Ray BLK: ‘A song is like writing in my journal. It’s cathartic ‘| R&B


There’s a saying that we all have the same 24 hours as Beyoncé. “I actually don’t,” said Ray BLK, rejecting the axiom of the shame of productivity. In fact, she desperately needs a day off. I can feel a certain melancholy in her voice as she explains that work commitments have delayed the planned vacation in Madeira. “I feel immense guilt when I decide not to respond to messages,” says the 27-year-old singer-songwriter. “You just feel like if you want to be awesome, if you want to be the best at what you do, you shouldn’t take time for yourself. You have to value every opportunity that comes your way, especially if you are a black person. ”

A few minutes into our call, I feel that getting right to the point is one of BLK’s many talents. Born Rita Ekwere in Nigeria in 1994, she moved to London at the age of four and grew up in Catford, south-east London. She’s always talked about the realities of a young musician, from the lack of dark-skinned women in the industry to her belief that she is dimensional, ageist, racist and homophobic. “I feel like my tenacity comes from being a girl from the extremes, from South East London. It definitely made me grow a hard shell. We just have this culture of, like, chatting, getting fucked hard. “

Listening to his first album, Access denied, a brilliant collection of sexy R&B tracks, it’s hard to imagine it came from a girl who had fights in high school. The record is rich in sybaritic rhythms, slow tempo and lustful lyrics – a world far from an angry teenager. “Before, I was hung up at least once a year for fighting,” she laughs, remembering how much she has matured. Now, she channels a lot of that fire into music and earns respect through her skills and hard work. That’s why she’s been successful in working with some of music’s biggest stars – Stormzy featured on a remix of her 2016 ode to Catford, My Hood, and she opened for Nicki Minaj in 2019. Not to mention some of the biggest names in British rap, from Stefflon Don to Kojey Radical to Giggs, appearing on Access denied. “I got this Giggs feature because we built a relationship. I put the work in it. Things don’t just happen to your knees,” she says.

BLK grew up listening to Mary J Blige, Whitney Houston and gospel music and watching music channels such as Channel U and MTV Base. “A lot of the R&B we consume comes from America. I didn’t want to prevent myself from being influenced by these sounds and these people. She started making music at the age of 13, forming a band with her childhood friend MNEK called New Found Content. Fast forward to 2015, when she released her debut EP, Havisham, inspired by Charles Dickens Great expectations, while studying for a degree in English literature at Brunel University. “When I wrote Havisham, I didn’t know anything about the music industry. I just found some beats on YouTube. I would have a bad day and write about how I feel with tears in my eyes. It was like writing in my journal, but turning it into a song. It was cathartic for me.

She passed the 2017 BBC Music Sound list and was nominated for Best Newcomer to the Mobos 2016. She has released a string of well-received singles, including Run Run in 2018, which examines the emotional side of youth crime – it has had over 4 million hits. views on YouTube. “I had this concept of showing how trapped this world can be. In the video, [a young man] tries to run, but at each step he has to defend himself against another situation. The song was born out of his frustration with the rhetoric surrounding knife crime and exercise music.

“What breaks my heart is seeing people who are fortunate enough to live in a middle class bubble, targeting, penalizing and criticizing people who are actually victims of their environment,” she says. “When you come from where I’m from, you don’t have a lot of options. A life of violence or crime is what is most available for you to support your family and because the government does not support them enough, they must find a way to provide an income. If you live in a dangerous environment, where you’ve seen friends die from senseless acts of violence, why wouldn’t you feel like you had to carry a knife to protect yourself? I just feel like it doesn’t make sense to believe that someone would want to live a life on edge. “

His single Dark Skinned, which appears on Access denied, celebrates dark skin in a world that has historically favored people with lighter skin. “It came from a place of positivity,” she says. “I wanted to do a song about being dark and reminding people that it’s beautiful above all else, and that you can do anything. Don’t allow people to limit you because of the color of your skin, and don’t limit yourself.

Her mother, who is mentioned in the song, had a big role to play in BLK’s self-confidence. She sees her mom as her “safe space” because she’s someone she can share all of her fears and hopes with – and she makes the best okra soup. “I might have been naive, but I didn’t feel the doors would be closed to me because I was dark skinned. I was brought up in a home where I was told that if I wanted to, I could be prime minister, ”she says.

She is protective of her family, which she demonstrated when she auditioned for The X factor 16 years old. “I was shocked by my experience,” she recalls. “After the hearing, the producers call to find out more about you. They were asking me questions about my home life. I have mentioned my mother several times, so they asked, “Your father is not in your life? I said no and they asked me, “Do you hope he sees you on TV and comes back into your life?” They were trying to create a story.

Ray BLK in concert in London, 2019. Photograph: Venla Shalin / Redferns

Then, she tells me, the producers tried to convince BLK to bring her disabled brother to an audition, after she revealed to them that she was a registered young caregiver. “He’s autistic. He can’t speak and he can’t hear, ”she said. BLK recalls that the producers were keen on them both interacting on camera and talking about how much that meant to him. “It doesn’t mean anything to him. It doesn’t have the cognitive function to feel anything that I’m potentially about X factor! “The ‘bloody stories’ that the TV show had become infamous for – BLK blames them on the producers, not the contestants.” I realize these people are under pressure from the producers because that makes good television ”

Without the help of the now-defunct TV show, BLK has managed to rise to the top of its game. She is one of the few black UK R&B singers with label backing, and her standing is due to her integrity and transparency. She has already started working on a second album that bares her soul and talks about her mental health issues. “These are a lot of things that I experienced during the pandemic. I’m really excited to be doing something that is really healing me right now and hopefully healing other people.

She is also considering getting into comedy. “I had the chance to do the lead track for RocksShe said, referring to Sarah Gavron’s award-winning coming of age film released last year. “When I saw all of this, I cried. The lead actress, Bukky Bakray, I’m so happy for her. It would be a dream for me to tell a really powerful story.

A great success seems close for BLK and Access denied puts it on the right track. Yet as sweet as his vocal tone is and as confident as the lyrics on the album, I think much of his fortune stems from his urge to prove people wrong. “If I’m knocked down I’ll get up,” she said. “I’ve always said to myself: I’m going to show Simon [Cowell] and dem man, you didn’t want me but i did. And I did it right, didn’t I? “

Access Denied is posted by Island on September 17

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