Brit R&B powerhouse Ray BLK serves the royal tea on self-love, uplifting women and her empowered debut full-length project.
This is the refrain from “Empress”, the title-track on the latest release from Rita Ekwere—best known as South London artist Ray BLK (pronounced ‘black’, it stands for ‘Building, Living, Knowing’). It’s the day of the Notion photoshoot, which happens to coincide with release day for BLK’s new, full-length project, Empress. Accordingly when I arrive the celebratory Prosecco is flowing and the early 2000s R&B is blaring, all while BLK poses for the camera, every bit as regal and poised as a portrait painting of some olden-days aristocracy (or, given the project’s title, possibly “royalty” is the better descriptor here).
But, in the midst of the Mary J. tunes, the crew are putting on tracks from Empress too, singing along joyously with their eyes closed—and it’s that above refrain that really sticks out, with its theme of self-love and women knowing their own worth. It’s not only a narrative that is central to the shape of Empress, but also something that encapsulates exactly where BLK is in her life right now.
For the uninitiated, Ray BLK was the first unsigned artist to win the BBC’s prestigious Sound Of poll in 2017, following an acclaimed debut EP, Durt, and subsequent nomination at the 2016 MOBO awards for Best Newcomer. Born in Nigeria and raised by a single mother in Catford, South London, BLK studied English at university before getting a graduate job in corporate PR, developing her music on the side.
“I was living this weird double-life”, she laughs now, as she describes rehearsals and studio time every evening and bigger and bigger gigs every weekend. It wasn’t surprising when she did breakthrough with her artful blend of soul, rap and classic R&B that’s striking, assured, and full of insightful, kitchen-sink realness. The latter of these descriptors has, in turn, found her often considered as a “conscious” artist.
“I feel like people look at me as the artist you go to for knowledge and serious stuff—the person who you put on a panel”, she says, finally sipping on her own glass of prosecco now that the long day of photos is done, “Which happily I will do, because I am someone who is thoughtful and all of those things—but I also just like to enjoy my life! I’m a regular degular girl, like I’m the first person on the dance floor, I’m like a cock up yuh batty batty riders carnival queen.”
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It makes sense that BLK would be reticent about the implications of uptightness that being touted a “conscious artist” might suggest, but her work makes it easy to see where that label has come from. Take the track “Run Run”, which dropped earlier this year along with a deeply harrowing video (and an equally striking Guardian interview, in which she spoke about her own experiences growing-up, like the time aged 14 at a party where BLK saw a gun for the first time, the first in a series of events that led to her subsequent desensitisation to being around violence). She had in fact written the song back in 2016, before the knife crime levels hit unprecedented numbers in the UK. Suffice to say, a video with a young black boy running through his estate trying to avoid those with means to attack him, all while taking in his bloodied, dead peers, feels more horribly poignant than ever in 2018.
We start to talk about Arinzé Kene’s excellent play Misty, which it transpires we’ve both seen recently. In the production, one of the major themes finds the protagonist struggling with concerns about creating art that might commodify black trauma into something for the consumption and entertainment of a white audience. I wonder aloud if this is ever something she worried about when putting out “Run Run”.
“I’ve always hoped and believed the people who listen to Ray BLK know me, and know that I’m not glamourising or showing black struggles in a certain light to entertain white people”, she says, thoughtfully, “One of the main reasons I’m proud of “Run Run” is that I showed the issues of those from underprivileged backgrounds to people who are privileged, and who maybe wouldn’t understand that world. It showed them what it’s like—a day in the life, rather than, ‘Look! How sad! Look how disadvantaged we are!’.”
This has been the year where both the British media and government sought to demonise UK drill music (a rap genre renowned for its especially nihilistic lyrics), banning artists from YouTube and blaming the genre—and, in doing so, blaming black culture on a wider scale—for said rise in youth violence. With that in mind, “Run Run”’s message is especially vital—a balm, of sorts, for this very toxic wound.
BLK agrees, explaining, “In the same way that the media has shown the ‘dark side’ of black music or black culture or whatever, for me it was about showing how when you come from a place like where I come from, this is how you live: these are your options. It’s to try bring some empathy, because if you don’t associate with people from that background you won’t understand it. Then, on the other hand, it shows the struggle that so many young men where I’m from are going through, and showing them that you can break free from this. This is a cycle where you’re in this surrounding, and this is what you’ve been forced to do, or where you’ve been forced to live, but you can try and find a way out.”
To be dealing with these concepts in her artistic output is one thing, but Ray BLK is not one to do things by halves. Lately BLK has been doing school visits (the “Just A Kid” sessions) to try and help bring young people away from those cycles she was speaking about. In fact, she credits inspirational adults like Anne-Marie Imafidon, the first black woman in the UK to work in stem cell research and Tinie Tempah visiting her school as a big part in why she felt it was possible to dream bigger than the disadvantaged area she grew up in—that there was “a big wide world outside this place”
“Being a teenager is such a formative time”, she says now, “You’re looking around you and starting to figure yourself out, what you want to do with your life. And I think in those formative years, that’s when you need to hear certain things, to be told that you can achieve anything you want to and to aim for the stars—talk about mental health, talk about sex, and talk about relationships. It’s important to broaden people’s horizons at that age, because otherwise you might get stuck in your ways.
In terms of being a role model, Ray BLK is only just starting to realise what her presence means, like on social media, where she’s getting more and more messages and tweets from dark-skinned black girls. In an industry which is more often than not systemically racist and misogynistic, and a culture that makes little room for dark-skinned women, her existence means a lot to young black girls who have never seen someone famous who looks like them before.
For BLK, colourism is something she hasn’t personally had to feel too concerned about, “I’ve been really lucky,” BLK says, “I think just because my mum has instilled confidence in me from a really young age, so I’ve never looked at a light-skinned girl and thought, ‘I’m not as beautiful as you’, or that I don’t have a chance with a certain guy because of my shade.”
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It’s not to say she didn’t notice the lack of people who looked like her on-screen and in magazines, though, “As much as it didn’t defeat my confidence, I remember thinking, ‘Where are all the dark-skinned girls?’. And I remember seeing Azealia Banks on TV one day at my boyfriend’s house and being like, ‘Oh my god, who is this?’. I couldn’t stop staring at this dark-skinned girl on the TV, it really resonated with me! So knowing that other people are seeing that and feeling that with me, means a lot.”
Evidently, BLK is an advocate for tackling and discussing the issues that affect young people of colour—she talks, for example, about the need to be more vocal about mental health awareness within certain communities: “It’s about opening that door, because otherwise it will just end up being a similar cycle where, ‘cos your mum told you something like, ‘there’s no such thing as depression, you’re being lazy’, then you’d just tell that to your kids.”
I posit to her that the conversation surrounding it in this country tends to be very white-centric—that, for communities of colour, the issues are different, and often we don’t speak about things because it perhaps still isn’t safe to do so; or that it’s not taken very seriously by our elders; and sometimes, even, that there’s just no obvious, accessible way to cope or seek help.
“Things like having a therapist are accessible to white people, but not as accessible to black people”, BLK agrees, “It’s like, ‘Where do I go? Are my feelings even right, or am I being silly?’. We need to be going to the schools where there are black and brown people, and raise these issues, actually start going into our own communities—be that schools, churches, or mosques, wherever—and just actually infiltrating our areas and making it something that’s open and not taboo, then it will be easier for the next generation.”
Both in her lyrics and in real life, then, it’s clear that BLK is refreshingly candid. I ask if it’s strange for people—both strangers and those who are close to her—to hear her innermost thoughts?
She laughs, “When I’m writing these songs, it doesn’t register to me that people are gonna hear them and what I’m saying isn’t private. But then when we were on holiday, my mum was playing my songs because she’s actually a fan and I was saying to my sister, ‘Oh god, I wish she’d stop doing this, because I’m talking about sex in some of these songs!’, and–”, BLK half-laughs half-winces as she continues, “My mum comes into the room, and she goes, ‘There’s nothing that you’re doing that I haven’t done before!’”
On the subject of her mother, I ask about “Mama”, the beautiful, emotive track that recounts her upbringing. The sweet video for for the track finds her arm-in-arm with her mother, singing-along together in the church (incidentally, BLK was raised as a Christian and, after a few years questioning her faith, now finds great peace in her relationship with God).
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“When I made “Mama” I was in Bali on a writing camp with this amazing producer, Oak, and I was just so gassed to be working with him”, she explains, “In my head I was wanting to write a club song, an instant hit, but when I got into the room with him, I just got really retrospective thinking like, ‘Wow, I’m in Bali with this incredible producer’. I had always hoped I would be doing this, but actually fulfilling your dreams is quite surreal. And I just remembered how my mum would take me to auditions all the time, and take me to the studio. So when Oak was like, ‘What do you want to write about today?’ I just said, ‘I want to write about my mum’.”
And so it is that we circle back to the overarching themes of Empress: self-love, and empowered women. I ask if making this project was a conscious reaction to growing-up with tracks like “Cater 2 U”, with its messages about bending over backwards for a man, and if there were any artists who gave her the feeling she’s trying to emulate now?
She starts laughing. “Funnily enough, Destiny’s Child did that for me.”
I concede that “Independent Women” (both parts, obviously) were the antithesis of “Cater 2 U”, but still think the messaging was more than a little confusing.
“I mean, they definitely did both”, BLK agrees with a smile, “I actually think what I loved about them and Beyoncé when I was growing up, was that they did both. So Destiny’s Child would go from “Bugaboo” to “Cater 2 U”—same thing with Beyoncé, talking about being a diva, being a boss, to making a song like, “1+1”. For me, feminism is not about man-bashing, it’s literally about having equality, having the same rights and the same opportunities as a man. Just because I am a feminist and campaigning for equality, and trying to uplift women because they don’t get uplifted enough, that doesn’t mean I can’t uplift a man. You can be in love with someone and say they make you weak, you don’t always have to be this tough cookie.”
In the era of Moses Sumney’s Aromanticism, and—in more mainstream circles—Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” and K-pop behemoths BTS putting out a trilogy of albums around the journey of loving yourself, it feels like pop is becoming more aware of its past pitfalls, moving away from this idea of codependency as the sole source of happiness. What Ray BLK has done with Empress then, is to move that conversation on some more—acknowledging that loving someone else is a beautiful thing too, but that it gains so much more worth when you are aware of, well, your own worth. Be it in realising you are more than your surroundings, in looking after your mental health, or in bigging-up the beauty of your skin-tone—Ray BLK wants you to value yourself, so that no one else treats you as anything less than the things you deserve.
“The day that I recorded “Empress”, the song, I had just come out of a bad relationship”, she explains, “And I took responsibility for allowing someone to treat me like that. At that time I was speaking to a bunch of my girlfriends about what was going on with them and guys, and we were all in the same place. Like, why were we all allowing shit guys into our lives? Why were we all accepting this mad behaviour?! And I felt like it was because I wasn’t loving myself and I didn’t really see my worth, and I had become so used to expecting and accepting bullshit—whereas I should have been like, ‘I am way out of your league!’.”
Our time is coming to an end and I ask BLK if, in this vein, there’s anything else she wants to add?
“I want people to know that self-love and self-acceptance is a constant struggle”, she replies, “There’s not a switch that you can press and be like, ‘okay, I love myself!’—you have to constantly look in the mirror, or empower yourself, or listen to songs, or speak to your friends—do the things that will uplift you.”