Here she is, then, the woman making the official sound of 2017: Ray BLK, a 23-year-old from Catford who came top of the BBC’s annual critics’ poll last Friday and has been trying to fathom what it all means since. “I was so, so shocked but I’m very excited. It’s very humbling, and rewarding too,” she tells me. “Every time people mention the past winners, it blows me away to be honest. These are really hugely successful people, so to say my name alongside theirs… honestly, it just confuses me.”
It’s hard to remember that stars such as Adele, Jessie J, Ellie Goulding and Sam Smith weren’t so well known at the point when they topped the BBC Sound of… list, a generally reliable annual survey meant to identify the success stories of the year to come. Even so, BLK still seems particularly fresh out of the box. She’s the first winner who is still unsigned to a record deal, but says that’s through choice rather than lack of interest. “I do feel like I’m still at an early stage, so I want to keep growing and learn more about myself and what path I want to take,” she says. “The thing with signing a label deal is, people start to mould you. I think it’s important for me to mould myself into my own shape before I get to that point.”
She’s not exactly a DIY success operating out of her south London bedroom, however. She’s had a manager since mid-2015, has a publicist who set up this interview, and speaks at several points about her “team”. But she’s still so new that I embarrass myself right from the off by mispronouncing her stage name. Having only seen it written down, never heard it spoken, I thought it was “Ray B-L-K” because it rhymes, and she has spoken before about it standing for “Building, Living, Knowing”. It’s actually “Ray Black”.
Her real name is Rita Ekwere, the “Ray” being the last part of her surname. Everyone except close friends and family calls her Ray. She still lives with her mother, a former nurse who now cares full time for BLK’s autistic older brother, in Catford. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria but moved to London at the age of four and hasn’t been back, though she hopes to go next Christmas. Her songs are unapologetically English, R&B with a sparse, edgy backdrop and without the obvious nods to US giants of the field such as Lauryn Hill and Mary J Blige. “Full English breakfast at a caff, not a cafe,” she sings on My Hood, an evocative snapshot of her neighbourhood featuring 2am moped races, Morley’s fried chicken and a rude woman in the Caribbean shop. “Buy me any ticket, I don’t wanna go/To a town where there’s no one like me ‘round,” she sings, sounding fond and proud of the place despite having been burgled around the time that she wrote the song.
“It would be really fun to live somewhere with sun and palm trees rather than being in the rain, but I’m very much about having truth in my music,” she says. “I can only write from experience, and my experience is British life.”
Her experience as a modern woman comes to the fore on other songs from her recent mini-album, Durt. Chill Out smacks down a man-friend who’s expecting more than something casual. “I only want you when I’m lonely,” she sings, adding: “I know, it hurts your ego.”
“When I was first told that my music is so frank and explicit, I was genuinely taken by surprise because I didn’t hear any of that. It’s just me singing about how I feel. I write the way I think. The song is about female empowerment. It’s about breaking the rules about how women should behave and what kind of morals we should have. It became apparent to me that we still live in a time where women are still expected to be more meek and quiet and not say particular things. But that’s one of the reasons that people have taken to my music. Maybe they relate to it more.”
She added another striking element to that song by making its video in Jamaica with four “Gully Queens”: transgender women forced into homelessness by constant abuse within their Kingston community. One of them has been shot eight times. “I first saw them in a Vice documentary and was really taken aback. They basically live in a sewer and are attacked on a daily basis, ostracised by their community. I was shocked that this is still happening and thought it needs to be spoken about. These people need our support.” It’s a sad, beautiful film, made on a severe budget.
For she’s still a fair way from the point when the money starts rolling in. When we speak, she’s at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios about to record a live session for MistaJam’s Radio 1 show. She got there by bus. She’s in no rush though, she insists. She had the perfect song ready to put out as soon as her Sound of 2017 status was announced: Patience (Freestyle) is sharply cynical about the workings of the music business and the race for fame: “They’re running just to get in first place/I’m walking, going at my own pace.”
“I’m about not rushing things and taking my time to make the best quality music I can make for me,” she says. “I definitely want to do an album, but I take that very seriously so it won’t be until I feel completely happy about it.”
Despite her clear surprise at suddenly being mentioned in the same breath as Adele, there’s a solid confidence about her that suggests she won’t be all that shocked when truly big things come her way. There’s been an inevitability to all this even when she wasn’t aiming straight for it, doing a year of Law and then English Literature at Brunel University. “Everyone hoped I would pursue something… I don’t know what word to call it, but Medicine, something like that,” she says. “It just didn’t feel like me. Straight after uni I went into corporate PR, which did not suit me at all. I’d always been a creative child, doing drama classes at the weekends, joining every choir. Me becoming a singer was no surprise to anyone in my family.”
She says her mum has been hugely supportive, despite her earlier wishes for her younger daughter to have a more conventional career (BLK’s older sister is a biochemist). “My mother has raised all of us to aim as high as possible and even higher than that, so I’ve always been incredibly ambitious,” she says. “Whether It’s pursuing music, or when I was interested in drama, or at sports day doing the 100 metre hurdles, I was always aiming to win or excel. If there’s a chance of you winning, you should try to win.”
Now she has one musical victory behind her, but she doesn’t seem like the type to sit back and enjoy it. I have a feeling there’ll be many more.
Feb 27, Village Underground, EC2 (020 7422 7505, villageunderground.co.uk). Ray BLK’s Durt mini-album and Patience (Freestyle) single are in download stores and streaming now.