Ray BLK: “I’m not going to conform. I’m going to be bossy; I’m going to flex”

The UK star has made a name for herself with brilliant, socially conscious R&B. Now, as she enters her “gangsta era”, she’s looking to go global

Lately it feels like at least once a month someone is whining on Twitter about the lack of support for the UK’s R&B scene – forgetting that whether they’ve fled to America to hone their craft or are here at home building a fandom, there are so many UK R&B stars doing their part. While newcomers such as Rebecca Garton and Ling Hussle do maintenance on the underground UK scene, international stars like Mahalia and Ella Mai join the big leagues in the US.

Time, then, to put the spotlight on Ray BLK, one of the UK’s most exciting R&B stars. Happily homegrown from the deep suburbs of Catford, south London, where the grind is real and determination is deep, Ray has, for the most part, stayed quintessentially British. She was just 21 when she officially joined the music world with her eclectic, soul-R&B debut EP ‘Havisham’, before solidifying her place in the UK R&B scene with her 2016 breakthrough hit ‘5050’, where her silken vocals relay a tale of imbalanced love. And now, at 26, she’s gearing up to release her debut album. The record’s title – and even those of some of its songs – is still under wraps, though we can confirm it reveals a moodier, more unruly version of the artist.

And it’s safe to say she’s excited. When NME enters the tropical-themed studio in Bromley-by-Bow in east London, a giddy Ray BLK is attempting to breakdance around waist-high artificial trees to the sounds of Hot Girl commander Megan Thee Stallion, whose bubbly ‘Cash Shit’ fills the room. After nearly whipping everyone around her with her new signature braids, she switches out of her all-white ensemble into her comfy Essentials hoodie, which she only got “because it was bait; everyone had it”, but now “now lives in”. It looks almost as cosy as Ray’s dressing room, where we reconvene to talk all things BLK after her cover shoot, bathed in the warm yellow glow of the lights above her glam mirror.

NME Cover 2021 Ray BLK
Credit: Pooneh Ghana

When I last met Ray (real name Rita Ekwere) at the end of last year, she insisted that “there’s work to be done to bring R&B to the forefront in the UK.” She might put out release album to do that. Its release date is still up in the air – though she’s put out some singles, such as the noirish pop song ‘Lovesick’, to hold us over until she delivers its undeniable sonic hug. Given that it’s all about independence and empowerment, it’s perhaps no surprise that she says the album was “exhausting” to put together. It has, undeniably, been a long road to get here.

Ekwere won the coveted BBC Sound of 2017 poll, and felt under pressure to cheapen her artistry and put out her debut album as immediately as possible. “People expected me to drop an album instantly because that’s what that’s what people usually do,” she says. “That’s what’s expected. So, to be honest, I broke the rules by not doing that.” She also felt that the music industry expected her to make safe, mainstream-baiting pop music. “I felt influenced to make this sort of acoustic, instrumentalist-style album. But now, in 2021, I’m in a completely different space. I just wanted to make the music that I actually listened to.

“I’m going to express myself how I want to in the way I’m comfortable [with]. And so even if I want to make a song that is about love and my sexuality, I don’t want to feel pressure to be explicit if I don’t want to be. I don’t want to feel pressured to pretend I’m not a grown adult.”

NME Cover 2021 Ray BLK
Ray BLK on the cover of NME

When she burst onto the scene as a bubbly, innocent 21-year-old, she says, she was “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, [thinking] anything was possible”. The singer originally gravitated toward politically and socially conscious lyrics, typically sung in a yearning manner, Ekwere positioning Ray BLK as a kind of activist who addressed youth crime on the sombre ‘Run Run’ and the realities of living in working-class London on the Stormzy-assisted ‘My Hood’. This certainly seemed to resonate with fans – her 2016 mini-album ‘Durt’ was a colossal success, garnished with features from stars such as Wretch 32 and gaining co-signs from BBC 1Xtra and even the MOBO Awards, who nominated Ray as ‘Best Newcomer’ that year.

Although this approach was all her own, that success meant she felt forced into a cookie-cutter image for c, described in a four-star NME review as “a balance of feel-good, high-tempo R&B tracks and slower, more straight-up ballads, conveying the emotional and situational hardships many women face.” Once she’d finished the record, Ekwere felt that if she wanted to be happy in music, she “had to get more comfortable with saying what I wanted to say – not that I didn’t want to discuss those things, but I had to figure out how to not feel pressured to.”

“The album is very G’ed up. When I say ‘gangsta’, it’s about confidence and rebellion”

Fast-forward to the present and Catford’s own is finally doing just that. It’s easy to see why she cites her debut album as a “big F you” to all those who no longer have access to her energy anymore; this is also where we finally see a roughened Ray, who has finally broken from the shackles of innocence to become someone who no longer gives a fuck when it comes to self-expression. Instead of explicitly talking about current affairs and issues to do within the black community – on ‘Empress’, for example, she glorifies Black femininity – she simply is herself, writing songs about partying, love and bossing up.

This, she says, is her “gangsta era”, adding: “The sound and the lyrics that I was writing felt to me very G’ed up. For me, when I say ‘gangsta’, it’s about confidence and rebellion. I’m not going to conform. I’m not going to do what you think I’m going to do. I’m going to be bossy; I’m going to flex.”

Will we ever see a return of innocent Ray BLK of old? “No,” Ekwere deadpans, “she’s dead.”

NME Cover 2021 Ray BLK
Credit: Pooneh Ghana

You can detect this give-a-fuck approach clearly see this on her current single roll-out. The latest at the time of writing is ‘Games’, a sultry US-inspired ballad about independence (“Don’t trust the game, don’t fall in love / Girl, back it up, then back in the cut”), which could happily live on Atlanta star Summer Walker’s 2019 smash ‘Over It’. Ekwere is now inspired by modern US R&B stars such as Walker, as well as Kehlani and H.E.R., both of whom she listens to on the day-to-day as well as hip-hop. This is clearly evident in the album’s full-bodied, funk-influenced sonics, though there is an essence of British too: in her phrasing, naturally, and also her choice of features and producers – she worked with Grammy-nominated Nana Rogues, the man behind Drake’s ‘Passionfruit’, who is proudly from Hackney, east London.

Taking inspiration for the US women who have constantly killed it in R&B, Ray BLK recounts the days she “watched MTV Base” – most millennials’ and zennials’ first reference of hip-hop and Black culture – and points out that “most of R&B’s Black women come from America.” She adds: “I’m watching Lil Kim, Eve, and Missy [Elliott]. Obviously R&B-wise Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child, Keyshia Cole… That’s what I grew up listening to”.

There’s proof of Ekwere’s love of crate-digging throughout the record. One track features one of the best piano riffs ever, a fluttery sequence that originally appeared on Notorious B.I.G’s ‘One More Chance’ before being immortalised on ‘Foolish’ by New York princess Ashanti, whose crew Murder Inc ran the ’00s before their devastating demise in 2005 due to money laundering allegations against CEO Irv Gotti. In sampling such an iconic ’00s hit, Ray BLK drives home the idea that she could stand alongside the US giants. She could even be the next Ashanti.

“As a huge pop star, you’re expected to make simple hits, but Rihanna did alternative things. I’m inspired by that”

In fact, BLK says the ’00s star deserves more credit: “Ashanti needs more claps and more accolades — she’s actually got hits and whatnot! When we talk about the biggest R&B artists, people speak obviously about Beyoncé, Lauryn Hill. If it’s about vocalists, then Brandy. I feel like people don’t mention Ashanti as much.” The latter star co-wrote 2002 hit ‘Ain’t It Funny (Murder Inc Remix)’, which Jennifer Lopez starred on (although you can still hear Ashanti all over the chorus). “Maybe it’s because she was more of a pop star, but as a songwriter, she was making songs that were for herself, but then J.Lo fit – that’s a skill. That’s a talent. So I definitely was inspired by her. She was our R&B sweetheart.”

Like Ashanti, Ray BLK has a great pen, a skill not talked about enough when it comes to R&B, and thus they both deserve more props. Aside from that, there’s another R&B superstar who comes to mind when we’re thinking about this new Ray. Remember when Rihanna was a syrupy, fresh-faced young singer making a buzz with the innocent ‘S.O.S’ and ‘Pon De Replay’, before transforming with a little song called ‘Umbrella’? That global smash marked a dramatic shift from cutesy, bubblegum youngster to a more provocative artist; the classic single appeared on her third studio album, ‘Good Girl Gone Bad’, which received critical acclaim and made her the Rihanna we love today.

This very good-girl-gone-bad narrative is happening before our eyes with Ray BLK, and she knows it – you can at least partially thank Rihanna for the creation of the upcoming album. “One of my favourite albums of all time is Rihanna’s ‘Anti’,” Ekwere says. “I even love the name ‘Anti’ because I feel like she did what she wasn’t supposed to do. As a huge pop star, you’re expected to make clear, simple hits, but she did alternative things. I’m definitely inspired by that.

NME Cover 2021 Ray BLK
Credit: Pooneh Ghana

“I want to do what I want to do, not what’s expected of me. People might want me to be conscious all the time, but as a human, I’m not conscious all the time. Sometimes I’m just ratchet. Sometimes I make bad decisions. Sometimes I just want to twerk.”

Ray BLK previously revealed that, at the start of her career, a producer advised her to stick to songwriting because “‘being a Black girl, it’s not really gonna work for you’,” and has explained: “This was a Black person, as well, saying this to me.” She explores this kind of scepticism on one moving track that looks to empower others – especially younger Black children. Ekwere wanted to make a song that would help her fans to feel that they could do anything, instead of feeling that their dreams are stunted because of the colour of their skin.

Yes, Ekwere did say that she no longer wanted to be boxed as a conscious artist, but when she wants to channel that side of herself, it’s as great as ever. “There’s so many lyrics in that song that I hope people hear and get the message,” Ray explains of the song, on which she insists that if it wasn’t for her hard work, she wouldn’t be where she is today. Those naysayers who believed Ekwere wouldn’t be anywhere due to her skin colour were obviously wrong.

“I’m not conscious all the time. Sometimes I’m just ratchet. Sometimes I just want to twerk”

“Telling people this rhetoric of ‘Your race being such a disadvantage!’, and that you can’t get through doors – I think limits people,” she says. “This industry is sizeist, ageist, racist, homophobic – everything. Every industry is. So I try not to look for validation on my self-worth in what this industry says is important or how it validates people.”

This also perhaps explains her reticence to truly express herself earlier on in her career: “A lot of people made me feel like, ‘Oh, as a black woman, these opportunities seldom come, so I’d better not make a mistake, better not saying anything’.” Now, finally able to project her Black pride onto the world, Ekwere says that she just wants us all to “celebrate Blackness”.

She continues: “Watching the whole George Floyd conversation and even the one around Meghan Markle… We keep having to go through these draining conversations again, and I’m tired. Can we have some celebration of Blackness and not every day talking about our lows? Let’s talk about the fact that we’re kings and queens. Let’s talk about the fact that we have all the natural resources. Let’s talk about the fact that the weaves that we’re wearing now, we’ve been wearing since the Egyptian days. Let’s not just talk about slavery, and hatred, and the people who are dragging us down.”

NME Cover 2021 Ray BLK
Credit: Pooneh Ghana

She’ll hopefully perpetuate this positivity for another six years, and there’s still more Ray BLK would like to do before then — like going international: “I love the UK, but there’s not any artist that can say they don’t want to be an international-selling artist. They’re lying. Every artist wants to be international.” The album also samples the popular Jamaican Diwali Riddim – a riddim that’s formed the basis of many hits, including Sean Paul’s ‘Get Busy’ – proof that she’s broadening her sound to encompass more audiences. Ray is looking at world domination: “I’m thinking about working with some Bhangra artists, some other African artists, Jamaican artists. I just want to go worldwide.”

She’s in love with every genre, which is evident from the fact she was in an all-female, all-Black rock band in secondary school. Her ultimate fantasy collaboration? Coldplay. “It would be a dream,” she says. BLK has learned how to collaborate over her six-year-long career, and is proud that she was able to become vulnerable and share her ideas with others. At first, she “was really protective of my space and ideas” but now can work with Grammy-Award nominated producers such as Nana Rogues and feel like “two heads are better than one”.

“The BLK stands for: building, living, knowing. I want to help people to elevate”

As we near the end of our chat, those familiar sounds of the H-Town Hottie kick up again. Smiling as usual, Ray closes the interview by talking about her purpose for the next six years: “My brand is always about empowerment, strengthening people, education and ownership as well, and I’m stepping into that. Those should come to mind when you hear or see Ray BLK. The BLK stands for: building, living, knowing. I believe you should be working hard for your future and all the things you want to create for yourself, whilst acquiring knowledge. That’s been my brand from the beginning. I want to help people to elevate.”

As a musician always looking to strengthen her own artistry, as well as contribute meaningfully to the world, it’s good to know that – although this was pushed aside when she was starting out – Rita Ekwere is staying authentically BLK.

Ray BLK’s debut album arrives this summer

CREDITS

Styling by Natalie Mickey
Hair by Papachichi Style
Makeup by Esther Hadassah