Bellah is leading a double life. The London songwriter has recently been filming for Channel 4’s adaptation of Candice Carty-Williams’ bestselling novel Queenie, where she plays Kyazike, the titular character’s friend. It’s her first on-screen role – and she hadn’t read the book prior to filming, “but as I’m reading the script, I’m like, ‘Oh, this is fantastic’,” she tells NME over lunch in north London. Filming has involved a lot of long days, made tougher by the fact that Bellah is working on new music alongside acting, with plans to release before the end of the year. “When this is all done, I’m going to throw my hat like it’s graduation,” she says.
The 26-year-old has a lot to celebrate, especially when it comes to music. Her initial breakthrough moment came in 2021, when she released a performance of her smoky R&B hit ‘Evil Eye’ on the COLORS platform, quickly racking up over a million views. That same year, she was nominated for a MOBO award for Best R&B/Soul Act. Since then, she’s supported Nigerian superstar Tems, and has received nods from her “personal heroes” SZA and Ella Mai. But 2023 is shaping up to be her biggest year yet. So far, she’s landed on the NME 100 and played SXSW, The Great Escape and Glastonbury, and collaborated with FLO on their recent track ‘Suite Life (Familiar)’ – all without any backing from a major label.
That quiet determination is what lends Bellah’s music its power: her self-belief – made all the more captivating by her candid songwriting – is what draws people in. Her success, too, comes at a time where British R&B music is experiencing a genuine renaissance. Artists like No Guidnce and FLO are bringing a new lease of life to the scene: the former were the sixth most-viewed artist on TikTok last year; the latter, meanwhile, became the first girl group to win the BRIT Rising Star award in February, shortly after appearing on the cover of NME.
Historically, with a lack of genre-centric labels and award categories, British R&B artists haven’t earned the same level of visibility as their transatlantic peers, but that’s all changing; genre leaders such as Mahalia and Jorja Smith have paved the way for independent acts like Bellah to break through. “It’s never been like this before,” she says. “It was always that notion of one at a time or there can only be one [act]. I think that’s what’s really exciting – the sheer amount of people involved.”
Born Isobel Akpobire in Enfield, north London, Bellah grew up in a musical family. As a child, she lived with her uncles, who would play ‘90s R&B icons around the house; today, she beams as she recalls the days she spent listening to Destiny’s Child and vocal groups SWV and Mindless Behavior, before discovering Lauryn Hill as a teenager. “I was like, ‘Oh, who is this magical creature?,’” she exclaims.
Having started musical theatre at the age of four, Bellah had her first studio session when she was 10, where she recorded a cover of Mary J. Blige’s ‘Be Without You’. Seven years later, after seeing Beyoncé perform live, she decided to pursue a career in music. “I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” she says. “Before I didn’t know how to put it into words. And that show changed my life.”
After meeting her management team while performing at a local festival, Bellah went on to complete five years of artist mentorship and training that helped her hone her songwriting skills. It’s common practice for contemporary pop and R&B artists to undergo similar development programmes, with the aforementioned FLO committing to three years of training before they debuted. “It was about learning how to not be attached to a song you may love. Finding discernment for your music,” she says. Bellah speaks assertively, despite the noise of the lunch-hour rush in the restaurant around us, and with the confidence and foresight of someone much older – it’s clear that all the training has helped hone her expertise.
‘Adultsville’, Bellah’s latest EP, was released last September; the seven-track collection explored the intensity of navigating young adulthood – and all of the insecurities, regrets and uncertainty that accompany that experience. “I work best conceptually,” Bellah says. “I like having a brief for myself. I know we’re overusing the term – I don’t care, it’s real.” She explains that she wants her work to serve as a time capsule of what life is like for young people in the present age – from love and friendships to the perils of social media. “We all have eras, we all have seasons in life. I want to capture that in my music.”
“It’s time to widen the lens on the stories that can be told in R&B”
Across the EP, Bellah may explore adulthood through different lenses, but thematically, it all comes back to relationships and how we connect with one another as we grow older. “Friendships I made in the playground / Are in the grave now / All because of jealousy,” she sings on ‘Evil Eye.’ It’s her incisive lyrics that continue to stand out: “Just got evicted from my youth / Didn’t even get a notice,” she sings on the EP’s title track. The smoothness of her crystal-clear voice makes it distinct, though she is extremely versatile, taking on an emotive, more drawn out delivery on ‘Always Something.’ “I think my voice would never allow people to forget that I’m an R&B singer,” she says.
She’s careful not to give away too much about her upcoming music, apart from that it will most likely be an EP, with a debut album arriving later down the line. “I have dreams of what the making of my debut album feels like. And it’s not this [project],” she laughs. “We’re not there yet – but it sounds big and rich and expensive,” she says, laughing.
For Bellah, there is a distinct process to the way she makes music. When asked about how she writes songs, Bellah points at the plate of mango and lime chicken in front of her and says, “Food… and conversation.” She continues: “I never go into a session and say ‘Let’s write a song’.” Instead, she starts by asking questions like, “‘How’s your day been? What are you going through? Who’s hurt you?’
“I want to say what you’ve never said out loud on the songs so that you feel seen. The worst thing in life is loneliness; not necessarily being alone but feeling lonely,” she adds. She points to SZA’s seminal ‘Ctrl’ as a key reference point; the 2017 album also inspired many of Bellah’s peers, from Baby Rose to Dreamer Isioma. “I was like, ‘This is the most vulnerable shit I’ve ever heard in my life,’” she says of hearing the record for the first time.
“We all have seasons in life. I want to capture that in my music”
“We’re individuals but none of our experiences are unique. If you’ve been through it, a hundred people have been through it,” Bellah says of her own songwriting. This approach carries over to her live shows, during which she aims to “build a community” with her burgeoning fanbase, having recently sold out a headline show at London’s Lafayette. “Who here is too broke to afford therapy? ” Bellah asked her audience at The Great Escape in May. “That’s why you write songs guys!”
She’s also inspired by the close-knit nature of this current cohort of modern British R&B acts, including her friends Shaé Universe, Mnelia and Jvck James; they are all supportive of one another, Bellah explains, and regularly attend each other’s performances. “What excites me is that we can coexist and have our own individual take on what we think the genre is,” she says.
Although Bellah is “an R&B artist through and through”, elements of other genres blend into her work; she’s quick to stress that her lifelong love of ABBA has given her an understanding of pop songwriting. “I love pop,” she says. “I appreciate rock. I love Afrobeats. I love reggae. I’m a Nigerian Black woman that lives in London. Anything goes here.”
Looking towards the future, Bellah says she’d like to see this culture-blending approach used in a way to expand what R&B means in the current landscape. “We’re diaspora kids,” she explains. “We’re kids that have moved around a lot, and have seen a lot of things. We’re kids that have different cultures infused in us, so Afro-R&B is a thing, R&B and drill [crossover] exists. I think it’s time to widen the lens on the stories that can be told underneath the umbrella of R&B.”
She continues: “I want to see more people that are assured in what they do. I want them to understand what they offer and not have to change their sound because they feel like they can’t exist if they don’t.”
As for Bellah, she has an even bigger vision; she believes that not only is there much more in store for the wider British R&B scene, but for herself as well. “That’s what I’m here to do. To make it feel worldwide. I love the fact that UK R&B is getting a moment, but I want to be international,” she says.
“I think there’s going to be an explosion, there’s going to be an invasion,” she concludes, proudly. “I’m gonna lead it.”
Bellah’s latest EP ‘Adultsville’ is out now via Base ‘N’ Rebulz x Marathon Artists
Listen to Bellah’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify, and here on Apple Music
Words: Aliya Chaudhry
Photographer: Fiona Garden
Styling: Gelmira Manico
MUA: Ayo Omole
Hair: Jasmine Eastwood
Mgmt: Sonitus Music Group