25 Rising Stars to Track in 2021
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you need to know these names now in order to understand 2021.
By Daniel Malloy
Maybe it’s the inspiring vaccine news or just getting into holiday mode, but we’re feeling a lot more hopeful about 2021. The trauma of 2020 has kindled unparalleled disruptions in art, politics and social activism — not to mention science and health, which have been tested like never before. It’s in OZY’s DNA to look out for what’s new and next: We’ve been profiling Rising Stars since Day One. In that spirit, today’s Sunday Magazine brings you the 25 people we think will be making a real impact in what we hope and expect to be a sunnier 2021. It’s only a starting point, so we will need your help to add to this illustrious list: Tag us on Twitter or Instagram @ozy to let us know someone who we should keep our eye on in the new year.
Mandela Barnes. The Milwaukee native has risen to become the state’s first Black man elected to statewide office — despite being mistakenly declared dead and swapped out for a white candidate on local news. At age 33, the lieutenant governor now may have Washington on his mind. Barnes, who is named for South Africa’s first Black president and achieved national prominence as a thoughtful and strident voice during the Kenosha protests, is a rumored candidate for perhaps the hottest U.S. Senate election in 2022. If in the coming months he declares for the seat now held by conservative Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, he won’t have a cake walk in the Democratic primary, but he can likely count on national grassroots enthusiasm.
Josh Hawley. It was about as odd a couple as you could find: Hawley, 40, the populist conservative rookie GOP senator, next to the 79-year-old Democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders. But last week they appeared together to advocate for another round of direct payments to Americans as part of a COVID-19 relief deal. It worked: The emerging deal now appears to include $600 checks. It’s those political skills and unorthodox thinking, which OZY first spotted in our 2018 profile of then-candidate Hawley, that have many people eyeing him as a 2024 White House contender. The Republican race is frozen as long as President Donald Trump appears to be running again, but the former Supreme Court clerk and men’s Bible study leader can afford to wait — and make unlikely alliances in the meantime.
Ayanna Pressley. Is she Joe Biden’s bridge to the Squad? Pressley, 46, who rose through the cutthroat ranks of Boston politics to become the first Black woman in Congress from Massachusetts, is more of an inside politician than the AOCs of the world and has separated herself ever so slightly from them — for example endorsing her fellow Massachusetts pol Elizabeth Warren rather than Bernie Sanders during the presidential primary. Now Pressley’s 2021 will be devoted to pushing Biden on issues like student debt cancellation, but also marshalling votes in a closely divided House. And with her openness about her alopecia diagnosis by going bald in public, Pressley has become a powerful symbol for millions with the disease.
Stephanie Bice. The first Iranian American elected to Congress won her seat by taking out out the only Democrat representing Oklahoma in D.C. And she’s already been elected the freshman class president. At the forefront of a crew of Republican women building their House presence to record levels, Bice, 47, also says she will join “the Freedom Force,” meant as a conservative counterweight to the Squad — though she sounds eager for compromise in interviews. A former marketing executive, she served in Oklahoma’s state senate, where she led the charge to modernize the state’s liquor laws before making the jump to Washington.
Rishi Sunak. The United Kingdom’s chancellor of the exchequer has been the fastest rising star in the Tory party with clear eyes on No. 10 Downing Street. On his way, Sunak, 40, ticked most every elite box possible (Oxford, Stanford, Goldman Sachs) and married the daughter of one of India’s richest men, N.R. Narayana Murthy. Last summer, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson floundered while responding to the pandemic, Sunak arranged direct wage subsidies and has become the skinny-suited face of the country’s fiscal policy. The whispers are growing louder that a challenge to Johnson’s leadership could be afoot in 2021.
George Forsyth. Perhaps a country that’s been through the turmoil of three presidents in a week needs a goalkeeper to make a save. Ahead of Peru’s new presidential election in April, and widespread unrest among the country’s economically battered youth, Forsyth, 38, is leading in the polls. The mayor of the La Victoria municipality of Lima, he’s known as a crime-fighter and corruption-buster. The 6-foot-2 politician is also known for his playing career for one of Peru’s top soccer clubs, Alianza Lima. As the son of Peru’s former U.S. ambassador and a former Miss Chile, Forsyth brings a cocktail of celebrity and a political ideology that is not discernibly left or right to a possible presidential bid. It may be enough to prevail in a topsy-turvy political climate.
Adwa Al Dakheel. She’s the face of the new Saudi Arabia. The 28-year-old entrepreneur and social media influencer runs the kingdom’s most promising investment hub, Falak. She’s also a guitarist, writer, amateur pilot, a high-profile refugee advocate and national champion squash player. Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia still has a troublesome human rights record and is struggling to diversify from oil, but Al Dakheel is a striking role model for change. Read more on OZY.
Su Hua. Imagine TikTok and Amazon rolled into one, and that’s Kuaishou, China’s newest emerging tech giant. Su, the video sharing app’s bespectacled 38-year-old CEO and founder, grew up in a Hunan village without electricity. Now he’s worth $4 billion and about to become even wealthier: Kuaishou’s mega IPO in January could see the company valued at $50 billion.
Jacob Becraft. Seeing everyone from ER doctors to Mike Pence to William Shakespeare take the first COVID-19 vaccines has been cause for celebration. But it will be a long wait for most — especially in the developing world. Jacob Becraft, 29, is rushing in to help in India and Southeast Asia with a delivery platform that could potentially allow you to “turn vaccines on and off” with a pill that triggers the release process. The Illinois native’s company, Strand Therapeutics, could allow people to take one dose instead of two of mRNA vaccines like Moderna’s, which was approved Friday by the FDA. Becraft’s technology could make it easier to inoculate people in poorer, far-flung places. Read more on OZY.
Virtue Oboro. Studies show that jaundice in newborn babies puts them at mortal risk, and for Oboro the fight was personal. Her own son barely survived a bout with the condition — requiring an emergency blood transfusion — because of a lack of available phototherapy cots, where jaundiced babies are treated under a special light. A graphic designer, Oboro used her expertise to design a product called Crib A’Glow, a low-cost, solar-powered, mobile phototherapy solution to treat newborns. Her company, Tiny Hearts Technology, built a prototype that failed but kept trying until it worked. Since that 2016 start, it’s treated more than 1,600 babies and has spread from its Nigerian home base to Ghana, Kenya and Benin.
Dajae Williams. With so few Black women in science, technology, engineering and math fields, Williams, 26, struggled at times with her identity, and often found herself “code-switching” in a mostly white workplace as a quality engineer at NASA. Now she’s embraced a mission to build pathways for the next generation — through hip-hop. With Listen Up Education, the St. Louis native is using music to engage underprivileged kids in math and science, and is on a mission to become, in her words, “the Black female Bill Nye — where Fresh Prince and Bel-Air meet.” Read more on OZY.
Mattieu Gamache-Asselin. It started with a “you know what I hate” conversation and ended up with a billion dollar company. Gamache-Asselin, a 30-year-old Aboriginal Canadian, is the co-founder of Alto Pharmacy, a digital brand that brings drugs to your door without charging for delivery and disrupts the brick and mortar pharmacies that everyone loves to complain about. The model has taken off during COVID-19 and is sure to extend beyond its current five-state foothold, thanks to a new investment of $250 million from SoftBank and others. Read more on OZY.
Sal Khan. Before everyone was in Zoom school, he was figuring out how it would work. The New Orleans native founded Khan Academy after getting the idea from tutoring his cousin. Now he reaches 10 million students per month and is the leading expert on remote learning, with one big idea: Everyone on the planet should be able to get a world-class education for free. He has tips for how teachers should structure their online time, with more practice and peer learning rather than lecturing. As students (hopefully) return to the classrooms in 2021, Khan, 44, will be at the forefront — including collaborating with the Biden administration. Watch him on ‘The Carlos Watson Show’
Santia Deck. The former track star turned pro flag football and rugby player had made a name for herself by leaving her defenders standing in cement, going viral with lightning moves, chiseled abs and a dose of social media savvy. It led to her signing with the Los Angeles Flames for the first multimillion dollar contract in women’s football history. Now she’s the face of the Women’s Football League Association, and their season is set to launch in May. Read more on OZY.
Zach Wilson. It’s hard to imagine a 6-foot-3, 210-pound quarterback sneaking up on anybody. But that’s exactly what Wilson has done as he’s led Brigham Young University to a 10-1 record, capping his collegiate career with a 310-yard, three touchdown performance — while showing off the sneaky athleticism and lightning-quick decision making that could make him the second quarterback chosen in the 2021 NFL Draft behind consensus pick Trevor Lawrence. Wilson may be the Justin Herbert of 2021.
Caris LeVert. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard wasn’t even a lottery pick, much less a bona fide star, out of Michigan in 2016. But with superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving sidelined with injuries last year for the Brooklyn Nets, LeVert stepped up big as a rangy driving and shooting threat, averaging around 23 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds per game in the NBA bubble. With a stacked roster, the Nets are talking about using LeVert as a super sixth man like Manu Ginobili on the great Spurs teams of the 2000s — or they could trade him. With the season starting Tuesday, look for him to end up as the critical third star on a team where anything less than an NBA Finals appearance would be a disappointment.
Letícia Bufoni. The Brazilian street skating star has five X-Games medals to her name and has tied the decade-old record for most golds for a woman in the sport. And with skateboarding making its Olympic debut in 2021, the 27-year-old is about to become a household name. Bufoni moved from her hometown of São Paulo in 2007 to train in Southern California. She cites spending time in the water while wake-surfing, her “third-favorite sport” behind skateboarding and soccer, as aiding her recovery regimen when she gets the inevitable injuries that come from going cabeça a cabeça with gravity.
Licypriya Kangujam. She’s half Greta Thunberg’s age but has all of the teen climate change leader’s spunk. And Kangujam, 9, is paving her own way in India, pushing the Modi administration to pass climate change laws and warning that if action isn’t taken, the earth will be uninhabitable “by the time I grow up.” Read more on OZY.
Stella Nyanzi. They tried to silence her with a prison term for “cyberbullying” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. But a court order commuted her 18-month sentence, providing another example of how the 46-year-old mother and activist refuses to be cowed. And ahead of Uganda’s 2021 elections, the former journalist and anthropologist is working to diminish Museveni, in power since 1986, with whatever it takes — from petty insults to provocative poems to baring her breasts in protest. Read more on OZY.
Damario Solomon-Simmons. The 44-year-old civil rights attorney is paving the way for reparations, beginning at the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre that stopped a burgeoning Black Wall Street in its tracks. His argument? That the city’s racial division and tension stems from that century-old wrong, in which neither the city nor insurance companies ever compensated victims for their economic and emotional losses. The Oklahoma native, a vegan and owner of a six-pound poodle, is taking up civil rights cases of families who have lost loved ones to police violence and college football players looking for compensation for enduring racism. Read more on OZY.
Eszter Nagy. The Secretary General of the Union of European Federalists in Hungary is a former diplomat dismayed by her nation’s turn away from its commitment to a healthy partnership with the European Union and the democratic backsliding that has followed. However, as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continues to assert control, Nagy also doesn’t spare criticism for the EU — which, she says, needs leaders willing to make “braver political decisions” with “real consequences.” As the tension between Hungary and the EU comes to a boil in 2021, Nagy will be in the middle of it.
Saweetie. This aspiring mogul may well be the next Rihanna, given her dream of building a billion-dollar multi-industry global brand. The rapper behind “Icy Grl,” “My Type” and “Tap In,” Saweetie, 27, describes her sound as: “it’s bougie, it’s bossed up, it’s inspirational.” And this California native, who first caught notice on Instagram, is now a TikTok sensation who will be dominating your screens in 2021. Watch Her on ‘The Carlos Watson Show.’
Justin Simien. His latest film, Bad Hair, is a horror flick about a bloodsucking weave that has political relevance you may not expect. No, really. For Simien, 37, the creator of Dear White People who considers being Black and queer his superpower, the unexpected has come to be expected. The world is now eagerly awaiting his entrance into the Star Wars canon: Simien is developing a show around the classic character Lando Calrissian for Disney+. Watch Him on ‘The Carlos Watson Show.’
Noname. She is a rapper with a conscience, and she’s not going away. Noname’s biggest moment of 2020 was probably her public feud with rapper J. Cole, which she owned with a stunningly powerful 70-second diss track, “Song 33.” But far more than a diss track, it showed her depth as an advocate for causes like defund the police. Unafraid to go after the likes of Barack Obama and Beyoncé, Chicago’s own Noname, 29, will be a force to be reckoned with in the new year in music, activism and literature. She founded Noname’s Book Club to lift up marginalized writers. Read more on OZY.
Tunji Adeniyi-Jones. The 28-year-old is a New Yorker born in London to Nigerian parents, and his rich, stunning paintings speak to his Yoruba heritage, with stylized figures and an appreciation for the natural world. A Yale and Oxford graduate, Adeniyi-Jones gained buzz in 2020 when he was featured in the collection Young, Gifted and Black, and his gifts are now on display in Los Angeles, with more to come in the new year.
- Daniel Malloy, OZY Author Contact Daniel Malloy