In Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’, perhaps one of the most memorable characters is that of Miss Havisham. A wealthy woman swindled and jilted by her husband-to-be, only to then continue into a manic, depressed obsession, victim to her emotions of heartbreak and embarrassment. Despite her attempts to vicariously avenge her trauma through her adopted daughter, Havisham is eventually redeemed through compassion and remorse. Whilst the parallels of action are not present, those of the initial distressing emotions imposed upon Havisham are indeed vocalised through what was Ray BLK’s first ‘official release’ as it were, a 7-track mixtape from 2015 entitled after the literary character. You won’t find it on Spotify, but what you will find is the story of a young girl mirroring that of Havisham. The difference? Destruction was the symptom of Miss Havisham’s woe, creation is that of Ray BLK’s.
“That poem [by Carol Ann Duffy] was really quite influential, but the story was the main influence for me, mainly, because I felt like it was so relatable to a lot of women, period. A lot of people are scorned. That was my mood at the time so I decided to name my first mixtape that…” Ray Blk explained, as we began to converse on how literature had led her towards her first project. “English literature definitely has influenced the way I write. I’m such a lover of stories and poetry. I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to those things. I used to really enjoy analysis. It influenced the way I write lyrics. When I write a song I always question the lyrics. Does this make sense? What am I communicating? Am I saying things exactly how I want to say them? I write in a story form.” Despite being yet to release a debut album, the following and stature Ray BLK has built is one of substantial presence. Having been the first unsigned artist to win the BBC Sound Of award in 2017, the mid-twenty something emerged from Catford, South East London to great heights, with emotive, pertinent subject-matter in voice and visuals.
Her early influences of literature and inherent musical inclination led Ray to be selected for a ‘Gifted & Talented’ school programme as well as the church choir, exposing her to the creation of music at the tender age of 10 years old, all the while, consciously (and subconsciously) absorbing the musical genius of those playing in her household. “Music was always there.” She begins. “From my first memory of seeing Michael Jackson on the TV, ‘cus my dad was really obsessed with him, and from the second I saw the ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ video, I was like, I wanna do that. I just became so obsessed with music and music videos.” She continued. “I was really influenced by Gospel growing up, I come from a really religious family and I was raised in church. Singing in choir every Wednesday and Sunday at church. Music was always being played in the house. I grew up on Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey. They taught me how to sing. I would listen to their CDs, those two, and Mary J Blige, were like the only secular artists my mom listened to. I would practice the riffs and runs they were doing. Mary J Blige is like my queen. I feel like it was because of seeing my moms’ connection to her music. I had an emotional attachment to it, but not really understanding what she was saying because I was really young. But I kept listening to it and as I grew older, I’m like, ‘ohh i understand’. It’s a feeling attached to it. It’s the same thing with food. The food you grow up with, it just brings a safe space / nice warm feeling when you have that food! That’s how I felt with that music. It’s nostalgic for me.”
“I always had the hope and dream of taking it far, and the belief that I would. When that happened, honestly, I was really shocked. Because I expected it to be a lot slower really.”
Upon completing university, the vision of signing a deal for Ray was one of constant motivation through a torturous 8 months of PR work during the day and studio at night. It’s a time which all creatives experience, torn between mind and soul, some for which it lasts years, others, a matter of months. Such was the case for Ray as she welcomed with open arms a publishing deal soon after. “I finished university and dropped my mixtape the same month. That was my plan. It was my last year of uni and I’m not tryna be at a desk, cus I’ll go mad, I need to finish this mixtape, drop this mixtape, then I was just so sure in my head that this plan was going to work out. I was gonna’ finish uni, then sign a record deal, and that was it…” laughingly. “I really respect people who take that leap to go into a career or field where they’re not making money not knowing what’s going to happen. I personally always knew I couldn’t do that. I like feeling comfortable, buying nice things, going out for dinner… I would love to quit this job and just focus on music but I can’t. I like feeling comfortable and safe financially. Really, I was just waiting to be in a financial position to not be at this job anymore. So getting my publishing deal was honestly such a blessing for me, ‘cus it allowed me to do my art as well without having to also have a record deal. It meant I could actually be in the studio and not be so tired from work all the time. I was just making music full time and made my first music video, a song called 5050. Then things started rolling from there. It was just single after single. It felt like a whirlwind, I was kind of thrusted into this new world and had to pretend that everything made sense and I got what was going on.
As the traction developed, simultaneously the sophistication of Ray’s craft began to refine. “I feel like I’ve developed so much in terms of my sonics and writing. Honestly, I think that comes from just really trying new things and working with new people. I’ve worked with a bunch of different sorts of producers over time. My mixtape was grabbing beats from YouTube. So being in sessions with another person and being part of the development of the beat was a new experience for me, and then just finding out what sound I wanted was a process.”
Somewhat akin to the musical self-discovery, her personal journey from home has also been continuously prevalent throughout Ray’s story. It’s an age-old parable that has seemingly been further unearthed in recent times. A story of righteousness and consciousness. Following the successes she has had as an artist, from the BBC Sound Of award to the forthright musical memoir of her imperfect neighbourhood, turned hit song, “My Hood” featuring Stormzy, it became a matter of re-connection. I put to Ray the strain of compromise on art and soul, a story which she is all too familiar with. “I felt that pressure around that time [BBC Award] which was a huge deal for me and at the time, I don’t think I understood how huge of a deal it was. I had a lot of people in my ear saying certain things because of the expectations that come with winning the sound poll. Usually, people maybe expect to win it and they have a whole album prepared, whereas me and my manager were just winging this thing. I was being put into sessions with Adele’s producer, Sam Smith’s producer, and they’re obviously sick in their own right but that’s just not my sound as an artist. There was a lot of pressure to make a big pop smash. Eventually you just succumb to it, these people are supposed to know what’s right, they’re supposed to be the experts…I feel like I did give in.”
She speaks of a song which, from its inception, had garnered both her desire for acceptance and so also her hatred. “I didn’t connect with it at all, it wasn’t authentically me. It was a learning curve. I need to always be proud of the stuff I’m putting out, it represents me, so that was a turning point.”
Whilst we draw a close on perhaps the worst year in modern times for the whole of humanity, a year of which, surely repercussions will be felt for many more to come, it seems as though Ray BLK has turned a new page and continues to pen her story. New music and a motivation to represent her people. She coins her sound as ‘Trap N B’, promising “more of a sexy side that people haven’t seen before…”. “The new music is just really honest and open about my experiences in relationships and in the industry as well. That’s a conversation a lot of people have been wanting to hear from me, how I feel as a black woman in the industry. I feel a lot of things. I feel like it is my superpower because there’s not many of us. And I feel like I have a cult following because of it. But definitely I feel there are struggles that come with it. A lack of support for female artists period, like across the whole board. Rap music is thriving but in those spaces, the support is literally just for male artists.”
It’s time to come home. If you walk away from this with just one gem, it should be that which Ray BLK speaks and lives. No matter how far from home you go, what room you enter or what people you meet, when you leave home you don’t have to leave yourself behind.