Nigerian-British singer-songwriter Ray BLK has been making waves throughout the British R&B scene. Since the release of her mini-album Durt in 2016, the artist has accumulated impressive accolades such as a MOBO nomination, winning ‘BBC Sound of 2017’ and performing on Jools Holland. Her music embodies experience and empowerment, and is unafraid to tackle tough social issues whilst solidly maintaining high levels of creativity. On October 26th, Ray released eight-track project Empress, hoping to ‘uplift, encourage and inspire’. Relaxing after supporting Rudimental on their tour, Ray takes time out to speak to TMB on her two-day break before her final show in London.
How did you first get into music?
got into music by making a mixtape with beats I would find online, which I then recorded and released on SoundCloud and bandcamp. Through that, people began discovering my music and from then on the exposure grew.
How has your career changed since winning ‘BBC Sound of 2017’?
Since winning, I’d say my music has become less underground and more mainstream. It was crazy and surprising winning! I’d hoped and worked hard to get on the list, but didn’t think I’d get it, so when dreams happen it’s surreal and takes a while for the reality to sink in.
Who are your musical inspirations?
Lauryn Hill, Mary J Blige, Amy Winehouse are some of my main inspirations – all of their lyrics are so relatable and had substance to what they were saying. Amy was so raw, Mary spoke truth about the experiences of being a woman and Lauryn’s music had so much purpose.
Your song, ‘Empress’, is about realising your worth, and not settling for a relationship with someone who doesn’t value you, which most people will be able to relate to. Is it important that people are able to relate and empathise with your lyrics?
It is important, but I think for me it’s something that happens naturally by telling your own story. My music reflects my experiences and emotions such as heartbreak, pain, excitement or simply being in a good mood, and by keeping the music as real and honest as possible it can hopefully tell someone else’s.
When was the last time you felt yourself questioning your self-worth and how you overcame that?
Probably two days ago! I’ve been on tour supporting Rudimental, so you’re the person people haven’t come to see, meaning you have to work hard to get their attention. I was also run- down and under the weather, so that had a hit in my confidence; I was constantly wondering if people were listening and kept thinking it was gonna be a shit show. However, I found it’s good to talk to people about what’s on your mind, and often I end up just talking to my make up artist about everything and anything. Ultimately, surrounding yourself with people who uplift you is crucial to help overcome anything you might be going through.
How have you found navigating the industry as a woman of colour, and specifically as a young black woman?
So far, I’ve been one of the lucky one where I haven’t faced those issues directly; but as a woman you are always more conscious of yourself because of how easy it is for a woman to be called a bitch or diva, which guys don’t get.
You’ve also mentioned that you were once told to ‘stick to songwriting’ because of how few black female singers there supposedly were in the industry – what was your take on that?
I understood where this person was coming from, as statistically there are not many black women in music in the public eye. However, you should never stop someone from chasing their dream, and when someone tells me I can’t do something it only makes me want to work harder to prove them wrong.
Your new single, ‘Run Run’, speaks quite overtly about gang and youth violence. Is this something that you’ve had personal experience with, and how what was the process of tackling such a heavy issue creatively?
For me, where I grew up seeing a gun or people carrying knives was not that surprising, and I wrote ‘Run Run’ shortly after my house was burgled. Recording the song was fine, but it was the video that was the most emotionally draining, as it felt like an re-enactment of real life; it definitely took a while to recover after everything wrapped up.
Do you see yourself as a ‘role model’, and hope to inspire other girls who hope to make music some day?
I hope so! The hope is to always inspire people with my presence to show people they can achieve their goals as well. However, I really don’t like the word ‘role model’ – it implies that you need to be perfect, which no one is. But, if i can be an imperfect ‘role model’ then yes I would be!
You’re currently touring with Rudimental – what has that been like so far?
It was great! The tour was really fun, and I’m gonna miss the boys. Glasgow and Bournemouth were definitely two of my favourite cities we played, as rest of the tour I was unwell. After ten weeks and ten different cities, we’ve got a two-day break before the final show in London.
How important is it to remain grounded/ is it difficult not to get caught up in industry politics?
It’s easy to stay grounded when you have good friends and family around you, as they’ll keep you in check. I’ve found people are more willing to work with you when you have success to your name, which is understandable but opportunities should be based on talent not the clout that someone’s got. Also, people think that fame changes you, but I’ve found that it’s often the people around you who change and think that you’re unapproachable. Sometimes I’ll see old school friends who won’t say ‘Hi’ in the street – but I’m still me!
What’s been a highlight of your career so far?
There are so many! Winning ‘BBC Sound Of’, performing on Jools Holland and singing the national anthem for Anthony Joshua at the boxing are to name a few.
I’d love to perform in Asia, or bring out an accessories line of mainly shoes and bags (I love them!). I’d also like to spend a lot of time back in Nigeria to do something for the culture there, and to bring British Nigerians like myself back home.
If you could have three guests at a dream dinner party, who would it be?
Michael Jackson (laughs), Oprah and Martin Luther King; I’d love to hear their stories and feel like they would all would have so much knowledge to share.