“This is my story - done my way. It’s about seeing yourself, knowing what you deserve and it’s for girls to wake up and see themselves as empresses.”
Ray BLK, real name, Rita Ekwere, is telling her story on her own terms. The 24-year-old South Londoner grew up in Catford/Lewisham via Lagos where she lived until she was four, and is discussing how her view of the world was always going to be shared, one way or another. “I have strong visions” she giggles. “I know I’ve got that black girl magic inside me, and you can hear it now”.
Her early memories of home away from home created visual notes of an imaginary homeland and speaking about leaving Nigeria she says, “I don’t have any clear memories, just some visual flashbacks from the house I was born in but besides that I don’t have much recollection. But I’ve always felt incredibly connected to my culture because I’ve been raised as a Nigerian girl in my house”.
The house she grew up in was soundtracked by gospel music, predominantly - Kirk Franklin, Fred Holland, and Cece Winans, alongside the occasional Mary J Blige “blasted” by her mum. (“It was a Christian home with Christian music but the power of Mary’s vocal range made the cut!). Ray was inspired by the vocals - and her fascination and desire to sing was supported by her local Pentecostal church which she would attend every Sunday. She’s laughing at the musical education it gave her.
“I joined the adult choir when I was around 10” she recalls, “and started singing there every Sunday and every Friday evening doing service. That’s where I learned how to sing because I never got professional singing lessons I was kind of just listening to Mariah Carey and Mary J Blige and my mum’s Whitney CDs and just copying them. Then I was in the choir where they taught me about harmonies and vocal arrangement and projecting.”
She cites Nigerian gospel song “Igwe” as being one her favourite songs to sing then - and now - and that church for her, was as much about dance as it was about the singing. In school, she describes being “huddled in a corner with the boys, and someone would be playing a grime beat off of their Nokia phone”. Buoyed by her love of grime beats in the playground of Bromley’s Bones Pastor school from local grime crews Nu Brand Flexx, she decided to start her own schoolyard band called New Found Content, (“terrible, terrible name!”) made up of her and three boys, one of which was artist and schoolmate MNEK. They continued to collaborate together for fun, in and out of school in his dad’s garage.
“It all kind of developed in my bedroom or in the studio at MNEK’s because I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere” she laughs. “As I said, I was raised in a Nigerian household so it was like, ‘you will go to school, you will come home and you will read your book’ and that was about it. So I was never part of club culture.” Instead, she wrote love songs in MNEK’s garage, where she would make “guitar noises with my voice and then write the words and put it all together” with MNEK producing songs. It was all makeshift - as a pop shield microphone they’d use his mums tights.
It was after university where she studied English Literature that Ray decided that she wanted to pursue music full time. She started writing songs from her experiences of love - unlike many of her peers, it wasn’t club culture that ignited her desire for making songs you could dance to, it was heartbreak and girlhood. “I went to clubs sometimes and I’d think, ‘I want to channel that energy’ but I’d never really listen to those sort of songs” she says, “so I just kind of made what I listened to which was more soulful songs and rap songs as opposed to chasing a club banger.”
Instead of the club, she fell in love with the live music circuit, playing small shows in London from open mic nights to showcases where she met local MC Stormzy, (who she’d later appear in the video of Big For Your Boots alongside a line-up of UK black music royalty) and artist Kojey Radical. She released a mixtape called Miss Havisham in 2015 (named after the Dickens book) and would send tracks out “to everyone!” asking to perform at shows. She continued writing, and observing what the creative music community was doing at the time and it was then that she wrote My Hood, an ode to south London which connected enough that it led to nomination in the BBC Sound List - that she won in 2017.
After that things blew up. “Everything was brand new to me like being on TV, being on the news that I’d usually watch in the morning and going to festivals for the first time to perform. It was quite overwhelming. It was all over; Europe, I did an American tour, I went on tour with Emeli Sande, did all the festivals whilst trying to find bits of time in the studio.”
In the background of her success, Ray was in a relationship that she says, set the foundation for this project, Empress. While she was touring, she was also writing, fresh from the thrill of love and the dizzying excitement of learning about herself as an artist and a girl approaching womanhood. Discussing it she says,
“What kind of kicked it off was where I was in life at the time; really quite happy. I was in a bad relationship before and when I was thinking back to it I was really disappointed I let someone treat me the way he did. I kind of made a vow to myself that I was going to choose better and not love myself any less and I got into this relationship which made me really happy at the time and that just influenced the songs. It’s why I wanted to talk about how much people should love themselves and show themselves respect”.
The project, is bursting with love. Aside from the name, which she says, is an ode to black girls glorifying their inner “black girl magic” in an industry that doesn’t always allow for that, the project is an R&B pop thrill. “I want women to see themselves as queens” she says.
The regal power of Empress transmits the message loud and clear. Recorded over two years, it has notes of sensual, upbeat soul thanks to production from Egg White who worked on Adele’s first album, Fraser T Smith, fresh from making Stormzy’s debut and Oak Felder who worked with Demi Lovato and Nicki Minaj, and Mr Hudson who DM’ed her suggesting they get in a studio together.
It’s the injections of lightness and fun pared with rich, bubbling melodies that make this project so thrilling. Relationships still make up are still central to Ray’s music but now they are part of a richer fabric – growth, fun and contagion. Feminine without being saccharine, her deep, brooding tone on Empress carries us through euphoria, heartache and melancholy, allowing her uncompromising joy and vulnerability to take centre stage as she moves between fun and calm reflection.
Her pulsing lead single was written in New York while she was reflecting on her younger years, ‘Run Run’ sees catchy toplines bounce and burst as she invites us into her storytelling about her life as she demands, “You better Run, Run” it’s a powerful declaration. Discussing it, she says, “It’s the story of the first time I ever saw a gun being pulled out at a party when I was 15…the second verse is about when my house actually got robbed and my mum was in it. The beat was going and it just gave me a story and it sounded like a song that a story should be told in. I kind of just contemplating all the things I think and things I know, and I decided to share it. It’s not technical for me, I go with the feeling that the beat gives me. It gave me the feeling of being young again, of having something to say and finally finding a way to say it.” The video is an artistic outpouring of frustration which follows the frantic, torrid run of a young man and Ray, on her knees, pleading: “You better run run/We don’t want to lose another one”. For Ray BLK, the music is authentic, making sense of her life and filing it’s hard edges down to deliver her brand of charisma that you can’t help but sing along to.
On Empress, a slowed-down tongue in cheek run down of past lovers, produced by Simon Aldred, she sings, “I don’t want to settle for less /‘Cos I’m an empress got to big up you chest even if it hurts”. It’s a well-paced lone voice with a guitar accompaniment and she creates space to demand respect while sharing the comedy of past attempts at love. Speaking about it she’s laughing, “I’ve kissed some frogs to get there and I just wanted to write about that really.” On Got my Own, atop thrilling bass claps and pop harmonies you can almost hear the laugh as she tells us that she “don’t need yours/’cos I got my own” .
Empress is a truly cathartic R&B/Soul record that brims with youthful exuberance and wisdom of lived experience. It’s refreshing and slickly produced, with a thrillingly playful relationship with the mainstream.
On Just A Kid, produced by Mr Hudson, she recalls her childhood. “You don’t know about my story” she sings, brimming with rich, warm tones, imploring us not to underestimate her. For Ray, this is a chance to tell her story, and we’re here, listening in as she takes us to heady heights, getting up and dancing, listening closely, desperate to hear more.