Scandinavia has an unparalleled reputation for producing memorable pop acts, but a new wave of musicians are introducing global influences to the region’s music industry
Scandinavia has an unrivalled reputation for creating brilliant pop music. Its success arguably began with ABBA, the iconic Eurovision entrants that skyrocketed to global success with their earworm melodies and disco productions. The group’s influence is so enduring that it even has its own dedicated ABBA Museum in Stockholm. In recent years, stars like Robyn, Icona Pop, and Tove Lo have been busy infiltrating charts worldwide with radio-friendly electronica rooted in anthemic choruses and relatable lyrics. At the other end of the spectrum are musical projects like The Knife and iamamiwhoami, both of which stretch the boundaries of composition and successfully navigate the grey area between electronica and avant-garde.
Despite the vast and varied talents of its artists, it’s hard to deny that the Scandinavian music scene has never been particularly diverse – at least not until now. Emerging pop artists like Seinabo Sey, Zhala, and Sabina Ddumba are among some of the country’s most successful exports, and their respective Gambian, Kurdish and Ugandan ancestries are crucial components in their stellar musical output. It’s often said that Sweden in particular isn’t exactly known for its racial diversity, something that Sey elaborated in a recent interview with TIME: “In Sweden I can do anything and they’re still going to call it soul music because I’m black.” Many of the artists below have been open about their soul influences, but they’re merely one piece of a larger puzzle. Each of these musicians has mastered – in true Scandinavian fashion – the art of crafting distinctive, memorable pop music.
Despite studying soul music for three years, Sweden’s Seinabo Sey’s singular output transcends genre. Pretend, her debut album released late last year, skilfully pairs minimalist soundscapes and light percussion with spectacular melodies – the result is varied, cohesive and undeniably successful. It also spawned mega-hit “Younger”, an ode to seizing the moment, that eventually went triple-platinum in Sweden alone. Sey’s ear for rhythm and melody may well stem from her own musical upbringing: she was born in 1990 to Swedish mother, Madeleine, and late Gambian father, Maudo Sey, a drummer in the famous afro-pop band Ifang Bondi. As for her undeniable pop sensibilities, these are the result of a childhood fascination with the likes of Destiny’s Child and Alicia Keys, but she can also hold her own in a rap battle, a talent proven by her inclusion on the all-girl remix of Michel Dida’s “Höru Mej Bae”.
Musical talent shows aren’t exactly known for yielding great talent in the UK, but it seems that Scandinavia has a more impressive track record. Omar Ahmed, stylised as OMVR, first appeared on Norwegian television screens back in 2012 on the country’s edition of The Voice and eventually made it to the semi-finals before being eliminated. The years following his appearance have been spent crafting sparse yet beautiful electro pop punctuated by his distinctive vocals. 2015 saw the release of smooth synth pop single “Hold You Back”, which was eventually picked up by H&M and gained steady traction online, garnering close to 50,000 views on YouTube. However, it’s his latest release “Bad News” that stands out the most, a combination of bruised, contemplative lyrics and a euphoric chorus bound to give voice to lovesick teens worldwide.
‘Cosmic pop’ is the term often used by Zhala to describe her hypnotic blend of hazy vocals and trance beats. It’s an apt description. Her singular vision and avant-garde sensibilities are too idiosyncratic to fit neatly into the box of conventional ‘pop music’. Unsurprisingly, Zhala’s unique output was quickly picked up by Swedish pop superstar Robyn, who signed Zhala to her record label, Konichiwa Records – aside from Robyn herself, Zhala is currently the only artist on the roster. Much is said about Zhala’s unique heritage: her mother fled to Sweden in the 1980s after fighting in the Iraqi Kurdi military, whereas her father still lives in Iraqi Kurdistan; she identifies as queer and used to go-go dance in a Swedish lesbian club. Everything about Zhala is brilliantly unconventional, making her the breath of fresh air that the modern music industry so desperately needs.
The Ugandan nursery rhymes taught throughout Sabina Ddumba’s childhood may have first introduced her to melody and phrasing, but it was a later stint in the Tensta Gospel Choir that convinced her to professionally pursue music. These gospel influences were written all over the Swedish artist’s 2014 debut “Scarred For Life”, a heartbroken soul ballad that asked her lover “Was she really worth it?” Her subsequent releases have been imbued with a new sense of grandeur. 2015 single “Not Too Young” is a double-platinum slice of pop perfection topped off with a euphoric chorus, whereas recent release “Kingdom Come” is a catchy, reggae-tinged belter. She may be yet to release an album, but Ddumba has already earned a prestigious Grammi award for ‘Newcomer of the Year’, and it seems highly likely that she’ll win many more.
Mabel grew up between Spain and Sweden and is now based in London, but her musical heritage is well-documented – she is famously the daughter of musical icon Neneh Cherry. Nevertheless, Mabel is carving out her own path, releasing a carefully-curated slew of euphoric pop songs tinged with the inspiration of her 90s R&B idols. Slinky, soulful vocals and sparse productions characterise Mabel’s best output. Her most recent release, “Thinking Of You”, is a sunny, soulful pop tune based on the ever-relatable themes of love and longing which has already racked up an impressive one million views on YouTube. On the other end of the musical spectrum is the atmospheric “Talk About Forever”, an audio-visual project launched in celebration of the Tate Modern’s new building. The projects may differ sonically, but Mabel’s restrained vocals and memorable choruses come together in unison to create a distinctive sound which is all her own.
Seinabo Sey and Mabel play Way Out West festival in Gothenburg, Sweden from August 11-13