Entertainment & Arts

BBC Sound of 2017: Ray BLK interview

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Media captionBBC Sound Of 2017 winner: Ray BLK

Street-smart soul singer Ray BLK has come top of the BBC's Sound of 2017 list.

Hailing from south London, she's been making music since she was nine, filling her school notebooks with rap verses after watching Missy Elliot and Ludacris on MTV Base.

Aged 13, she formed a group with her school friend MNEK, who has gone on to work with Beyonce, Little Mix and Madonna. Called New Found Content, "which is a terrible name", their songs never saw the light of day - but the experience fuelled her passion for performing.

Her debut EP was released in 2015, as she studied for a degree in English Literature. It told the tale of a girl who turns against men after having her heart broken, inspired by Miss Havisham's story in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.

Although she doesn't rap any more, she's retained the genre's forthright attitude - combining smart, literate lyrics with gorgeous R&B melodies.

Songs like 5050 and My Hood have seen her branded "the UK's answer to Lauryn Hill" - but she's determined to forge her own identity, rooted in her London upbringing.

The singer, whose real name is Rita Ekwere, spoke to the BBC about her upbringing, hooking up with Stormzy, and how a robbery inspired her breakthrough song.

BBC Sound of 2017: The Top Five

5.Nadia Rose

4.Jorja Smith

3. Raye

2. Rag 'N' Bone Man

1. Ray BLK

Congratulations on winning the Sound Of 2017! How does it feel?

Mega cool! I keep using the word surreal, because it is. Everything's surreal. I'm living the dream.

You've been called "the Lauryn Hill of the UK". Are you going to release one album then disappear?

Haha! I love music too much to do that.

Where does the name Ray BLK come from?

Ray is taken from my last name, and BLK stands for Building, Living, Knowing.

Building: For your future and working hard. Living: Because I believe you have to live your life to the fullest. And knowing: Because I think education is really important. We should keep trying to learn for the whole of our lifetime.

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Media captionRay BLK performs My Hood in her local caff

Tell me about growing up in Catford.

Well, I was born in Nigeria and I came to London when I was about four.

Catford is a weird place, to be honest. Friends that come and visit say I live in a ghost town. But there's a sense of community and it's given me thick skin, as well.

Why did you need thick skin?

Growing up here, especially in school, there's a lot of bullying - but there's also a culture of knowing how to defend yourself. Everyone here has to be strong.

Were you picked on?

I got away with not being picked on because I was always the one that gave it back! My mum raised me to fight my corner. You've got to dust yourself off and fight.

What was the first song you learned the words to?

The first video I remember seeing was Michael Jackson's Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough. I remember copying the dance moves and wanting to be as cool as he was. That's what started it off for me.

When did you discover your singing voice?

Do you know what's funny? I think I carried on singing because my sister told me I was really bad! So just to prove that I wasn't, I kept on at it. I would listen to Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey every day and try to copy their riffs. So I kind of feel like I'm having a "ha ha" moment!

Image copyright Ray Blk
Image caption The singer worked with grime stars Stormzy, Wretch 32 and SG Lewis on her latest EP

Is it true you made your early songs by stealing beats from YouTube?

I really took advantage of the internet, and I think that's what got me hereā€¦ Being able to rip beats and record with them, then put it on Soundcloud for people to listen and share it.

It feels like the recent explosion in Grime and British R&B has facilitated by the internet. People are making and distributing their music directly to fans.

Right. People who wouldn't otherwise have had a chance are getting heard, and making a name for themselves. I think it's really important.

You started releasing music when you were at university, right?

Yeah, when I first made my mixtape I was in my last year of uni, avoiding my dissertation.

What was the dissertation?

I wrote it on post-colonial Nigerian literature - focused on the novels of Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie.

Presumably, your parents were hoping that would lead to a "proper job"?

I've been lucky, in that my family have been so supportive. My mum's my biggest champion. If I told her today I want to be Prime Minister, she'd be like, "Yes, of course. You're going to win the election!"

What would your main policy be?

Oh, that's a really difficult question. More bank holidays?!

Image copyright Ray BLK
Image caption Like several artists on the Sound of 2017 list, Ray has deliberately decided not to sign with a major record label

That first EP, the Havisham EP, was themed around a Charles Dickens novel. How come?

We were studying Great Expectations as part of the curriculum, and I was so inspired by the story. I felt like Miss Havisham was like a lot of women around me, who got their heart broken and turned cold and began to hate men.

Are you the heartbreaker or the one that gets heartbroken?

Both, probably! But what I learned the most was not to be sour. Getting heartbroken needs to happen because, first of all, you pick a better person next time and, secondly, it makes you stronger.

Your breakthrough song, My Hood, features a verse from Stormzy. How did you hook up with him?

I met him a couple of years ago at a local talent show, and we said we'd do something together in the future. Then he liked the song and wanted to be part of it. It was all seamless and organic.

I want to have been at that talent show...

Do you know, it's a good show. They find some really good people.

Where is it?

It was in Croydon. It's called Unsigned Stars and Stormzy won, I think, in 2012. So they see talent years before the world sees it.

The thing with these local talent shows is they're really honest. If people are rubbish, they laugh. They really give it to you.

Image caption Ray worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency to fund her music career

My Hood was written about Catford - but it's quite bittersweet. Why is that?

I was robbed around the time I wrote it and I honestly just wanted to leave. I was like, "I'm getting robbed. My neighbours sell drugs out of their house. It's not where I need to be."

That must have been really unsettling.

I was extremely upset because my laptop got stolen and it had all my old songs that I'd been writing for years and years. It hurt so much.

Was there a back-up?

They've gone, they've gone! I mean, some of them are still in my head but they're gone.

The ones that stick in your head are the ones worth keeping...

And there'll be new ones anyway, so it's not too much of a loss.

Image copyright Ray BLK
Image caption The video for Chill Out features persecuted members of Jamaica's LGBT community

For the video to Chill Out, you went out to Jamaica and filmed with transgender women who've been forced out of their homes, and live in Kingston's storm drains. What was that experience like?

Meeting the Gully Queens was such an incredible experience. It put a lot into perspective because every day of their lives is a struggle and a battle to stay alive - yet they were so happy, so full of life. It made me feel like I need to be a lot more appreciative of how good my life is.

Living in the West, you don't actually realise how the things we see as normal are considered abnormal in other parts of the world. Now we're trying to raise money to get them into safe housing.

The original song isn't about that struggle, but the visuals and the music really complement each other.

Chill Out, for me, was about female empowerment and not letting society tell you how to act. I felt like the video completed that, really, because it was about empowering these females to be who they want to be as well.

Female empowerment hasn't been a big topic for UK artists up to now. Why do you think that is?

Everyone has their own message. I make music for myself and people like me, so a lot of my songs tend to be about being a woman and strength and confidence.

Is it something that needs to be discussed more?

Absolutely. I don't feel as though I hear much about female empowerment from female artists.

On the flipside, one of your forthcoming songs has a lyric about "doing it in an Uber". I wonder what that would do to your star rating?

Haha! I need it to go up, to be honest. An Uber driver told me my score wasn't very good, and I don't know why. Maybe I take too long to find the car?

So finally, now that you're officially the Sound of 2017, what's your ambition for the year ahead?

I just want to become a better artist. I've used this year to find my feet, and now I want to amplify that and give people more music, better music.

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