Less than three months into the school year, two of USC’s Thornton School of Music students are already being praised for their musical artistry.
PopSugar recently published a list of the 14 best young artists on the rise that included USC Thornton popular music students Amir Kelly and Ayoni Thompson. The popular music program immerses students into the dynamic nature of being a modern musician, allowing Kelly and Thompson to jumpstart their careers while still in school.
Kelly released his debut single “Maui” last October and is busy preparing his next string of singles, all while balancing his course load and his customer service center job at the USC Village.
However, Kelly said it’s a far more manageable amount of work than when he used to work at Starbucks, during which time he wrote “Maui.” He said he would practice singing in the bathroom because the acoustics were good.
“I was just kind of daydreaming about a better life,” Kelly said. “That was the song that kind of changed a lot of stuff for me.”
In high school, Thompson thought she would major in psychology or global politics. Music had been part of her life for a long time, but she didn’t think about studying music until her parents suggested it. Now she has her sights set on being “the biggest artist ever.”
“I really want to change the game and usher in a new wave of black women creatives, who are already running the game right now,” Thompson said. “I really just want to keep breaking the door down in the pop world.”
Thompson is in the middle of her junior year, giving her time to continue to cultivate her artistry. She said she plans to make genreless music so that, eventually, music label executives don’t see her “as the box they think is going to make the most money.” Thompson released her debut EP, “Iridescent,” released last month. She said the story from the lyrics informed how each song would sound.
“I’m very persuaded just by how things make me feel and how things could make other people feel,” Thompsons said. “I’ve honestly just always followed the story and the truth of situations.”
Before “Maui,” Kelly was unsure about his sound. One year later, he sees his place in pop music. At the intersection of his Indian and Black heritage, Kelly draws inspiration from Bollywood and ‘90s R&B, Kelly denotes his genre as “Blindian Pop.”
“My entire journey has been about reclamation,” he said. “I like to use a lot of royal imagery. My name in Hindi actually translates to ‘king.’ I like to use the word ‘self-crowned’ a lot because I believe that anybody can make themselves their own version of royalty. And that their crown is made up of the parts of them that they were told not to embrace.”
Growing up in Riverside, California, Kelly said he saw Los Angeles as a “beacon of hope.” He has a bad relationship with his hometown, despite filming there for the “Maui” music video. It’s something he explores in his yet-to-be-released single “Warm.”
Kelly plans to stay in Los Angeles after he graduates in May to continue his debut album cycle. He will release his EP one song at a time each with accompanying visual elements because when Kelly writes music, he said he sees it too. Each single will be supported by a music video and a concert experience that creates the world of the song.
“It’s crucial to kind of lean into that cinematic narrative,” he said.
Unlike Kelly, Thompson doesn’t necessarily see herself staying in Los Angeles. She lived in Barbados, Miami and Indonesia all before coming to USC and finds inspiration wherever she lives. Thompson’s muse for “Iridescent” was Los Angeles, specifically South Central.
“South Central has breathed a lot of life into who I am,” she said.
Thompson is taking the next step in the album cycle with the live debut of “Iridescent” later this month. Thompson said performing is her favorite part of being a musician because it allows her to emotionally connect with a crowd. As for Kelly, he released his next single, Eden, today, Wednesday, Nov. 6. A music video will be out at the end of the month.