In the last few months, grime and R&B songstress Ray BLK has been making headlines for her pulsating beats, sweet caramel voice, and most of all, her boldly candid lyrics. The Nigerian born, UK-raised singer was recently named the winner of the BBC Sound of 2017, a list that is dominated by #BlackGirlMagic this year and a title previously held by artists like Adele and Sam Smith. Unlike her predecessors, Ray BLK is not yet signed to a major label, but that hasn’t stopped her from grinding and releasing music on her own terms.
The 23-year-old first caught the eye of listeners with her single “My Hood” featuring hip-hop artist Stormzy, an ode to her South London hometown of Catford. Yet the song is not just about how much she loves where she grew up; on the contrary, it follows the struggle of a woman coming to terms with the gritty setting of her childhood, a place she knows has serious downfalls but she can’t help feeling connected to it. She analyzes both its drawbacks and its assets. It’s her home, after all. “I was robbed around the time I wrote it and I honestly just wanted to leave,” she explained to BBC News. “I was like, ‘I’m getting robbed. My neighbours sell drugs out of their house. It’s not where I need to be.’” Still, she realizes now, coming from a working-class neighborhood instilled a relentless drive in her to hustle and hustle hard in order to move forward.
She was not brought up in a musical household, but discovered her passion for the art at an early age listening to everything from Mariah Carey to Michael Jackson to Missy Elliott. She began experimenting with songwriting and performing in a group with childhood friend MNEK during their preteen years, and knew right away that she was going to do whatever it took to become a musician later in life. In fact, hustling hard might be an understatement; the singer crafted her first EP, Havisham, at the same time that she was working on her college thesis in 2015. Both projects focused on literature, which was her area of study while in school. The EP was a direct reference to the character in a Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, where Ray expressed her feelings of resentment for love after being hurt one too many times.
Since then, telling it like it is has been a recurring theme in her lyrics, something that has come as somewhat of a shock to those expecting a softer, toned-down sweetness from a woman in the industry. “The reason that it’s surprising when a woman sings about particular things is because people still expect women to be quieter, to be meek and to not accept their sexuality,” the artist told SBTV, a British music and culture website. Not one to be bothered by these kinds of assumptions, she continues to bring a strong message of feminism and liberation with her music.
On her mini album “Durt,” the song “Chill Out” stands out for two specific reasons. Number one, the song itself is about Ray explaining to a guy that what’s between them is nothing more than a late-night fling and to get over his expectations for a relationship, a story that’s usually only told from the male perspective. Number two, the incredibly powerful music video features the Gully Queens, a group of Jamaican trans women who have been rejected and assaulted by their incredibly homophobic Kingston community but refuse to stop fighting for the right to be themselves. “Meeting the Gully Queens was such an incredible experience. It put a lot into perspective because every day of their lives is a struggle and a battle to stay alive – yet they were so happy, so full of life… ‘Chill Out,’ for me, was about female empowerment and not letting society tell you how to act. I felt like the video completed that, really, because it was about empowering these females to be who they want to be as well,” Ray stated in her interview with BBC News, adding that she is working on allocating funds to grant the women access to housing.
And just when I thought she couldn’t get any cooler, I listened to her most recent single released January 6th , “Justice (Patience),” a critique of the race to fame in the music industry. In the second verse, she breaks out into a flawless rap about the dangers of getting greedy early on and asserts that she’s okay taking her time as long as she’s making good music. After all, that’s where the BLK in her name comes from. As she said to BBC News, “Building: For your future and working hard. Living: Because I believe you have to live your life to the fullest. And knowing: Because I think education is really important. We should keep trying to learn for the whole of our lifetime.” Yas queen! Whenever her first full-length album is released, it is sure to be packed with raw talent and energy. Ray BLK may be relatively new on the scene, but I have a feeling she’ll be running it for a long time to come.