Raheaven: “There’s little Eritrean representation in UK music – I would like to be one of the first”

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you'd have no doubt seen opening the bill for your favourite bands. This week, London's Raheaven on the divine spirits that inhabit her music and how she discovered her voice with a chance singalong to a Beyoncé tune

Clouds, cherubs and angels are such a central part of Rahel Yohannes’ aesthetic, it’s little surprise that her stage name harks back to the transcendent plane. Now going by Raheaven both personally and professionally, she gleefully tells NME: “I love everything about heaven. I feel like angels are protecting me”. She holds up a cherub that sits by her desk over Zoom to prove the point.

Raheaven’s debut EP ‘2Personal’ showcases the artist’s riffs and runs that feel as celestial as the divine beings that watch over her. Inspired by the lifting vocals of Eritrean singers Elsa Kidane and Helen Meles and the lyricism of contemporary heroes like SZA and Summer Walker, Raheaven wants to rail against tradition.

“R&B is known for the classic love and heartbreak songs, but I wanted to bring a different opinion onto these topics with this EP,” she says. Detailing her experiences of ‘situationships’ and taking charge in her sexual encounters, she wants to vocalise things that are not “expected in R&B and not expected of women.”

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A confidence to trust her skills and her instinct came from a childhood performing where she was constantly performing: “I did loads of drama in school, I was in my choir and I even played steel pans for ten years,” she says. Music lies within the fabric of Raheaven’s family, and when her parents moved to London from Eritrea in the 1980s, they formed a band with friends to raise money for their home country’s struggle for independence, which was eventually declared in 1991. “I never got to see them perform, but I was always listening to my dad play guitar, and my mum would play a lot of Eritrean music around the house.”

She began recording herself singing out of sheer curiosity. When she heard Beyoncé’s 2006 single ‘Irreplaceable’ on the radio, the gauntlet was set: “I said in my head ‘if I can sing this song, then this is it for me’”. Playing back a recording of ourselves singing for the first time is usually an incredibly humbling experience, but for Raheaven it confirmed what she already knew deep down; music was her destiny. “I played it back and realised that I wasn’t crazy, I can actually sing,” she giggles.

But Raheaven carried expectations as the eldest child in her family. “I had different responsibilities being a first-generation immigrant. No one in my family had been to university, so I thought I should do that first,” she says. But in the final year of her sociology degree music became a viable option for Raheaven. “I knew I wasn’t going to be a sociologist, so I started to make music more seriously and started sessions. I wanted to make that my career choice.”

Raheaven is glad that she didn’t plunge straight into music out of school, though, having witnessed the emotional clarity that comes with maturation. She’s now at a stage where she is in control of her musical choices and free to sing about topics she feels are important to her. “I wanted to grow more as a person,” she says. “When you’re 16 or 17, you haven’t experienced anything. I don’t even know what I would have written about if I was making music then.”

This freedom comes to fore in the EP’s lead single, ‘7 AM’. In the accompanying music video, Raheaven is chilling by a bed draped in silk, fanning her face as she elucidates: “Why are you still here, in my living room? / Take it back boy, and pick up your shoes”. She’s adamant that this is not a break-up song, contrary to what listeners might think. “Everyone seems to think that the song is about someone in an argument, but realistically I was thinking, ‘all I needed was the dick, and now you need to go home because you’re not wanted here.’”

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Disrupting conventions isn’t the only thing on Raheaven’s radar – she’s determined to put Eritrea on the map in the UK music scene. The UK’s Eritrean community (31,000) is dwarfed by larger communities from countries like Nigeria (215,000), and that disparity was strange and upsetting for her growing up. “The majority of the African diaspora here is west African. Whereas for east Africa, and Eritrea specifically, there’s not really any representation of us in music,” she says with a knowing grin on her face. “I would like to be one of the first”.

As underground rappers like Headie One and Unknown T make their way to chart-toppers, the UK’s R&B scene is equally continuing to carve out its own space. As Raheaven sees it, “there’s no agenda right now, there are so many different types of artists, especially women. It means that there are more options, and we are gaining such a global presence”. She hopes that everyone can see themselves reflected in the music they listen to as “everyone has a right to find something that they like and love.”

Right now, Raheaven is only looking forward – when live performances are permitted, she hopes to solidify her place in the UK musical canon and contribute to R&B’s continued disruption of the scene. As her name suggests, the only way is up.

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