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Raye is a new breed of pop star lighting up the charts with her R&B-infused pop and using her platform to champion positive changes for equality in the music biz.
You don’t always need an Unsullied Army and trio of dragons to blaze your own path. For London-based musician Raye, it’s been a heavy dose of female empowerment (see the lyrics to “Friends”: “Why is it if I’m not a boy I’m an enemy? / This damn mentality is killin’ me”) and a fiery flow that has helped light her way to the top of the charts. It may also help that she’s a Game of Thrones fanatic whose debut 2014 EP was titled Welcome to Winter—a name fit for Wildlings and royalty.
It would be a disservice to pin the Ghanaian-English singer’s rise through the charts to a fantasy television show, though. For years, Raye (government name Rachel Keen) has navigated the male-dominated world of music production, positioning herself as a voice for all the single ladies and bad bitches alike. Seriously, listen to “You Don’t Know Me” and try not to mouth ‘yaaas’ as she sings: “Time is money, so don’t fuck with mine”.
Collaborating with everyone from Charli XCX and Skepta to Jax Jones and Jonas Blue, the 21-year-old R&B songstress has come a long way from her roots singing gospel in the Church choir and her home life surrounded by a family of musicians. But the magic of Raye’s soulful rise isn’t just within her ability to write, produce, and sing her way through the charts—she’s also become one of England’s most vocal supporters of women within the industry.
We caught up with Raye as she wrapped up an all-female music camp held on International Women’s Day, readys new releases music for 2019 and prepares to launch the new Delphiville sneaker from iconic lifestyle brand Timberland.
You just did “She Makes Beats,” an all-female writing camp for International Women’s Day. How did that come together?
That was so fun! I got as many female producers as I could find and believe it or not, there really aren’t that many. I got loads of female writers down and artists and I rented out the studio space [at The Church Studios]. I just wanted to create a safe environment for women to come and create.
I’ve been working in this industry for a long time now—not just as an artist but as a writer. Being in studios since I was maybe 16 years old, you see only men. It’s always a man at the front sitting at the desk when you walk in. It’s immediately such a power play. I just need to see more women. I want it to feel like its balanced. We’re all capable of doing it, it’s just learning the technicalities.
It can be really overwhelming sometimes. I’m very confident and very determined but I can imagine for those people who don’t necessarily have that self-confidence or balls, it can be really intimidating.
So much of your message is about supporting other women. Why do you think that’s still so rare in the music industry?
I think it’s very hard to do because we’re bred to compete against each other. It’s completely unnecessary and really wrong. I got caught up in that whole thing when I was younger, which is why I’m doing the opposite now. I’m putting myself out there for women and wanting to be there for women because you have to be the change that you want to see.
I started working with Charli XCX when I was 17 and she completely flipped my perspective on putting yourself out there for women, she really inspired me. She directed one of my first music videos and she was so lovely. I just was like, okay, this is how I need to be. I need to be out there, I need to be putting myself out there for women like she has for me.
When you were talking about being caught up in that system earlier in your life, were you talking about when you were at the BRIT School?
Yeah, the BRIT was a very competitive environment. I had an amazing time there but I also had a difficult time there. You chuck a bunch of hungry, hormonal 14-year-olds in a class together and you’re meeting for the first time. Everyone in the room is looking at future stars and trying to suss everyone out. I was always very loud and unafraid to do whatever I needed to do to put myself out there but it was definitely very competitive. It’s a tough industry. Some people are lovely, some people are really kind, some people want you to win and some people don’t.
At least you got to blow off all that pressure at house parties and that’s how you came up with your first single, “Hotbox” right?
[Laughs] Yeah, BRIT parties—they were fun for sure.
How do you let off steam now? Do you still go to house parties?
I love a nice dinner so I’ll occasionally go out for dinner with a friend to catch up. I haven’t been to house parties in ages. I’m kind of over that. I’ll get it out of my system maybe once every two weeks. You need it a bit.
I go out sometimes but I’m mostly a granny and stay in now.
[Laughs] I love that you used the word granny because I was literally going to use that as a term but I was like… I don’t know if I can say that. I’m a granny every day.
What’s the most Scorpio thing you’ve ever done?
[Laughs] I’ve made best friends with my ex’s new girlfriend without him knowing about it. Yeah… I’m such a Scorpio.
I think that’s the top of the Scorpio trait list. How has the Brexit situation affected the music industry from what you’ve seen?
You just feel a bad vibe. The separation of a country from something it’s been a part of for so long is going to have massive crippling effects. You feel it in the increase of hate crimes, discrimination and all of that bullshit, you know?
"Confidence" by Raye
Have you faced any discrimination because of your Ghanaian roots?
Every person experiences a little bit of something in their lives, but the most extreme [discrimination] I’ve ever felt is not fitting in at school. It was a really white primary school. I always wanted to have straight blonde hair and blue eyes—I felt very unattractive because I didn’t have those attributes. But then you grow older and you learn to love the way you look.
Tell me about your family history with music. I know both your parents and your grandfather were also musicians.
They weren’t professionally in music and they weren’t making any money off music but they were in love with music. My dad moved down to London from up north in Yorkshire to be part of a band and they made music for a couple of years and gigged for a couple years but they didn’t sell any records or anything like that. They didn’t sign a deal—it was just for fun.
We grew up with music all around us. My dad plays keys and taught me to play. My sisters all sing, they’re so talented, I have no doubt they’re going to be doing projects in the near future too. It’s really exciting.
How many siblings do you have?
There’s four of us. All girls. I’ve got three little sisters. They’re all so beautiful and talented and I’m just so in love with them.
You could start a girl group!
I know, I know. We could at one point. It’s not a bad idea. Maybe in the future, once they’ve grown up.
The next Destiny’s Child.
[Laughs] That would be amazing actually.
When you were growing up, what kind of music was flowing through your house?
I was listening to a lot of different stuff. I really dug into old school R&B like James Brown and Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. Really incredible powerhouse singers that I fell in love with. I listened to a lot of Alicia Keys. She was my first album I ever bought—The Diary of Alicia Keys.
I bought that one too! I made my grandparents take me to go buy it.
That’s so amazing. I bought it with my dad in Asda. I remember that day. She is amazing. From there, once I went to the BRIT, I started listening to everything under the sun. I even went through a punk phase where I wore black every day [laughs].
What music were you listening to in your punk phase?
I was listening to a mixture of Judas Priest and AC/DC, but then I was listening to Bombay Bicycle Club and The Doors. Then I went through a massive Tame Impala phase. All alternative, incredible music.
"Cigarette" by Raye
You’ve already worked with everyone from Charli XCX and Jonas Blue to Stormzy. Who’s been your favourite person to work with?
I’ve been writing for one of my friends called Normani who’s absolutely killing it right now. She used to be part of Fifth Harmony and she’s gone solo. I’m helping her write her album. That’s really fun because I’m writing with somebody that I love to pieces and I really believe in her. There’s almost no dark skinned lead female solo singers out there so it’s a really big moment for black women.
Do you have a dream collaborator you haven’t worked with yet?
You know what, I would absolutely love to work with Quincy Jones but I don’t know if that will ever happen.
You grew up around Church music, have you ever thought about incorporating gospel into your music or making a gospel album?
I have definitely thought about it. There are no limitations once you achieve a certain status, once you’re up there. I might just do this for my musical satisfaction. Gospel is inspiring pop music so much now anyway with Bruno Mars—especially using the Church chords in his songs. It has that style. It’s something that I could definitely incorporate into my music.
Growing up in the Church, more than anything, it’s about really beautiful soulful vocals. It’s why I like to sing. Even when I’m singing these pop tunes and that, little bits of what I learned from Church definitely comes across.
What music have you been into lately?
I have been listening to Dionne Warwick. She’s incredible and she did this song
called “Walk On By.” It’s so beautiful. It’s a classic. I’ve been listening to this very talented new artist called Koffee and Selena—but not Gomez. The old school Selena.
The classic Selena.
Yeah, she’s incredible. People keep walking up to me in the street being like, you look like Selena.
I could see it. Besides singing, what are some of your hobbies? If you have time for hobbies right now.
I don’t really know what I do apart from music, it’s all just so music based. I can’t go more than two days realistically without creating something because I go insane. Even when I try and go on holiday, two days in, I’ll be squirming. That’s why I bring my set up with me now.
Do you ever have just a Netflix binge watching night?
Oh yeah! I’m balls-deep into Homeland right now. I never heard about this thing before. Have you watched it?
I’ve heard about it. I want to watch it. I’m trying to catch up on Game of Thrones right now.
Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. I just re-watched the last season recently, preparing for the new season. I’m so excited.
I’m on season six right now so no spoilers.
I’m so excited for you. I love Game of Thrones.
Who’s your favorite character right now?
I mean I love obviously Daenerys, so does everyone. I really love Cersei as well because she’s just such a boss. She’s a psycho but she’s such a boss. You’re on season six, yeah? I’m not going to say anything.
I feel like Cersei might be a Scorpio.
Yeah, she would be. Definitely. I think you’re right.
…or maybe a Leo.
She’s quite brutal. I think a Leo [laughs]. Leos are savage. That’s so funny you say that, I dated a Leo and it did not go well at all.