Meet Ray BLK, Britain's Rising Star Making Feminist R&B Anthems Rita Ekwere, also known as Ray BLK, is the first unsigned artist to win the BBC Sound Of poll. She tells NPR's Lakshmi Singh why it's important for her to highlight social justice issues in her music.
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Meet Ray BLK, Britain's Rising Star Making Feminist R&B Anthems

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Meet Ray BLK, Britain's Rising Star Making Feminist R&B Anthems

Meet Ray BLK, Britain's Rising Star Making Feminist R&B Anthems

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And finally today, we'll journey into the soulful world of Rita Ekwere, aka Ray BLK.


RAY BLK: (Singing) Oh, yeah, I told you I was trouble when we first met. But I guess you never got the message.

SINGH: She won the BBC's Sound of 2017, making her the first unsigned artist to be recognized by music insiders and critics as the most promising new artist, an honor previously bestowed on Adele, 50 Cent and Sam Smith.


RAY BLK: (Singing) 'Cause I only want you when I'm lonely, on a late night, on a Friday, with some high-grade.

SINGH: After releasing an EP in 2015 and a mini-album in 2016, Ray BLK is getting ready to release her first full-length record as a signed artist. It's called "Empress" and comes out next month.

BLK's latest single is "Run Run," a song that she says is based on experiences she had growing up in south London.

RAY BLK: One being when my house was robbed and the other being at a party at 14 and seeing somebody pull a gun out.


RAY BLK: (Singing) 1 a.m. and the scuffle begins. He sees his friends with some paigon yutes (ph). He steps outside, time to decide if the shots he's about to get you. Run, run for your freedom. Better run, run. You don't want to see the kingdom. Run, run.

I fortunately never experienced youth violence or police brutality. But I was writing from my view after the experiences that I had had. But I think after making it and listening to it, and then when it came to making the video, it just meant so much to me to discuss these topics even harder in video form. And so for those who haven't seen the video, it follows a young boy who kind of, in a day, he's running away from people who are after him, but he - there's no way out, so he goes to a fire exit. He can't get out. Everywhere he goes, every corner he turns, there's either violence or there's sadness. So he runs into someone burying their child. And there's a guy chasing after him with a knife. I wanted to depict what it's like as a young black man being raised in some of the parts of London that these crimes are happening.


RAY BLK: (Singing) Run, run for your freedom. Better run, run. You don't want to see the kingdom. Run, run if you want to see the sun. We don't want to lose another one. Run, run...

SINGH: Tell me about where you grew up. What was your family like?

RAY BLK: I was born in Nigeria, and I came to London at 4 years old. And I have quite a small immediate family here, a big family in Nigeria. I grew up in quite a conservative home, I would say. My mom was quite strict, and it was just about, like, you go to school and you come home and study and we'd go to church on Sundays and Fridays. And I think we were brought up that way to not get in any trouble because there was so much trouble where I was from. So if, you know, you're not locked down at home, you're probably making trouble outside on the streets.

And so my mom just kind of sheltered us from all of that, whereas, you know, other people around me where I was from were, you know, like, going to a lot of parties that maybe they shouldn't have been at at quite a young age. And these are the surroundings where people are pulling out guns and where people are taking and selling drugs. So I understood why she didn't want me to go to those places.


RAY BLK: (Singing) You should come to my hood, my hood, my hood. Barely anyone in school after 15. We're chasing paper, then Blue Borough should be green. I won't lie, finding a way out is our dream. But you should come to my hood, my hood, my hood.

SINGH: You said that Amy Winehouse's song "Stronger Than Me" made you think differently about lyrics. How so?

RAY BLK: Just because I had never really heard a woman speak like that in her music. It's so rare to hear a woman be so confident.


AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Why'd you always put me in control? All I need is for my man to live up to his role. Always want to talk it through. I'm OK. Always have to comfort you every day.

RAY BLK: What I loved about that song, even though I was quite young when I heard it and not experiencing the things she was talking about, is how she owned her sexuality and how she made it about her choice. A lot of songs I had been hearing at that age was about, you know, being the damsel in distress and you're waiting for a guy to save you and, you know, looking for love and he's not loving you right.

But in this song, she was being confident and bold enough to say I'm not sure if you're good enough for me. I'm not waiting around for you. And it just kind of flipped the ideals on its head. And I loved that so much, and it empowered me to feel like when I write songs, I can be just as confident and I can be just as brash and I can say how I feel without being worried of being judged for being too confident in my sexuality.

SINGH: And basically, doing me - bad segue. Let's listen.

RAY BLK: (Laughter).


RAY BLK: (Singing) Sometimes I wear my hair down to my back or I cut a bob and do it into single plaits. And if it's the summertime, maybe do a weave. Always change my style depending where my head is at. Sometimes I wear my V-neck real low. If I'm feeling sexy, then expect some skin'll show. Maybe wear a turtleneck if I'm feeling cold. My dressing is expression, so don't judge me by my clothes.

That song was such a tongue-in-cheek song when I wrote it. But you know what's funny is that a lot of people, when that song came out, felt like it was me purposefully putting out this feminist anthem and political message.

SINGH: Well, yeah (laughter).

RAY BLK: But when I wrote it, I didn't write it with that intention. I've always felt like I can be myself and I should be myself and I should be confident in that. So if I want to wear something that's risque, I should and I shouldn't be name-called for that and it doesn't excuse any man who is harassing me as well because I've decided to dress how I want to. And a lot of it also came from experiencing those things as well. So one of the churches I went to when I was younger - we weren't allowed to have colors in our hair.


RAY BLK: You had to have, like, black hair, your natural hair color. You couldn't wear earrings. Ladies weren't allowed to wear trousers. You had to wear long skirts that stopped at the ankles. And my mom, who is a strong believer, she broke all of those rules. She had - she dyed her hair bright blonde, wore big earrings, wore makeup, wore trousers. And everybody just used to look at her, like, give her the side eye because of it. And I used to do the same things as well (laughter). And she - my mom always empowered me to, like, be yourself. It doesn't mean - it doesn't make you any less of a Christian or any less of a woman if you want to wear something that makes you feel good. So that's just how I've been brought up.


RAY BLK: (Singing) A short skirt doesn't mean that I want it. My appearance doesn't represent my wallet. This is for the ignorant ones with opinions. Keep your two cents inside your pockets. I'm just doing me.

SINGH: You've described your upcoming album as a feminist album. And I'm wondering about the timing of all of it. Why do you think now is the time for this message?

RAY BLK: So when I started making this project, I was just in a space where I reached a peak of self-acceptance and self-love. And I wanted to share that with people, I think, in a time where, right now, there's a lot of, you know, media telling women not to love themselves, whether that's with advertisement or whether that's with Instagram. There's a lot pulling women down and making them feel not good enough. And I just wanted to uplift people. And with the #MeToo movement and with a lot of statements that have been said by the president, I think it's more important for women to speak up and to stand together because there's power in numbers. And I think that is - one of the things I've taken from the #MeToo movement is how when people stick together, when people stand together, it's way more powerful than one person because one person can be silenced. But I think it's important for everyone to use their voice to speak up about, you know, feminist issues, racial issues, so that we can make a difference and give people the confidence as well to tell their truths.


RAY BLK: (Singing) I knew this girl Keisha back when I was in school - curly hair, fair skin. She was beautiful.

SINGH: I was speaking with Ray BLK. Her debut album, "Empress," comes out next month.

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