedom”, from her Grammy award-winning album, LEMONADE. While her journey to reaching songwriting superstardom hasn’t been without its adversity, Carla Marie’s 24 years in the industry has helped pave the way for aspiring Black women songwriters the world over. —Claudia Cagna
Like most songwriters, Wayne Hector’s first moves in the music industry were made as a performer. In his case, it was as a member of New Jack Swing group Rhythm N Bass. They landed a major label deal and had a decent share of success, but he found himself moving more towards the writing and production side. Thanks to connections made via the group, he quickly rose up the ranks as a songwriter and by the end of ‘90s was writing for chart-dominating A-listers like Westlife (he has either sole credits or co-writing credits for four of the group’s No. 1s). Since then, pretty much every A-lister in the last 20 years has called on Hector for a hit, with everyone from One Direction to Nicki Minaj owing him their thanks. With Wayne Hector, it feels like instinct. To be able to stay on top, to have such a fundamental understanding of what makes a song resonate across four decades and such vast shifts in the charts, is something very few in the industry can do, at least not so successfully. —James Keith
With almost a decade in the game, there isn’t a genre or a style Kamille hasn’t tried her pen at, whether it’s contributing as a songwriter or featuring as an artist in her own right. Starting out in 2013 after quitting her day job as a stockbroker following an economics degree at university, Kamille entered the industry with a bang when her first writing credit, The Saturdays’ “What About Us”, went straight to No. 1. As she gained confidence to branch out as a featured vocalist—with guest appearances on songs for the likes of Avelino, Gorgon City and Kranium, to name a few—she was also building her own discography as a solo artist. Fast forward a couple of years, not only has Kamille won a Grammy for her work on Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia album, she’s also tried her hand at reality TV (Channel 4’s High Life) and partnered with BMG to launch her very own label, Pure Cut. It’s safe to say life is great for Camille Angelina Purcell. —Rahel Aklilu
Ari PenSmith is a well-known and revered name within the songwriting community. Just as adept at working with rising superstars such as Bellah and Tamera as he is at making memorable cuts for Beyoncé and Alicia Keys, Ari’s pen game is up there with some of the best in the world (watch-out now, Mr. Jones!), blessing some of your favourite artists with a mix of heartfelt gems and club-ready jams for the win. With Grammy nods becoming something of a norm for Ari PenSmith—the most recent for his work on Snoh Aalegra’s Temporary Highs In The Violet Sky and Wizkid’s Made In Lagos—the only place for him to go now is further up. —Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson
East Ham, East London’s DYO unearthed her love for singing and performing at an early age, raised in an area riddled with musical talent and deep pockets of culture. Steadily carving out her lane among the shortlist of go-to pop hitmakers—surfacing in 2009 with her angelic vocals on Chip’s “Oopsy Daisy”, DYO reached chart-topping status right off the bat. Co-writing and featuring on all three of Wiley’s smash-hit singles from his 2013 album, The Ascent—including “Heatwave”, “Can You Hear Me?” and “Reload”—this subsequently set the tone for her success down the line. DYO’s uptempo pop charm and knack for crafting radio-friendly hooks led her to pump out hits for the likes of Maroon 5, Iggy Azalea, British girl group M.O, Jesy Nelson, Stefflon Don and more. And international, feel-good anthems like “Sexual” by Swedish collective NEIKED—which features her as a vocalist and co-writer—further proved her talents on the worldwide stage. Still in her prime, DYO’s real ascent has just begun. —Claudia Cagna
Varren Wade’s instincts for a hit stretch back to his early-00s days as one third of R&B boyband Fundamental. The group split in 2011 and after a brief break from the music game to regroup and collect himself, Wade returned to the industry as a writer with a matured pen and an appetite for a more grown sound. Wade has been described as being a mix between “Queen and Coldplay with R&B twist”—a master of soulful, big-room epics—but even that’s a little reductive. He had a hand in several tracks on Stormzy’s debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, lent both his writing and vocal talents to Wretch 32’s Growing Over Life highlight, the hard-hitting “Open Conversation & Mark Duggan”, and that’s saying nothing of his award-winning work with the likes of Drake, Ella Mai and Giveon. In short, Varren Wade is the guy you go to when you want to fill an arena with songwriting on a grand scale. —James Keith