All photos by Charlotte Rutherford

Ray BLK Isn't One to Follow the Herd

Still happily unsigned, the 90s R&B-inspired BBC Sound of 2017 winner is doing things her way.

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12 July 2017, 9:41am

All photos by Charlotte Rutherford

I'm craning my neck to see Ray BLK, but a man in a suit is blocking my way. He's not security or anything, just a wildly enthusiastic fan, his jacket whipped off and sweat soaking through the back of his crisp-looking shirt while he screams along to every word of her single "Chill Out". Of all the sorts of fan I thought I'd encounter at Ray's first gig since she won the BBC's tastemaker Sound Of 2017 poll in January, a thick-armed white man who probably works in finance rested somewhere near the bottom of the list.

But here we are. Ray struts across the stage in north London venue the Jazz Cafe, dressed in a knit crop top and Canadian tuxedo with heart-shaped patches sewn onto the jeans, swinging her box braids with all the slickness her bumping set of uncensored R&B merits. By the time she whips through a Destiny's Child "Say My Name" cover, her ragtag group of an audience – the City boy, the black girls at the front getting their absolute lives, the industry types slightly off to the side where their red wine won't be spilled by exuberant dancing – have turned to putty in whichever manicured hand isn't clutching her mic. People are singing every word. BBC DJ Clara Amfo is throwing her hands up, watching over the gig from a roped-off area above the stage. My glasses are doing that thing where they steam over.

Normally, you'd expect someone at this stage in their career to be shuttling from one air-conditioned major record label lobby to the next, hunting for a deal. Not so much here. Since she was shoved onto a national and international stage seven months ago, Ray – born Rita Ekwere in Nigeria – has stuck to doing things her own way. Yes, she was the first unsigned artist to top that Sound Of… poll. And no, she's not put out an album yet. Instead, by the sounds of things, she's taking her time. She's been whetting fans' appetites every few months with singles that carry her voice, rich and husky like velvet trimmed with barbed wire, undulating over everything from TLC-referencing 90s pop R&B ("Doing Me") to the womping bass and st-st-stuttering hi-hat sample on "Patience (Freestyle)".

When we speak, almost four months after the gig, she thinks back to what a ten-year-old version of herself would have made of her choice to stay independent. "Young Rita definitely would've jumped at any great opportunity, but who wouldn't? When you're young, you're not aware of much, really. You just grasp for shiny things, like 'aah!'" She laughs. "But I'm really happy that I'm in this industry as an adult, where I'm business savvy and have had the opportunity to do 'normal' things." She runs through her biography quickly, from her comms PR job to her time studying English Lit at university. "I've just educated myself so I know myself, and can make these kinds of decisions."

From the outside at least, it's working. Rather than scurry into a record deal where the fine print may end up screwing her over – "I'm not a rusher, honestly" – she's working with a smaller team. You only need to take a cursory glance at the horror stories told by acts from S Club 7 to TLC and early days NWA to know that a raw record deal can leave its stamp on an artist for years. Often, naive teens are easiest to nudge towards deals that elbow managers into a disproportionate cut of their profits, or promise huge sums only if the act can sell hundreds of thousands of albums (see: school-age metallers Unlocking the Truth).

"When you're younger, you're very easily swayed – especially by things like money or fame, etc. But I'm someone who's naturally quite cautious, about everything I do: about friends I make" – another giggle – "about where I go, what I do. So it's only natural for someone like me to be cautious about my business interests." Ray speaks slowly and carefully through all this, with the same frankness that propels itself out of her songs. Her 2016 mini-album, Durt, is stuffed with lyrics that tell the specific stories of being a young British woman, growing up in Catford in southeast London – "the hood" she recently summarised with a laugh, trying to explain Lewisham to Sway Calloway – without ever leaning on tired stereotypes. She conjures up universal stories, of fuckboys, of relationships built on shaky foundations and misdirected lust, while viewing them through a particular lens that speaks from her own experience. You don't need to have grown up in Catford to relate – the diversity of her crowd displays that in human form.

"I get girls DMing me and being like, ''5050' is my life, I've been through that'," she says, of the song about a dud who won't commit (sample lyric: "50/50, that's all you give me / And I give 100 to you). "So many girls DM me – especially about that song. With other songs, I've had other people reaching out to me too. When I write music, I'm writing it for myself; it's very cathartic. It's me kind of venting. If there are other people out there going through those things and having those same experiences, connecting with it, that's amazing."

There's plenty to sink your teeth into. "Hunny" unfurls into a cautionary tale about fickle lovers, "Baby Girlz" channels 90s BBQ bass while calmly running through a teen pregnancy tale; she's not exactly sticking to "turn up in the club" slogans. Does she ever hesitate about writing such direct lyrics? "I used to," she says, pausing, "until I made the conscious decision not to anymore. When I started writing songs, I used to like blasé lyrics about whatever, just a catchy tune. The turning point was when I heard Amy Winehouse's 'Stronger Than Me' and it really spoke to me and blew me away. I thought, 'Wow, a woman is speaking so brashly, so honestly. And she's so raw and doesn't hold anything back.' I feel as though I connected to her music because of that: being that kind of strong, bold woman." As much as women risk being pigeonholed as only capable of writing or singing about themselves, Ray seems to pull a power from that. She finds strength in placing herself at the centre of a story, rather than have someone tell it on her behalf.

The theme of self-assured women slides back into the conversation several times, whether we're chatting about the childhood friends Ray enlisted for the "5050" video – "hard workers, strong women; those are the kinds of people I like to surround myself with" – or family. Her mother worked as a nurse for years, moving to the UK initially taking work as a cleaner before training in school and setting an example of the benefits of hard graft that Ray holds today. Given how much energy Ray poured into music as a child, her mum saw this career shift coming from a mile away. "This is not new to her at all," she jokes, dragging out the last two words as if to underline them in the scribbles of thick black pen. "I've been working towards this my whole life. Since I was, like, nine years old, and writing songs in my bedroom; going to a recording studio for the first time aged ten; getting my mum to take me to auditions, drop me at practice, drop me at drama school."

By looking to her mum for motivation, she's in turn put herself in a position years later to potentially influence her fans. The idea of being considered an inspiration for others, as a result of being in the public eye, gives her pause. "Being branded a 'role model' – quote on quote – is definitely an honour, I'd say. It means that people see something in you that they admire, which is incredible. But I feel like the term has been poisoned a bit. A role model is no longer just someone who inspires you to do and be better; it now means someone who is perfect. And absolutely nobody is perfect."

She wonders out loud about how social media feeds into that perception of the perfect life. Now that we're all knee-deep in the exposes about the "Instagram mafia", sponsored posts and deeply staged pics put up purely for likes, she's not one for curating the ideal life online. "I hate the fact that people are advertising their perfect lives that really aren't perfect, because I think it causes a lot of problems for others. It's this vicious cycle where everyone shows their perfect life – while they're actually going through their struggles – and everyone else wants to have that perfection. Then no one's saying, 'hang on, this isn't actually real. It's like scripted reality TV'. I think it forces people to look a certain way, be a certain way or obtain things that aren't really obtainable."

And that can elevate beyond chat between a singer and a journalist when it comes to mental health. Switching from a winking humour, Ray goes on to consider how social media can affect young people's wellbeing – a point raised earlier this year by a small survey of 14- to 24-year-old Brits, which found that the 1,400 people surveyed pinpointed Instagram as the worst social media platform for their mental health. But, honest as ever, Ray jokes that she's probably just not that invested because she's not bothered about downloading whichever photo-editing app your neighbourhood travel blogger uses to make her thighs look pore-free. "Maybe I like to free the realness because I also don't know how to do all the perfect stuff," she says with a chuckle. "Like, I don't know how to airbrush my photos, I don't know those apps. Someone tell me what they're using, cos I don't know! So I'm just myself, because I think it's really hard to keep up a facade."

She laughs when I ask if she's always been this confident. I mean, most people's twenties nowadays are a cacophony of heartbreaks, disappointing shags, flits from job to job and the knowledge that we'll probably never be able to own a home humming like a white noise in the background of it all. But Ray, with that low timbre of a voice, steady and measured, reckons she comes across as so composed because her home life is relatively unchanged. She sees her mothers and siblings plenty, when not flying halfway around the world for work. And even though she's running on two hours' sleep and the busiest she's been, "I have the same friends. I chill with my family and those friends when I'm not working and we still do the same things. I hope that things don't change too much," and she says this almost to herself, "though I know that everyone has to grow and evolve too. But I'm always going to be the same person – I've been me for too long. Maybe if I'd got into this industry at, like, 15 it would be different. But now, at 23, I feel like the person I am today is the person I'm going to continue to be."

Ray BLK plays the Noisey stage at Lovebox Festival on Friday 14 July, in London's Victoria Park.

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