In Conversation: Ray BLK – ‘Turning Tides’
All images courtesy of Mabdulle.
“‘In Conversation’ is born out of a love for documentary, a series intent on capturing artists at a juncture in their career. It’s an open conversation and a space to bridge the gap between artist and supporter. I hope you enjoy.”
Spring had blown its fuse, a volatile short circuit that hurried feral bouts of rain and wind to this suburban high street in Lewisham, South East London. The gridded pavings, that on weekends were overwhelmed by unburdened nine-to-fivers and, in a few hours, the local school having burst its banks, would be water-logged with hormonal teenagers donning red blazers and loosened ties, was overcome with an unruffled stillness.
And so now, on this Wednesday afternoon, this typical British high street was instead occupied by those who manoeuvred through the day with less noise, residents who trod the road less travelled, scrap metal collectors and fitness trainers, driving instructors and singer songwriters, like Ray BLK, who wandered along the familiar grey pavings, skirted by her publicist and a photographer. This narrow strip, minutes from Ray’s home, was flanked by small independent businesses and red-brick terraced houses and bled gently into Bellingham Green, a grassy clearing squarely carved into the core of the concrete underbrush.
The clouds, for a little while at least, rolled back on the horizon and the green was now mild and damp, and though the park benches were varnished in a coating of fresh rainwater, it was a condition that Ray all together preferred, having an hour earlier left her home without a jacket, caught flush by a roving downpour. She wore a blue summery dress that cut off just above the knee, flowing curly black hair that spilled over her shoulders and a smile that appeared warmly and often, one that she had carried into the high street’s greasy spoon café where she had agreed to meet a writer.
It was an old-line diner in a town where the only constant seemed to be change. The raiding tides of gentrification now lapped softly at the blue-binned coastlines of this inner city outpost, a gentle erosion, noticed only by those who pulled their curtains every morning to workmen and cranes clearing sandy demolition patches and banging hot steel into the earth. Soon, like many towns that succumbed to this inevitable urban renewal, this Catford would shed its skin, lost to history, its only memory left in the fabric of wistful, melodies likes those sung by Ray BLK.
“This place feels new to me”, she said, when she had eventually settled into her seat and dried herself off. “When I was in Uni I would come back and something would have changed. Lewisham is a bit mad right now, stuff is always changing, buildings are always changing, you can never get used to it.”
“In so many ways; it’s given me really tough skin, it’s made me really hard working. Everyone works really really hard, everyone’s on the grind. I think that’s a part of me now.”
“You’ve got to work twice as hard when you’re from a place that doesn’t have money.”
Why is that?
“Because it’s really hard to make something of yourself. You’ve got to work twice as hard when you’re from a place that doesn’t have money. You have to work to make something of yourself, so everyone just grinds. You start working from early; my friends had a job from like 14 or from 13. Even if it’s just the paper round you learn that you have to make your own money and make something of yourself. It gives you that fighting spirit.”
It can be one of those things that you don’t realise until you step out of where you’re from.
“Probably within the last year is when I realised that I actually do live in the hood. When you’re younger, you don’t realise what’s going on around you. So across the road from my house, I’m now old enough to understand that they were probably selling drugs. But at the time I just noticed that there were a lot of people loitering in front of the house and that the police were there sometimes. But it never registered what was going on.
Now I’m old enough to say ‘that’s what was going on’, and the house a couple doors down from me is doing the same thing. And I always remember hearing sirens going up but it never made me think ‘Oh, it’s because you live in dangerous area where things happens.’ It’s just always police innit.”
You just think ‘oh this just must be life for everyone’.
“You get so used to it. You don’t know that it’s different in other places.”
That kind of leads into ‘My Hood’. I can sense a lot of pride in that track.
“There is because there are things that make this place special. The characters that I don’t think you’d come across if you’re from somewhere else. We’ve got our local drunk guy in Catford. Fritz. Where are you going to find another Fritz? [Laughs]. Everyone knows him. It’s things like that, the quirks that make this place stand out.”
Is there a conflict about leaving if you make enough money?
“I have a really strange relationship with where I’m from. I love its quirks, I love seeing people that I went to school with around, and bumping into them, but no one particularly wants to live here. I think the people who live here or move here, it’s not where they chose to be, it’s just where you are. It will probably be heart wrenching when I do move, because I’m sure I will move eventually. I love its quirks but it’s not a place where anyone voluntarily choses to live.”
A lot of your songs are quite personal. Have you always worn your heart on your sleeve?
“I can probably only take inspiration from my own experiences, or from the experiences of people around me. So everything just happens to be personal or related to people in my life. That’s the only place I can draw inspiration from really, from hearing other people’s stories. I think where you get the songs that really resonate with people is when it comes from an honest place.”
Have you always been like that?
“Pretty much. From when I was writing silly raps when I was younger. They’ve just always been a bit more forward than expected for someone that young.”
It’s rare to find that unfiltered honesty in music these days. Are you conscious of that when you write?
“I wasn’t. That’s the thing. I was at a radio station a while ago where someone was playing ’50/50′. We were talking about music; I forgot the word he used to describe it but he was basically saying that my music was really forward and out there for a woman. It never registered to me that the things that I say in my music are things that maybe you’re not expected to hear from a woman. It’s just something that happened naturally because I’m influenced by a lot of rap music. That’s mainly what I listen to. And rap music is so direct and forward and brash and explicit. That inspiration is in my music and it happens by mistake. It doesn’t even register in my head that what I’m saying something that’s a bit out there or explicit.”
That’s interesting because African families are notoriously tight lipped when it comes to opening up.
So music is your tool for expression?
“For me that’s where I pour my emotions and my feelings into because I’m not great to be honest about talking about how I feel to people. So that’s the outlet for me to express myself. And that’s the same in my household; growing up in a Nigerian household you don’t say how you feel, you just don’t, you’re not really allowed to be honest.”
“As you grow older you should learn to question and step out of where you’re from.”
Then when you get older you start questioning those ideas.
“I think it’s only natural really. I think no matter what background you’re from, as you grow older you should learn to question and step out of where you’re from and look outside at the world and make your own decisions about what you think. Because even though your surroundings build your identity, I think it’s important to find your own identity and find your own beliefs. I found that a lot with myself growing up.
I’m probably the only creative one in the family and that’s not something that’s celebrated in our background. In a Nigerian household you have to do something that’s going to get you a good job, something that’s more stable. I’m the one that broke out of that and was like ‘I want to sing.’ I didn’t want to follow this same path that my parents wanted me to go down.”
How was that conversation?
“Do you know what? It was a lot better than I expected actually. Though my parents, as most African parents are, wanted their kids to venture into something that’s more reliable, my mum has always been supportive of my music and me singing. When I was in to drama she would drive me to auditions.
But it was a difficult conversation. For instance when I started Uni I started doing Law in my first year. I almost went down that route but I was like ‘No it’s not me, it’s not who I am. I love English, I love reading, I love writing so that’s what I’m going to do.’ So I changed my course without even telling my mum or anything. I was like ‘I’m gonna do it but I’m proper scared so I’m just going to go for it and not tell anyone’. So I think a year into doing English I was like ‘by the way guys [laughs], I do English now’ and my mum was supportive. She said ‘I mean I don’t get it but you’re from a different era, you’re from a different background and you know how this is going to work for you. So you do your own thing, I don’t get it but I’m supporting you.’ So the supports always been there but they’ll just never understand because they’re a different generation. They faced different trials.”
How do you navigate that generation clash?
“In my household it works well because we kind of just leave each other to do our thing. My Mum lets me do my thing, I let her do her thing and occasionally we clash on ideas but generally we just ‘Yeah, okay, cool fine.’ We’re not going to agree so let’s just agree to disagree and co-exist.”
Has there been a moment where she’s seen the potential in your career?
“Yeah the crazy thing is, although my mum and my family don’t get it, my mum has always believed in me. She said ‘This is not something I could have done in my time’. My mum had originally wanted to be an actress but her situation didn’t allow that so it’s like ‘I could never have followed my dreams but you follow yours and I believe that it’s going to work out and I believe in you.’ So it’s no surprise to my mum that I’m actually going for it and it’s actually working out, which is great and I feel very very blessed because I don’t think that is common in African households.”
“I’m literally just telling my stories.”
Though your music is quite personal, you seem to be tapping into wider experiences.
“I’m literally just telling my stories. That’s why I think it’s important that more of us come forward, more of us make music and just have the boldness to be yourself in your music, because you don’t realise but when you’re telling your story, you’re helping other people tell theirs as well. People are connecting with you; people can see themselves in you. When I would watch Lily Allen on tele, I would really relate to her. I was really young when she came out but I connected with her because I was a British girl too, I loved all of the American stuff, I really connected with that because I could see myself in her.”
Do you feel British?
“I do actually. I feel very British.”
When you were younger, and in school, did the African heritage take main sway?
“It’s true. We completely annihilated any British influence. I think that probably comes from your household. When I went to school or whatever I was in England but when I got home I was in Nigeria. It was just like ‘I’m Nigerian because my house is Nigerian.’ But it’s impossible to avoid British influence when you live in Britain.
The fact that I lived in a house that was basically Nigeria but then I had Western views about certain things, then of course I’m British [pauses]. I’d like to think of myself as a hybrid of both worlds.”
“What I loved most about English was probably just the story telling to be honest. The novels we would read taught me how to tell stories. My first EP I put out about myself was Havisham, based on the character Ms Havisham from Great Expectations which I read while I was in uni.”
When you left, did you try and get a job first?
“I did. I had a master plan in my head. I was coming up to my final year and I was like ‘I’m going to make a project and put it out, and when I finish uni I want to just go into music and I want that to be my career.’ And so when I was in my final year, foolishly, I made my EP while I was doing my dissertation, so that caught all of my attention. When I finished I started working in corporate PR for a few months and then [this] December, just before Christmas I quit and was just like ‘that’s it, I’m going into music full time’. So I kind of still did what I planned to do but I had a stepping stone.”
Was PR very straight edge 9-5?
“Yeah full time 9-5.”
“I learnt so much just about humans working in an office environment.”
How did you find it? Creative people can find that tough.
“I actually learnt more in work about people than anything else. I think it’s important that I got to work a job like that. It’s just good experience first of all, but I learnt so much just about humans working in an office environment. How people relate to each other, you learn about hierarchy, you learn about work place politics, I learnt so much and I think that added to me more than taking away.”
Do you still keep a master plan?
“I do actually. But I have to keep that on the lowdown, I’ve got to keep it inside. I feel like, to be honest, when you have big dreams and you share them with people you look crazy. So let me just look crazy to myself. I think my dreams or my master plan is so big it would sound stupid.”
So you keep it to yourself?
“I think a lot of people, well people I know anyway, they have such big aspirations. And especially coming from a place like this it’s like ‘Really? You really think that you’re going to make this thing out of yourself when you don’t even have the resources around you to make that happen?’ The vision is mad and I have so many people that have great aspirations around me that if they fed into other people who were smaller minded they’d seem crazy.”
So you’re careful about who you let into your inner circle?
“I’m careful about my circle of friends, and my team who I work with are the best people ever. They understand the vision and are just good people. That’s my number one thing, having good people around me.”
Why is that so important to you?
“The people you bring around you influence you without you even noticing, so you have to have people that are good, with a good heart, are supportive, they’re strong and they’re also people with big dreams themselves. That’s what keeps me going. My friends around me all have massive aspirations and they’re all really hard working. So I can’t be the one that’s a wasteman doing nothing [laughs].”
Does a part of you feel like you can’t plan for everything?
“It’s always good to make your own plan because it gives you direction and helps you on the path towards something. But then life will always happen how it’s supposed to. I was having this conversation with my best friend; I was saying whatever is supposed to happen is going to happen. Maybe that’s like the Hippie in me but it’s always going to happen how it’s supposed to.
But you make your plans for how you want it to and what’s supposed to happen anyway will happen, whether it’s your plans or another direction. It will always work out the way it’s supposed to. So maybe one day I won’t be in music and I’ll be doing something else.”
The idea of fate?
“I fully believe in fate. I’ve made my own plan to be a musician and do that for the rest of my life but ten years from now I might follow a different plan or something else might happen, I don’t know.”
But you believe that your fate is in music?
“Yeah I do.”
“I never doubted that this is what I would be doing.”
A ‘born to do it’ kind of thing?
“It’s so cheesy [laughs]. But I never doubted that this is what I would be doing. I never thought I would be doing something else. From a really really young age, from about 6 years old I was like ‘That’s what I’m going to be doing; I’m going to be singing.’ I tried other stuff because that’s what you’re supposed to do, you’re supposed to go to school, you’re supposed to get an education. Those were all like stepping stones and things that you have to do in life.”
You had your debut headline show a few weeks back and, after said that you had never felt so free on stage.
“I felt…It was the best show I’ve ever done. I’m always so nervous, people find it surprising, maybe because of the music I make, but I’m a little bit shy. Especially before a show, you want it to be the best show every single time. So I’m always very very nervous, almost vomiting. Then I watched this Nina Simone documentary on Netfilx and she was just saying how free she is on stage. And I was jealous, I was like ‘I want to feel free on stage because this is what I love doing.’ I don’t want every single time I’m about to do what I love I’m like freaking out. I want to be able to just be myself on stage because people have come to see you.
And I think maybe because it was my show where they’re actually they’re to see you and you’re not just supporting or at a random place I felt a bit more relaxed. I felt like I really was just able to be myself on stage. It was my favourite performance ever. It was just a great crowd and they made me feel free.”
What was it like being on stage knowing that hundreds had turned out just for you?
“You know what? When I came out, in my head I was like ‘What the fuck are you all doing here? I can’t believe you’ve left your house on a Monday to come and watch me sing.’ It was a bit surreal, that people would just come out to watch you.
But it’s a really…nice experience as a singer and as a song writer to see people connecting with your music. That’s what I love about it most, when you see people singing along or when you see people really feeling what you’re saying. That’s my favourite part; that people are connecting with it and we’re now having a moment in this room. We’re having our moment that can’t’ be replicated. You know what I mean?”
Then how do you feel once that moment is gone? Do you move on quickly?
“Yeah, I hate that I’m like that to be honest. That’s something I’m really working on, just taking steps slowly. And also clapping for yourself, it’s important to clap for yourself. Go getters or focus driven people, we do something, we accomplish something and rather than taking that in and clapping for yourself or your accomplishment, you’re like ‘right what’s the next thing?’ I need to make the next move.
“It’s not always about making the next move, appreciate the moment that’s happening.”
But it’s not always about making the next move, appreciate the moment that’s happening. That’s what I liked about the show; I actually really got a moment to take it all in; that I was doing a show in front of people that came and sold out the venue to watch me and experience this. I took that in, I was very happy and that very very rarely happens.”
The experiences men and women have in the music industry can differ wildly. How have you found things in that area so far?
“Men and Women, we live different lives our whole lives. So far I’ve been lucky but the only thing that keeps popping up is that people telling me that my music is quite bold and quite brash and that ‘you don’t expect that from a woman.’ When a woman mentions anything that’s a bit risqué it’s like ‘Wow what’s going on here.’ That’s the only thing I’ve experienced so far that relates to my gender.”
How did you take that?
“It made me understand, I mean I already knew it, but it made me realise that the world is not where it’s supposed to be. The reason that it’s surprising when a woman sings about particular things is because people still expect women to be quieter, to be meek and to not accept their sexuality. We’re not there yet.”
Why aren’t we there?
“People aren’t ready for change. I think like all of us, feminists are fighting for change, fighting for equality and people just ready aren’t ready for change yet. People aren’t ready to have really bold and really outspoken women that speak about their sexuality. Or people aren’t ready to have Obama, a black man being President of America. People aren’t ready for equality and that’s why we’re still in the place we are.”
Do you think it’s a waiting game, waiting for old opinions to catch up?
“Definitely not a waiting game because you have to be proactive.”
What does BLK stand for?
“It stands for ‘Building Living Knowing’, if there’s anything important to you as an artist, it’s important to drive forward. Those are the three things that are important to me. Building for your future, creating a foundation for whatever it is you want to do. Living, because I love to have fun, life is for the living, while you’re living you have to experiment, try things, live your life.
And ‘Knowing’, because I think education is very important, whether that’s going to school, going to university or just educating yourself about other cultures by speaking to people, expanding your mind. For me one of the most important things in life is to make sure you keep learning and expanding your whole life or else you just become ignorant.”
Find Ray BLK on Twitter – @RayBLK_
‘My Hood’ featuring Stormzy is available on iTunes now.
Interview by Aniefiok Ekpoudom