By Kevin O'Donnell
January 20, 2017 at 06:26 AM EST
Joseph Okpako/WireImage

As a teenager growing up in Nigera, Eno Williams was exposed to all sorts of music: Whitney Houston, African disco from the 1970s, the Grammy-winning Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo, the Nigerian entertainer Bobby Benson, and more. The frontwoman of the group Ibibio Sound Machine was born in London, but she relocated to Nigeria with her sisters at the urging of her grandmother. “She took us back to have a bit of the African culture,” says Williams, 43. “I loved it: the hot weather, the lovely people, the lovely culture.”

That welcoming vibe is at the core of her music with Ibibio Sound Machine, one of EW’s picks for the 10 acts who will break out in 2017. This March, the eight-piece group will release their second album, Uyai, via the indie powerhouse Merge. And on it, the octet fuses swaggering horn hooks and pulsing disco grooves with Williams’ evocative folktales, which she sings in the country’s native Ibibio tongue. “It’s a language that’s spoken around the house with my mom and sisters,” says Williams. “A lot of the stories that I got told [growing up] made itself onto the record—the music lends itself to the melodic sound of the language.”

But Ibibio Sound System aren’t afraid to address social and political issues. On the album’s lead single “Give Me a Reason,” which EW is premiering today, Williams addresses the heartbreaking kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram in 2014. “I was in the studio when I heard [the kidnapping had happened],” says Williams. “Why can’t we just be free to be who we want to be? Why can’t children just be free? It’s not an angry song. It’s a challenge. It’s [about] empowering people.”

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