When Ray BLK was named the winner of the BBC’s Sound of 2017 Poll in January last year, she was the first ever musician without a record deal to top the reliable list of future stars that had previously included Adele, Sam Smith and Ellie Goulding. There was plenty of buzz on which the Catford R&B singer, now 25, could have capitalised.
Instead, she released a low-key single called Patience. “They’re running just to get in first place/I’m walking, going at my own pace,” she sang. “Be on your grind and take your time/Pay no mind to the dollar sign.” She toured as Emeli Sande’s support act and performed at numerous festivals, but when it came to new music, things were pretty quiet.
“Patience was my statement on what was going to happen next,” she says now. “I’m not going to follow your stupid rules. I’m going to earn my stripes. Hype with nothing to show for it will die down. I don’t want that for myself.”
It took her another year to sign a record deal, with Island, home of Drake and this year’s Sound Poll winner, Sigrid. “It was always my plan to sign at the right time, with the right people, and for the right money!” she laughs. Then last month she released the first song of this new chapter, and it wasn’t one for the pop charts.
Run Run is about youth crime and violence. The shocking video, directed by Tom Green, shows a young black man running from another with a knife, climbing a concrete staircase littered with bloody bodies and eventually being deposited, Hunger Games style, in a stark urban landscape with a number painted on his chest. “Run run, if you wanna see the sun/We don’t wanna lose another one,” she sings.
“He has a number on his chest in that scene because to a lot of people who are watching the news and seeing the figures on knife crime, it is just another number,” she explains. “We’re desensitized to it, even people from where I’m from.”
We meet in an unused classroom in an academy school in Vauxhall, one of a handful that BLK, real name Rita Ekwere, has been visiting this month to give talks to GCSE students about how she made it in music. She calls them the “Just a Kid Sessions” because one of her forthcoming songs, Just a Kid, is about being labelled negatively by authority figures at a time when you’re still finding out who you really are. One teacher nicknamed her “Trouble” when she was at school in Lewisham, because of her fondness for arguments.
“She didn’t understand me and didn’t try to either,” she tells me. “Being in school is a weird time in your life. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. I felt it was important to tell them they can do anything, no matter where you’re from. I’m from a council house background and a single parent home. Don’t look at your situation and think that’s your tomorrow.”
She’s been shocked at how unshockable these teenagers are, describing one girl who, when asked for an example of something she had done that made her feel proud, talked about seeing someone get stabbed, keeping pressure on his wound and helping to keep him alive while waiting for an ambulance. “None of the kids gasped. She seemed very calm about it. This is their reality.”
At the Vauxhall school, she’s joined by two men of Nigerian backgrounds like hers: Not3s, the rapper behind the platinum hit single My Lover, and music executive Alex Boateng, President of Island Records’ UK Urban Division. A teacher does a great job of keeping the audience of excitable Year 11s quiet and respectful, until BLK asks if they want to come down to the front for a selfie and incites bedlam. She has a better education than her fellow panel members, thanks to her degree in English Literature from Brunel University, but all three are excellent examples of the possibility of a career in music even if you’re from a less salubrious part of London.
“The main purpose of the school visits is just to uplift them,” she says afterwards. “With Run Run, the ultimate message is not to become a product of your surroundings. It is hard, but you can escape. Being trapped on an estate, where there are gangs, isn’t it for you. There is more out there in the world.”
The students all go home with a pencil case, notebook and a pencil that says “I need the best” – a key line from her latest single, an anthem for female empowerment entitled Empress – along the side. BLK’s mother, who came over from Lagos when the singer was four and worked as a nurse while raising her, her older sister and older brother, instilled in her the self-belief that she could succeed at anything if she worked hard enough. “Education is a huge part of Nigerian culture,” she says. “Where I’m from you can be a billionaire, but if you don’t have a degree, you’re nobody.” Even so, initially it was still hard for her to picture herself in the music world.
“I’d wanted to be in music from the get-go, but being from where I’m from, I didn’t really know it was possible. I thought I’d probably just sing in the choir at church.” It was when her schoolfriend Uzo Emenike signed a record deal as a teenager that a life in music began to feel more graspable. He released his debut album as MNEK this month. She put a few songs on Soundcloud in 2015 and had record companies knocking on her door soon afterwards.
Surprisingly, it sounds as though the Sound Poll victory shook her confidence a little. “I was experiencing a lot of pressure. I went from being a really confident performer, to being someone who had crippling nerves before I went on stage because I felt like there was this huge expectation,” she explains. “People weren’t coming just to see me, they were coming to see why this person won Sound of 2017. But then I realised I wasn’t playing these shows because of hype. People were singing along to every word because they loved the songs. I got that self-belief back.” Now she’s spreading it around, offering mini confidence boosts every time one of the students she has visited picks up a branded pencil.
She can be found supporting Rudimental on a tour of huge venues soon, although her next hometown headline show, originally scheduled for next week, has been pushed back to March. Her next collection of songs (which she calls a “project” rather than her long awaited debut album) has also been delayed til later this year while she adds finishing touches. Even though peers such as Stormzy, who appeared on her early single My Hood, and Jorja Smith, who finished behind her in the Sound of 2017 Poll, may have leapt ahead to release hit albums and get bigger awards, I don’t doubt that she’ll do greater things when she’s good and ready. She’s playing the long game, and one day, she’ll win it.
Ray BLK supports Rudimental Oct 26-27, Alexandra Palace, N22. alexandrapalace.com and headlines March 28, O2 Forum Kentish Town, NW5. o2forumkentishtown.co.uk