Ray BLK wears jacket Caitlin Price.
Ray BLK is the South London girl with the big soul voice. Catford, YouTube, street fashion, post-colonial Nigerian literature, Amy Winehouse, Lauryn Hill and Lily Allen rolled into one amazing whole, the 23-year-old became the first unsigned artist to nab top spot on the BBC Sound of Poll last week, beating off the likes of AJ Tracey and Anderson .Paak in the process. Not only preternaturally smart and switched-on (she's an English lit postgrad, folks), Ray BLK is an absolute barometer for her soundings, soaking up all the sprawling, streaming, struggling, and chit-chattering of South London and making it her very own. If you're looking for the sound of now, you just found it.
Name: Ray BLK
From: Catford, South London
If your life was a short story, what would be the key points that got you to where you are today?
Being born in Nigeria. My Nigerian heritage has influenced my life a lot. Living in South London. Growing up, going to school here. I feel like it's really made me who I am. I'm a product of my environment, really. And me joining every single musical group possible, being in every choir. The gospel choir, the classical choir, the school choir, the church choir… and being in like three bands as well.
You were in a group with MNEK growing up, weren't you?
Yeah. That was in school. I was about 13 and he would have been, like, 12 or something. It was him, his brother, a couple of other boys from my school and we just would go to his dad's garage, make songs and send them around on MSN.
When did you move from Nigeria and what can you remember about it?
When I was four. I can remember little things about it, our old house and stuff like that. I don't have loads of memories. But to be honest, I always say, in my house I lived in Nigeria. Food, upbringing, the morals I was taught… It was like, you can act like a Londoner outside, when you come in this house you're fricking Nigerian!
What do your parents do?
My mom's a nurse and my dad is a mental health nurse as well.
What's the best and worst thing about growing up in Catford?
The best thing is the community of people; the worst thing is that it's not particularly safe. There's not much there, to be honest. It's just houses and that's pretty much it. There's nowhere young people can go to hang out, have fun, go out. Nothing.
What do you like to do with your friends?
We just do really boring stuff. We're really boring. The only exciting thing I do is go to concerts. I'm like the concert queen! But outside of that we just chill and watch Soul Train. My friend will DJ to it so that it looks like they're dancing to trap music. It's hilarious.
What do you think the biggest issues facing you and your friends are right now?
Basically, I feel like my friends and I worked really hard to make something of ourselves. Because we're all from, like, South London or gritty areas. And we've all managed to get jobs that, you know, we can live off of. But there are a lot of people from where we're from who haven't managed to do that. So I feel like the biggest issue that people I know or people where I'm from face has been finding opportunities to make something of themselves.
What are thoughts on the UK post-Brexit?
First of all, I was so convinced that it wasn't going to happen. Like, 'nah, of course we're not gonna leave the EU.' Then the day we found out we were leaving I think I was just really sad because what it told me was that Britain hates immigrants and was xenophobic. So I think that was a tough pill to swallow. This is where we live! I feel British just as much as I feel Nigerian, but walking around, it's like I'm not really wanted here because I'm an immigrant.
How do you feel about the future? Do you think about it much?
I do! But I'm an optimist so in my head it's like, yeah, if we keep on working hard, speaking up when we see injustice, then hopefully we'll move forward.
What do you want your music to say?
To be honest, all of my music really is about all of the things that make me who I am. Like being a Nigerian, black, British female from London… And I feel like when you listen to my music you can hear all of that. So I really just want to tell my story, to tell other people's stories who are like me. I feel like when I make music and speak about my experiences, I'm also speaking about other people's experiences as well.
What role do you play in the UK music scene?
Yesterday I did an interview on the radio and I got asked if I feel like a role model. And I said, 'yeah, I feel like a role model, but not because I chose to be one. Simply because people like me aren't represented enough in the media and in music.' So young black girls can look at me and say, 'oh, I see myself. I can do something.' I feel like that's the role I'm playing at the moment.
Do you feel a responsibility?
Saying it's a responsibility kind of makes it sound like it's a chore or that I find it daunting. And that's not the case. I feel like it just happens naturally because I speak about where I'm from and my experiences and so I'm telling that story of these other girls from South London. It happens naturally I think.
What song are you best known for?
I would say I'm best known for my song "My Hood" with Stormzy.
What was working with him like?
It was good. It was a very chill session. I remember when I sent him the song, I was like, 'yeah, the song's about where we're from and I feel like you'd really fit with the subject matter.' And he heard it and was like,' yeah, I love it, of course I'll be on this.' And I feel like it was such a good collaboration. It just made sense for him to be on it and sealed everything it's about. He represents what that song is about as well.
How was playing it on Jools Holland?
That was wild.
Were you nervous?
I get nervous every time I'm about to do anything — anytime I'm about to go on stage or do live radio. But, to be fair, that was the least nervous I've been for a while. I just kept telling myself, 'stop psyching yourself out, it's gonna be fine, you've done this song a hundred times, it's gonna be fine…'
Who or what is the most important thing in your life?
My loved ones. I'm super about family and friends. And I'm a girl's girl, so the women in my life are really important to me. I always say I'd pick the people in my life over music any day, as much as I love it.
Did you always want to be a musician?
Yeah. From, like, really young I'd been saying to myself, yeah, I want to make music. But I still find it weird that I'm actually doing it because there are so many people that have this dream but don't have the opportunity to fulfill it.
You studied English, didn't you?
Yeah, at Brunel University. For me, education's really important. It's something my mom's always told me. That if you can't get somewhere, education will get you somewhere. At least you'll know something, you'll be wise.
Are you a big reader?
Yeah, I'm a big reader. I was such a bookworm growing up. My sister would be watching TV and I'd be upstairs in my room reading whatever book. I'd wait at my window for the mobile library that would come by my area, then I'd run and go get a new book. Such a nerd.
What are you reading at the moment?
I just started reading George Orwell's Animal Farm because I've never read it before and I feel like it's one of those classics everyone read in school.
What would you do if you weren't doing music?
I had a list of things I wanted to do to be honest. Music was always number one, but I also was interested in being a music journalist or a film journalist. I'm a proper film snob. I just loved writing so anything to do with writing.
What film would your music best soundtrack?
I'm a big fan of, like, crime dramas or crime thrillers. I like really dark crime movies. Probably something like that.
Who, what, and where influences your creativity?
The "who" would be the people around me and myself. Because everything I sing about is based on my surroundings and what I go through or what someone I know is going through. "What" influences my music? I would say other people's music, actually. I'm a big music geek as well. I like learning about new sounds. One of my producers, I asked him to make me a classical playlist because I've never really listened to classical music and I just want to hear it because I think I can get something from it. If I digest it, I'll learn something that will influence my music in some way. And "where"? Where I'm from, really. Catford, South London.
Who are you tipping for 2017?
Stefflon Don. I've been a fan for a while and what I like about her is you can tell she's being herself, and being herself unapologetically as well. She's not shying away from the fact that she's beautiful and has this big personality and I love that.
Which other female artists have inspired you?
I'm a big Amy Winehouse fan. Lauryn Hill, Lily Allen. I've always been a fan of outspoken women. Female rappers as well growing up. Like, I wanted to rap really. When I first started writing song at 12 I was just writing really rubbish raps trying to be Lil' Kim or something.
What are your hopes and dreams for 2017?
You know what, I don't do projections — like I wanna get this and I wanna get that — because I feel like it cripples you mentally because you're just chasing this one thing. I'm always just about growth. Just growing and just outdoing myself and doing better. So my goal for 2017 is just to be a better artist that I was in 2016. To take whatever I've learned, put it into my music, and just make it as good as possible.
Text Matthew Whitehouse
Photography Hanna Moon
Styling Max Clark
Hair Maarit Niemala at Bryant Artists using Moroccan Oil.
Make-up Athena Paginton at Bryant Artists using Kryolan.
Set design Mariska Lowri.
Photography assistance Alessandro Tranchini, Ilenia Arosio.
Styling assistance Bojana Kozarevic.
Hair assistance Benjamin David, Mikaela Knopps.
Make-up assistance Billie McKenzie.