InterviewThe singer-songwriter on speaking up for the silenced, how she’s glad she never made it on The X Factor and why she is finally ready to release her debut album four years after winning the BBC’s Sound Of…poll
In January 2017 Ray BLK shook the music industry when her smart and unfiltered take on R&B won the BBC’s Sound Of… poll that heralds the year’s brightest musical talent.
The singer-songwriter, who was raised in Catford, south-east London, was the first unsigned artist to win the accolade, beating the likes of Jorja Smith and Rag’n’Bone Man, and joining the ranks of previous winners Adele, Ellie Goulding and Jessie J.
Industry buzz was off the scale for her debut album. There was just one small problem: she didn’t have one.
“I was in shock and, if I’m being honest, I think I was so naive when I won,” BLK, now 27, tells me. “Everything was new to me and I was ignorant of what it really meant. What followed was a lot of attention and a whole heap of business I wasn’t ready for. People were talking about an album I hadn’t started making because I didn’t think I was going to win.”
The expectation created an anxiety around everything she was doing. “I felt I had to be perfect and represent myself ‘the right way’ – only make music that speaks about the black female struggle and issues that affect [the black] community.
“I didn’t like the anxiety it created but over time I started to see it as a superpower. This is what makes me different. I realised I fly a flag for people who are underappreciated, silenced or overlooked. I found it empowering to be able to speak out.”
Now, four years on from her win, the straight-talking star is releasing her long-awaited debut album, Access Denied, an assured collection of modern R&B with electronic and hip-hop stylings.
On “25”, she reflects on the weight of the world resting on her shoulders, rapping: “I was raised in real poverty/ watched my father beat my mother constantly/ my brother’s disability turned me to a prodigy”.
The uplifting “Dark Skin” serves as a celebration of blackness and ends with a sweet voice note from her mother Bernardine, instructing BLK, whose real name is Rita Ekwere, to “go and do what you do best, don’t let anyone tell you [otherwise]”.
“I wanted to talk about topics that mattered to me, whether it’s being a black woman, heartbreak and relationships or the domestic violence I witnessed at home,” she tells me. It is important, she says, to “share my experiences in the most vulnerable way”.
“When you hear a musician articulate a feeling or experience, it can make you think, ‘I’m not alone.’ If it’s a huge artist you’re like, ‘Oh my God, Drake has the same problems as I do.’”
Access Denied features guest vocals from some of Britain’s most exciting and experimental artists, including Kojey Radical, Stefflon Don and Giggs. Their contributions solidify a sound that nods to the diaspora but remains resolutely black British. “Black culture is exciting, expressive and rhythmic,” says BLK. “Why wouldn’t you tap into that? We want that energy.”
It is hard not to be bowled over by BLK’s energy and drive. She is engaging and sharp-witted with a wry sense of humour, and as she talks, I begin to understand how her past experiences have fuelled a desire to make music on her own terms.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, BLK moved to the UK with her family aged four and settled in Catford. (“Ray” takes the last part of her surname while “BLK” stands for “Building, Living, Knowing”.)
Like many first- and second-generation West African children, BLK’s upbringing was built around Sunday church services and African hall parties (lively birthday, funeral and wedding celebrations at community centres, where tables groan under the weight of jollof rice and guests leave with commemorative key rings, mugs or printed handkerchiefs).
At home, she heard gospel music and the holy trinity of divas Mary J Blige, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. But it was the sound of US female rappers that left a lasting impression.
“I was obsessed with Lil’ Kim, Eve, Missy Elliott and Da Brat. I loved their confidence and swagger. Reciting lyrics like, ‘I’m a boss, I’m a bad bitch, I get money’ were almost like affirmations,” she says.
“I wrote raps in my school notebook aged six. Proper bad ones about whatever boy I wanted to kiss at the water fountain.”
Grime was riding out its first wave when BLK reached secondary school. Aged 13, she formed a group called New Found Content with her childhood friend MNEK, who went on to write and produce for artists including Beyoncé, Dua Lipa and Little Mix.
She made a musical U-turn after being scouted to become the lead singer in a (short-lived) all-black female rock band. “I was 16 and just desperate to sing,” she cracks up. “We performed in bars in front of older white men who definitely didn’t want to see young black girls singing rock music. But it taught me about stage performance and how to win over a crowd.”
When BLK was 16, she auditioned for ITV’s The X Factor. Last year, she described the programme as “so toxic. They’ve damaged and broken a lot of contestants”. In a recent interview, BLK explained how she believed that the talent show, which was axed this year, sought to exploit her family life to create a “sob story” for viewers.
She claimed that producers wanted her to bring her brother, who has autism, to her audition. BLK didn’t make it to the judges’ houses stage of the competition – something she says she remains “so, so glad” about today.
“That show was so exposing. You’re on a massive platform, people get to know you and if it doesn’t work out, you’re done,” she says. “I’m glad I got to find myself as an artist. But at the time, oh my gosh, I didn’t leave my room. After two days my mum came in and said [BLK adopts a Nigerian accent]: ‘OK, OK it’s enough.’” We performed in bars in front of older white men who definitely didn’t want to see young black girls singing rock music