Delivering the brash honesty of rap music, with her unique blend of soul and R&B spirit, Ray BLK weaves between genre boundaries borrowing the elements she requires to reach her goals. “I feel proud when my music connects with people,” says the 23-year-old, real name Rita Ekwere, who was born in Nigeria and raised in Catford, South London.
Ray’s first experiences of music came at a very early age, when she recalls dancing to Missy Elliott and Timbaland on MTV Bass at the age of seven “From that age I thought, this is what I want to do,” she recalls. “I remember singing and dancing along to all of it and thinking ‘Oh my god, I’d love to be doing this.’”
From the age of ten, Ray was already setting her dream in motion, filling her school notebooks with original song lyrics, prompting teachers to put her on a gifted and talented music programme. Despite her early experiments with music, it wasn’t until her final year of studying English Literature at university that she decided she wanted to share her music with the world. Delving into a catalogue of rough recordings she’d been making since the age of sixteen, she picked out her strongest songs and began scouring YouTube for instrumentals. The songs told the tale of a broken hearted girl who grew to hate men, and reminded her of a character from her studies, hence she titled it Havisham, based on the Dickensian spinster from Great Expectations.
Lyrically, Ray’s music is very candid; she isn’t trying to gloss over situations and paint her life as a fairytale. “I say it how it is,” Ray admits. “The music that I love is the stuff that gives it to you raw. Then you can really connect with it. I listen predominantly to rap music, which is like that all the time, so I think the influences come from there. It’s important to stand for something, to have my music stand for something,” says Ray. “So these are things that are really important to me.” The surname BLK that she’s adopted, is a constant reminder of her values: Building Living Knowing.
At the end of 2015 Ray released ‘50/50’ a track that would open up a new chapter in her career. Premiering on I-D Magazine with a visual depicting BLK and her all-girl mob hanging out in her native Catford, from the streets to the salon, as she tells the tale of a rocky relationship with a drug dealer with commitment issues. The Aston Rudi-produced track would snowball in popularity, securing A-List spots with 1Xtra and Rinse FM, record of the week from Huw Stephens, spins from Annie Mac, Julie Adenuga and Toddla T as well as the support of media platforms such as Complex, Noisey, HypeTrak and MTV. The attention came as a surprise: “I’m really happy with how well the track has been received. I definitely didn’t expect it to be noticed as much as it has been, particularly since I put it out on my own channel.”
She’d follow up with ‘My Hood’, a proud tribute to South London featuring Stormzy which she’d deliver an epic performance of on BBC 2’s ‘Later… with Jools Holland’, and again with the SG Lewis-assisted ‘Chill Out’. Both tracks would land on ‘Durt’, a diverse seven track mini-album – also featuring Wretch 32 – that demonstrates the scope of her capabilities. “This new body of work feels so different,” says Ray. She’s discovered a groove that lies between London’s forward-thinking electronic production and the Bad Boy Records remixes that she grew up on. “Beforehand I was using found instrumentals, so none of them were tailored to me,” she explains. “Now I’m blessed to be working with people to actually create something that feels like me.”
The project saw her continue to snowball, selling out a trio of headline shows in the capital and refining her spellbinding live shows. “The goal is to make people feel something,” she explains. “I love doing shows. I’m so scared before every single one, but I love every single one. I want to do more shows in front of bigger audiences and connect with more people.” It’s something that she will get a taste of when she joins Emeli Sandé on her Long Live the Angels later this month.
In January voters named her the winner of the BBC Sound of 2017 poll against some heavy competition. “Winning the BBC Sound of 2017 has to be the most surprising thing that’s happened to me thus far,” she reflects. “I’m particularly proud to be a part of this year’s list as it’s full of so much talent, some of whom are independent artists like myself. I really hope that inspires the next generation of artists.” BBC Radio 1 DJ Huw Stephens was also delighted by the result, admitting: “Some artists have that magic about them. I’ve played everything I’ve heard from Ray BLK on my BBC Radio 1 show. She has a real, raw talent that cuts through so strongly. She is the real deal.”
Ray celebrated the win with the release of a new single ‘Patience (Freestyle)’ which exhibits the realness that she’s been celebrated for. Recorded in Los Angeles, the conversational song sees her switching between singing and rapping as she examines a generation desperate to give up anything in exchange for fame and fortune. “Slow and steady wins the race,” she sings on the chorus, opting to focus on her own lane. ‘Patience (Freestyle)’ sums her approach up perfectly. Authentic, relatable and always honest; Ray BLK in here for the long run.
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