On Friday night (November 4th), Ray BLK ascended the throne to be crowned as the British queen of R&B at Islington’s Assembly Hall. Chris Kelly reports from the front row...
So who is Ray BLK? Rita Ekwere, better known as Ray BLK, is a British singer-songwriter and rapper born in Nigeria and raised in Catford, South London. The BLK element of her stage name is an acronym standing for her values (building, living, knowing). She was the first unsigned artist to win the prestigious BBC Sound of 2017 and was recognised a year earlier by the MOBOS with a Best Newcomer nomination. Her musical journey started when she was 10 (while most kids her age played with Bratz and Beyblades). She was placed in a music program for being musically gifted. By age 13, she and her school friend Uzoechi Ososioma “Uzo” Emenike, aka future Grammy nominee singer-songwriter and producer MNEK, went full Beyonce and Kelly Rowland by creating a music group called New Found Content. Although the pair didn’t release any music (so don’t get lost on a YouTube wormhole quest), it set the foundation stones for Ray’s impending musical career.
Ray BLK dropped her first recordings on Soundcloud whilst studying for an English Literature degree, supporting her budding musical aspirations with an advertising agency job. Her debut EP, Havisham (2015), was inspired by the literary works of Charles Dickens classic tale, Great Expectations, named after the book’s heartlessly vengeful antagonist, Miss Havisham. The EP was brimming with sharp emotional edges and blended neo-soul sounds, juxtaposed by grimey uptempo tracks. The release quickly caught the attention of music fans and critics alike. In 2016 Ray self-released her second EP, Durt (although technically, it’s more of a mini album), featuring the upper echelons of the UK rap world; Stormzy, Wretch 32 and music producer SG Lewis.
Rays gravelly voiced real talk takes its listeners on a thematically expansive journey through teenage pregnancy, generational curses and the realities of inner-city life… and that’s just on the EP’s opener, ‘Baby Girlz‘. The second track on the album perfectly captures the hypnotic synth beat and adlib style of the mid-late 90s and early Y2K Missy Elliot. Wretch 32 expertly offers up the male vs female perspective on the track ‘Gone’. Stormzy’s feature on ‘My Hood’, the narration duet, takes listeners through the realness of South London inner-city life, with an unshakable hook from the first listen (and recently covered by UD‘s own Flames Collective).
Building on the success of Durt’s with the help of a new recording deal with Island Records, BLK unleashed Empress, an eight-track project. Sonically the sound was polished, delivering the perfect equilibrium of high-tempo R&B with emotionally commanding ballads. The opening track ‘Run Run‘ sets the tone; Ray tackles serious subjects of youth violence and road life cycles with understanding instead of reproach. Her incredible talent is laid bare with little more than an acoustic guitar on the feel-good female empowerment track ‘Empress’ and project namesake.
Finally, in 2019, Ray dropped her mainstream album debut Access Denied. The sound dripped in vintage samples that conjured the golden era of 90s R&B – think SWV, Missy and Lauryn Hill (to who BLK has been compared). The highly anticipated album marked a milestone in her artistry and sound evolution. BLK was back, fully embracing her womanhood and oozing self-confidence. Whilst the debut gave off vibes of US counterpart Sza, the sound is unmistakably Ray’s signature London sound. Ekwere finds the perfect tag team member with fellow UK rapper-singer Stefflon Don. The pair rap and sing over the clap-fuelled Lenky sampled ‘Diwali Riddim’ on the dancehall blockbuster ‘Over You’, making you want to evict whoever has been living rent-free in your head. Elsewhere on the album, there are features from rap culture icon Giggs, who joins her on ‘Games’, their sensual tones making the perfect pillow partnership to talk through the complexities of relationships.
The man of the moment, Kojey Radical, ignites the flames on his featured track ‘Smoke’. Setting sexy bravados aside, Ray bravely lifts the lid on hard-to-look-at subjects in her song ’25’, opening the closed door of domestic violence she witnessed growing up, poignantly rapping, “I was raised in real poverty, watched my father beat my mother constantly…”
The album is fearless in its approach to taboo subjects. Another big element of BLK’s prowess is her ability to hook ’em in with a killer hook, and the album has no shortages of them.
I dove into her back catalogue before attending her sold-out show. In an age of short attention spans, Ray has created an unskippable body of work; no tracks got aired. My trigger-skip-finger was steady, a phenomenon usually reserved for my go-to listen to front-to-back 90s R&B and hip-hop albums. I hoped she would be as good live as her studio releases. As I headed down to Islington that night for the gig at the Grade II listed live music venue, I was greeted by friendly security informing me that i’d come to see a “good-un tonight.” The vibe in the building was buzzing as the crowd swayed to the sound of trap soul beats busting from the speakers. Knowing that Ray was going to hit the stage at around 9. The trip to the bar was a quick affair before heading upstairs to the balcony seats, where the game of special guest bingo began.
It was a little while after 9 when the stage lights flashed red, and Ray confidently walked on stage in an all-red ensemble, joined on stage by her six-piece band. The intro from ‘BLK Madonna’ played before bridging into bountifully bouncy ‘My Skin’ to the crowd’s applause. Ekwere controlled and steadied the pace getting through a 12-song setlist.
“It’s been a hot minute; let’s have some fun”.
Owning the stage with a sassy presence, smiley disposition and slow whine dances, Ray BLK’s vocals over-delivered on expectations, sounding as good live as she is in the studio.
“You ever had a bugaboo?”
When the drums of ’50/50′ hit, it was a supa-dupa throwback to the 90s, with Ray coiling her vocal rhythms tightly around the bouncy Missy Elliot production-style beat. There wasn’t a shoulder in the place that wasn’t bouncing. Switching up the mood, Ray pulled up her stool for her call to arms track, not to settle for less ‘Empress’. The song sets the scene on a series of unworthy potentials that we’ve all met (or dated), from bad boy Keith with the gold teeth running from police to Jamie, who smoked too much marijuana stuck in his pyjamas. Ray reminds the ladies not to settle for less and to remember their status as empresses. The nostalgic vibe continued when Kaash Paige joined with the SWV sampled ‘MIA’ track.
As BLK entered the show’s second half, things began to heat up with the high-energy dancehall riddim of ‘Over You’. Ray took a moment to dedicate her forthcoming track as a love letter before launching into the catchy melody of ‘My Hood’.
Taking moments to converse with the audience, Ray seized the opportunity to use her platform to touch upon mental health and the struggles she faced during the pandemic, reminding anyone struggling that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
There was a big revelation when Ray dropped her ‘Smoke’ track, and Kojey Radical (who I did not have on my bingo card) made a surprise cameo from the side of the stage, hot off the heels from his Brixton Academy headline the night before. The two had a lot of fun skrrt’ing around; Kojey bent the knee, snapping shots at Ray on his iPhone as she sang her lines, “Get the picture, ooh, it’s a look, get the lens”. Before heading off the stage, Radical grabbed and elevated her hand, pronouncing her the queen of R&B; “make some noise for Queen Ray BLK”. Radical always says it best.
As the evening drew to a close, Ray left the audience wanting more, and chants of one more tune echoed around the greatness of the Islington Assembly. Ray BLK gifted the hometown crowd with a seamless show, powerfully impressive live that hit the high notes with ease and flavoursome flows – and bars – that showcase that she can spit with the hardest. If you’ve been sleeping on Ray, it’s time to wake up; her royal reign of empowerment has just begun.
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Photography: Lauren A-Brown
Words by Chris Kelly. Chris is a freelance music journalist and feature writer with a focus on emerging and established artists, subcultures, the art world and mental health. Chris has multifaceted expertise as a media and creative specialist working with your favourite brands and helping them to embed themselves within the culture through strategic and entertaining content for brands, businesses and organisations.