Ray BLK

Known for her no-holds barred lyrics and straight talking, whether it’s on or off the mic, Ray BLK (real name Rita Ekwere) is going to speak her mind. “I always have to get everything off my chest,” says the singer-songwriter. “As an artist and somebody who’s been blessed with a platform, I feel like it is part of my responsibility”.

 

Ray is celebrated for music that makes a statement and her new single ‘Lovesick’, recent track ‘Warriors’ the lead song from the hugely acclaimed ROCKS film and forthcoming album prove that the ultimate girl’s girl is back with messages of tough love, a catalogue of quotables and a renewed focus on self-love. The outcome is the musical equivalent of the unfiltered girl talk from your most raucous WhatsApp group chat.

 

Sonically and thematically, it’s both a throwback to the rawness of her ‘Durt’ days as well as a sleeker, slicker sound that is ushering in what she refers to as her “gangster era”. “I’m really owning myself, where I’m from, what I feel and I’m just not giving a damn,” she says. In this album, she is embracing the realness we have become accustomed to; the prettiest of voices sat atop a grittiness that thoroughly sets her apart from her peers.

 

Born in Nigeria, raised in Catford, Ray BLK’s music is heavily influenced by her upbringing. “I grew up with Grime music and clash culture in the playground,” she says. “As much as I don’t make Grime music, I like hard hitting beats that you can sing over.” Aside from the apt characterisation of her hometown on songs like the 2016 breakout hit ‘My Hood’ featuring Stormzy, South London has shaped her sound, which sees her marrying the candour and lyricism of a rapper with honeyed R&B vocals.

 

Her musical journey began at the tender age of 8, scrawling lyrics in school notebooks. Even then her work was standout, catching the eye of a teacher who placed her on a music program for gifted and talented pupils. By 13, she was crafting her first body of work with school friend and future record producer and songwriter MNEK, forming the group New Found Content. It was during this time she would hone the introspective and sociopolitical writing she is so well known for. It took several years and a English Literature degree at university for her to release a mixtape of ripped beats entitled ‘Havisham’, a hip-hop, R&B, and neo-soul hybrid inspired by the jilted Charles Dickens character. It was then she adopted her stage name, taking ‘Ray’ from her surname and ‘BLK’, an acronym of her three most important values: Building, Living, Knowing.

 

The following year saw the release of ‘Durt’, Ray’s crtically acclaimed first EP which featured collaborations with Stormzy, Wretch 32 and SG Lewis and won Ray a legion of new, non-local fans. Ray was also announced as the winner of the prestigious BBC Sound of Poll for 2017, becoming the first, and indeed only, unsigned artist to do so. She also received a best newcomer nomination at the 2016 MOBO Awards. In January 2018 she signed to Island Records and later released her eight-track project Empress, with a strong female empowerment message in the title track, ‘Got My Own’ and ‘Girl Like Me’. In the hard-hitting ‘Run Run’, Ray references the youth violence that plagued her area, an issue she continues to be vocal on.

 

“It’s about being told no and always remembering to tell yourself yes.”

 

 

Her willingness to address difficult topics with deftness is second to none, from touching on domestic violence to partnering up with charities to do talks at schools about consent, after speaking publicly about her own experience with sexual assault this year. She has also been making herself heard as a host of Beats 1 agenda show on Apple Music, a gig that was extended by popular demand. “When I was younger, three things I wanted to do were sing, act and present,” she says. “I kind of feel like I’m just getting to live out one of my dreams like a side hustle”.

 

Her discography has already seen her hailed as the queen of UK R&B, but the best is yet to come, with Ray leaning into a newfound sense of autonomy. After her BBC Sound Of 2017 win, she cites a pressure to fit into a poppier, more polished mould that she’s now free from. “I am still proud of the music I made,” she says. “But I’ll be real and say it felt inauthentic to me, because it felt very polite and brushed up and I’m just ratchet!”.

 

‘Lovesick’, the first album’s first single, is an anthem for newly anointed savages who have decided to no longer settle. “It really is just about reclaiming your power in a relationship where the person has made you feel like you need them and has made you feel not good enough”, Ray explains.

 

Ray has also faced obstacles in the industry as a black, dark skinned woman – another topic she has frequently and openly discussed. “It’s about being told no and always remembering to tell yourself yes!”.

 

Over the years, Ray has been dubbed “the Lauryn Hill of the UK” (who she cites as inspiration alongside female rappers such as Eve and Missy Elliott) but also grew up on a diet of her mum’s musical tastes: Whitney Houston, gospel music and Mary J Blige. Her writing is heavily influenced by the “realness and his relatability” of Drake’s lyrics and her stateside contemporaries SZA and Summer Walker. Straddling different styles and genres effortlessly whilst borrowing from various global, generational influences, she creates something that is distinctively Ray BLK.