Ray BLK was 14 the first time she saw a gun. It was at a house party in Catford, south London, where she grew up. She wasn’t even supposed to be at the party. Her mum was strict, so Ray lied about where she was – something she only ever did twice in her teens. “Being somewhere I wasn’t even supposed to be in, and then someone bringing out a gun… I was like, ‘Oh – this is exactly why I’m not allowed out of the house,’” she says today with a bright, bemused laugh.
An argument between two boys resulted in one producing the weapon. “Where I’m from, kids see and hear about a lot, so stuff like that doesn’t really shock me”, she says. No-one was hurt – “everyone got out of the house” – but the incident, and countless stories like it, clearly left a mark.
In August, Ray released the dystopian music video for ‘Run Run’, a pulsing R&B track that tackles the rise in knife and gun crime across the country. “Run run if you wanna see the sun”, she sings, “We don’t wanna lose another one.” Meanwhile, a young man is chased across a bleak cityscape, evading armed opponents, before he’s captured and a number is painted across his chest. It’s a powerful, clear allegory, imploring young people not to become a statistic, and indicates the strong seam of social conscience that runs through Ray’s work.
“I’ve been disappointed by the way [the rise in gun and knife crime] has been portrayed in the media as just a young black issue in London, which it actually isn’t,” she says. “It’s widespread around the UK. It’s more of a financial issue. People don’t care about what’s really going on; they just see it as, ‘Oh my God – all these crazy people stabbing each other! Lock your doors!’”
“That is just not what’s going on. It’s… people in deprived areas are struggling and finding it hard to have an opportunity to have a way out. There’s a direct correlation between a lack of opportunities and, ‘OK, I’m gonna have to join a gang to make money and support my family’.”
‘Run Run’ is the opening track on the lushly produced ‘Empress’, the stunning eight-track ‘project’ Ray released last Friday (October 26). It’s an uncompromising way to introduce a record that – much like the singer in person – deals with difficult issues with a lightness of touch that makes it easy company.
In her four-star review of the record, NME’s Kyann-Sian Williams wrote that “‘Empress’ is an important public service announcement to all the ladies out there, a reminder that they are powerful, strong and have the power to do anything with their lives”. Set in the mould of classic R&B (Lauryn Hill is a key influence) it’s a proud, triumphant collection that glimmers with stellar hooks and stylistic flourishes – see the twinkling sounds effects that chime like Mario coins on ‘Paradise’ – switching between moments of introspection and bouncing, upbeat soul-pop. The jubilant ‘Got My Own’ is a sort-of ‘Independent Women, Pt. 1’ for 2018 (“I don’t care about the price / Baby I can buy it twice”), so catchy that it already sounds classic.
Ray BLK first made waves with ‘My Hood’, 2016’s Stormzy collaboration on which she champions “full English breakfast at a caff, not a café”. When NME meets her in Deptford, the rapidly gentrifying south London borough in which she’s recently bought a flat, the venue is definitely a café, not a caff; the place doubles as – of course – a fancy bike workshop.
It’s the day after her record launch at YouTube’s swish north London studio, an event for family and fans – a celebration of all that ‘Empress’ represents. She performed four songs and took questions from the audience, while visuals artists doodled on enormous sketchpads around the venue. The atmosphere was distinctly wholesome, feel-good, supportive.
At one point, Ray explained: “When I first got exposure in music, it didn’t occur to me that people could start looking up to me, or see my face and think, ‘Oh, she looks like me, and so I can do what she’s doing. Then I started seeing conversations like ‘Ray BLK is the dark-skinned girl doing it for us’. I was like, Oh my god – is that what I’m doing? That’s amazing!’ That’s something I have a lot of pride about, so I’m more conscious about how I carry myself.’”
A month before her NME interview, Ray attended a talk at Baylis Technology school in Lambeth, south London. This was part of the musician’s Just A Kid campaign, a set of panel discussions held at London schools – including Ray’s own former stomping ground in Bromley – and intended to inspire young students. At Lilian Baylis, she was joined by rapper Not3s, who achieved viral fame with the ludicrously catchy ‘Addison Lee’ back in 2016; between them, the pair incited the level of excitement you’d readily expect when pop stars cross the school gates.
They reminded the pupils that social media isn’t real life (“Trolls lives under a bridge for a reason,” Not3s noted sagely) and that a lack of representation in the media – there was one white student in the audience – doesn’t mean that they don’t belong in the top tiers of society.
One student asked, “You know how people doubt you and say, ‘You’re not going to make it?’ What has kept you continuing your dream?” Ray’s response caused a collective, appalled gasp to swell across the hall.
“When I first started getting into studio sessions with producers,” she said, “I had this producer who asked me, ‘Do you wanna be an artist or a songwriter?’ When I said, ‘An artist’, he replied, ‘Actually, I think you should just be a songwriter – because being a black girl, it’s not really gonna work for you.’ This was a black person, as well, saying this to me. I was like, ‘OK, cool… can you just run the beat so I can just make the song?’ That stuck with me because I thought, ‘I’m gonna prove you so wrong – and you’re gonna feel so stupid in a year or two when you see me doing my thing.’”
When she flicked her hair and said, with a laugh, “I saw him at the MOBOs the following year when I was nominated and was like, ‘Oh – hi!’,” that appalled gasp was replaced with a round of applause.
Ray BLK was born Rita Ekwere in Lagos, Nigeria in 1993 and moved with her family to south London when she was four. She was brought up by her mum, who instilled in her a penchant for hard work, shielding her from neighbours and schoolmates she perceived as a bad influence (Ray pays loving tribute on the emotive, soulful ‘Empress’ track ‘Mama’, a recent single).
Although she was focused, teachers called her ‘Trouble’ because she knew how to wind them up. “They didn’t like being challenged – especially by someone who knew how to challenge them,” she laughs. “You know how some kids get annoyed and start swearing and throwing tables, doing mad stuff? I would just start an educated conversation about why they were wrong. Just cold… hard… facts.”
She studied English Literature at London’s Brunel University, after which she bounced between random jobs – a stint in PR; folding clothes at Selfridges; even a brief foray as a guide on a London tour bus, though she would often make up the anecdotes and facts – before she uploaded a handful of promising tracks on Soundcloud and landed herself a manager.
Last year, Ray BLK topped the BBC’s Sound Of… poll, an emerging talent gong previously awarded to Adele and Sam Smith, and next year will release her first full-length album through Island Records. So much for staying behind the scenes.
“In general, I Iove proving people wrong,” she tells NME of the producer. “That is one of the things that brings me joy. There is no better revenge than success. One of my driving forces is proving people like that wrong and showing them that anything is possible, so don’t ever go and tell someone else that it’s not. I just hope the person that told me that never tells another singer or songwriter that they shouldn’t try and pursue what they are meant to do.”
Does she know where that person is these days?
“Yeah, I do. He’s in the exact same place that I first met him. So clearly he’s taken his own advice.”
Of the inspiration behind the Just A Kid panels, she explains: “I remembered how much of an impact it made for me when I had people come to my school to empower us. Tinie Tempah came when in I was like 14. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God – this is so crazy’. Tinie Tempah was, like, every girl’s dream. He was like a superstar. To have him be like, ‘I’m from where you guys are from’ – which is what I’m doing with these talks – just made it seem more tangible.”
Her school was also visited by the UK’s first black female stem cell research expert, who studied at the University of Oxford. “I’m from a place where not many people even get a chance to leave, and to explore and travel the world,” she says. “People don’t really chase their dreams because it seems far-fetched, so [those visits] made me feel like those things are real and possible. I was always a person with big dreams, but it kept me motivated to always chase them.”
She paid homage to trail-blazing mid-noughties garage legend Miss Dynamite at the Just A Kid session, and today is dismissive of the suggestion that perhaps the musician hasn’t received her due in the collective memory of the mainstream.
“Being mainstream is amazing because it opens so many doors – especially financially,” Ray says, “but I always feel like it’s really important to have a big impact on a particular community. She had such a impact for a specific community – for young girls, for young black girls from the UK – that that doesn’t really matter because we know what she means to us.”
Dynamite appears on ‘Empress’, imparting spoken-word wisdom at the conclusion of final song, the fittingly titled ‘Just A Kid’: “There’s so much pressure out there, but it’s a new day – and you are the new day; you are the gift.” What did it mean, after all these years, to have her hero on her record?
“So much,” Ray says, “because Dynamite was – and is – such an inspiration for me in terms of having purpose behind her music, coming from where she came from and achieving the things that she did. And just to have her be so humble and graceful when I approached her…”
Ray wants mainstream success, but insists that it can’t come at the expense of her core values. In this, she looks to Stormzy as inspiration. The pair met in 2014, when the grime superstar, then virtually unknown, performed to “20 people… nobody paying attention” at Brunel University. “Me and my friends were like, ‘Does no-one know he’s about to be a superstar?” she says. “I always felt like [our collaboration] was bound to happen. I kept telling my friends, ‘Listen – there’s this guy, he’s amazing; he’s gonna be huge. But everything in due time.”
That last sentence could be Ray BLK’s motto. Her path to success is a slow burn, and the flames are only just beginning to rise. ‘Empress’ is an assured statement of intent, an assertion of her sense of self, while next year’s album will be a poppier affair – a bid for ubiquity, perhaps.
Did the BBC Sound of 2017 win create an undue sense of expectation around her career? “Yeah,” she says, “and it really shouldn’t, because in music nowadays stuff like that doesn’t have the same impact that it used to when people were buying physical albums, or when people looked to what the tipsters were saying. With the Mercury Prize, it still has a bit of a knock-on effect. You win the Mercury Prize, you sell more albums. But do I think that if people like you, they like you, so those things shouldn’t mean so much weight of expectation being placed on artists. It doesn’t dictate what happens next, or what you have to do next.”
Having turned up to her NME interview in cat-eye shades, sipping a much-needed Lemsip like a Martini, Ray BLK spends the hour being as wise and funny as a bonafide star. It doesn’t come as much surprise that when we’re wrapping up, her stylist turns up with a suitcase stuffed with glam threads.
The YouTube record launch was billed as a ‘celebration’ of ‘Empress’, and felt like just that. Her music videos played across enormous screens that studded the cavernous studio, while fans posed on a red carpet against Ray’s moniker. After 40 minutes or so, she sauntered into the room, draped in an eye-catching crocodile skin-style coat, and naturally received a hero’s welcome
It was a diverse crowd. NME spoke to 30-year-old fan Luke Robinson, who’s been to seven Ray BLK shows – he and a friend travelled up especially from Manchester for the launch – and explained her unique appeal: “She’s just so special. She’s like Lauryn Hill, Amy Winehouse, Mike Skinner – people like that. It’s real; it’s very kitchen sink – but beautiful at the same time. Everything she writes about is relatable, and so eloquent. Plus – she’s, like, threat after threat after threat. She can sing, she can rap – she’s got bars, lyrics, star quality. It’s outrageous how many times I’ve seen her. I’m pretty close to getting a restraining order. I love her.”
16-year-old aspiring singer-songwriter Clarissa Mae, who was there with her Dad, said: “There’s such realness to her music. Nothing is covered up. It’s not sugar-coated. She’s very real in her music. When you hear a Ray BLK song, you know exactly who it is. Usually nowadays music is about money and how everyone looks and showing off, but her music is about being yourself.”
A black-and-white photograph of Ray and Not3s, taken at the Lilian Baylis talk, adorned the wall as the band bounced through her music (she visibly cried onstage in the middle of ‘Paradise’, which she dedicated to a friend who’s died). For the encore, Ray returned to raucous applause to roll out ‘My Hood’, her breakthrough hit, a celebration of staying grounded.
Afterwards, she disappeared offstage, leaving the band to play on, her presence still felt. It was a classy piece of stagecraft worthy of the A-list superstar Ray BLK deserves to become. But everything in due time.
Ray BLK’s ‘Empress’ is out now