Ray BLK is one woman putting her platform to good use. Stylist meets the musician who refuses to sell out her roots.
Ray BLK (pronounced ‘black’, it stands for ‘Building, Living, Knowing’) crosses bridges. The first time I see the winner of BBC’s Sound of 2017, she’s performing to a sea of black and brown faces at Lovebox 2017. It’s the dream audience; a 20-something hometown crowd that knows every word to My Hood, the 25-year-old’s bubbling R’n’B ode to growing up in Catford, south London.
The second time I catch her is two months later. She’s skipping across the main stage at Wilderness – the Oxfordshire fest where David Cameron is a regular attendee. The crowd is affluent 30-somethings and very white. Yet they perform My Hood with all the precision and enthusiasm of the Lovebox audience.
“My Hood transcended crowds because at its core, it’s a song about home,” Ray – born Rita Ekwere – explains while reclining on a sofa at Island Records, the label she signed to after two years as an independent artist. “Everyone has that connection to where they come from.” Where Ray comes from, bonds between neighbours were strong but deprivation led to high rates of youth violence and crime. Music provided an escape.
“In school, everybody made music,” she says. “When there’s not much to do, it’s like, ‘What can I have fun doing and not get into trouble?’ You can’t go to a youth centre, there’s no other place [where] you wouldn’t have to pay for a drink. So it’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to my friend’s flat to make some tunes.’”
It was one of those friends who inadvertently gave Ray the push to pursue music seriously. Popstar MNEK was a fellow member of a group formed by schoolmates, when he was signed at 14. His leap to the big leagues was inspiring.
“It was always my dream to be a singer but I never knew how,” Ray recalls. “Then MNEK got signed and I thought, ‘Hold on, this is real? This is possible?’” she laughs. “After that, I started really going for it.” Three years after her debut EP, Ray is releasing her first new material in 12 months, with single Run Run, a mediation on youth crime.
She’s a woman on a mission to be heard, and with wise words on everything from representation to female empowerment, we suggest you listen closely…
It’s been over a year since you were crowned BBC’s Sound of 2017. What was the effect of winning on your career?
“I got a lot busier [laughs]. There were lots of eyes on me. It was quite overwhelming. I felt I had to get my sh*t together, ASAP. I was – and still am – a new artist; people were comparing me to former winners like Adele and Jessie J. When you win something like that you think, “Well, I need to make the type of music people think I should. ” I had to retract and figure things out.”
Your new single is about youth violence in London. This has been an issue for 20 years but nothing’s changed. Why?
No one’s bothered to put funds where they need to be. For people in charge, it’s been more important to put up fancy new buildings. This issue is [urgent], children are losing their lives. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t affect a lot of people who have the power to do something.
Run Run is based on your experiences growing up, isn’t it?
Yes. The first verse is about the only time I’ve seen a gun. It was at a party; two boys broke into an argument, one brought out a gun and everyone ran. I was terrified. But the situation disappeared like it never happened; no one was bothered. The second verse is about my house being robbed. The boys who did it tried to return when my mum came home because they’d left something. Those incidents stuck with me.
You often talk about social issues in your songs. Is this a deliberate plan?
I never planned to be like, “I’m a social activist in my music.” Not all my songs will have a social message. I don’t want fans to be upset if I write a song about being in the club with a guy and wining on him – that’s part of my life as well. I like to wine [laughs].
There’s a big discussion right now about colourism [prejudice against people with darker skin] in the music industry. Has it ever affected you, directly or indirectly?
Growing up, one reason getting into music seemed far-fetched was because of my skin colour. The only [black women] were fair-skinned, like Beyoncé. If you don’t see yourself represented it’s hard to believe you can achieve those things.
One of my early sessions was with a production duo of two black boys. One asked if I wanted to be an artist or a songwriter – I said an artist. He was like, “Don’t do that, focus on being a writer. Your songs are really good but look around, there’s no black girls in this thing. It’s just not going to work out.” I found it sad but it made me want to break those barriers. The lack of dark-skinned representation gives me fire though; it’s a badge of honour when girls tweet me and say it’s amazing to see someone like them on the TV.
How do you think those colourism barriers will be broken down?
It starts with how we communicate what beauty is. Beauty brands’ advertising, films, TV and music videos… The more dark skin we see on billboards, as the main character – who isn’t played as an angry black woman – that will drive change.
A lot of your music is about female empowerment. Has it been hard navigating the music industry as a woman?
I’m bullish so I fight my corner – if you’re quiet as a woman you will be silenced. I also have a female-heavy team around me who are known for being like bulldogs. Unfortunately when [women] put their feet down, people misconstrue that as being a ‘bitch’ or ‘hard to work with’. My management recently fought for something that any team would have and the people on the side called them ‘savage’ and ‘ruthless’. Men wouldn’t get this.
You’re a lifelong Londoner – has the way you relate to the city changed?
I recently moved house. When people have the chance to [leave] the hood, [they] run as far as possible to show they’ve made it. I viewed places in Chelsea and Mayfair but didn’t feel accepted. People don’t even say hi to each other, it’s weird energy. I’m from a community of strong people who support each other so I moved down the road to Deptford and embraced my community – it’s who I am.
See Ray BLK in conversation with Gemma Cairney at Stylist Live Manchester on 9 September
Images: Island Records