Following an extended hiatus, musician RAYE is set to release her debut album as an independent artist. Liza Bilal sits down with her to talk about creative expression, freedom, and the importance of being bold.
Warning: this feature contains discussions of substance abuse, spiking and sexual assault.
Back in December of 2016, a song titled ‘You Don’t Know Me’ was released in the UK, a dance-pop tune that peaked at number 3 on the singles chart and stands at double Platinum, according to the BPI. It may be my personal opinion, but the song is a British dance classic. Its vibrant melody and effortlessly catchy chorus “Oh na na ayy / Don’t act like you know me / Like you know me, na na ayy / I am not your homie” can play in clubs today and evoke the same feelings of summer nostalgia as it did when first released. Many will recognise the song as a Jax Jones creation, and they wouldn’t be wrong. However, the singer and songwriter for the hook we all love is musical artist RAYE. Now, 6 years after the song’s release, and a year after going independent from ex-record label Polydor, RAYE wants you to know that she is “so much more” than just “a fast hit, dance girl.”
At 17, the Croydon-raised artist signed her first deal with Polydor Records, having an extensive background in music training and spending her teenage years at BRIT school, home to famous alum including Amy Winehouse and Adele. . As young as seven, RAYE knew she was going to be a musician, reminiscing about writing her first song with her dad accompanying her on the keys. “There’s only been one plan in my life – since I had a plan – and that was to be something. To be a singer, to be a writer, to be an artist, to be a musician. I think I was about seven years old when I wrote my first song, which is so cute… The second I did that – and it’s interesting when you’re young, you don’t remember a lot of things – but I remember really clear, I was like, ‘This is it.’”
There’s only been one plan in my life – since I had a plan – and that was to be something. To be a singer, to be a writer, to be an artist, to be a musician.
Her musical talents and ambitions are no surprise considering her upbringing in a musical family, her dad playing piano and her grandfather being a songwriter himself. “It’s in the genes, do you know what I mean?” she says. “My granddad used to write songs, send them to record labels and stuff. My grandma too… she’s the most amazing vibrato you’ve ever heard.”
From then on, “life basically became the active pursuit, hustle, and graft to open doors,” she explains. RAYE found herself performing gigs anywhere she could find – charity gigs and singing in church became her norm while she also learned to sight read, playing the piano, cello and flute.
Her determination to perfect her craft saw her professionally writing songs at 14 and landing her record deal with Polydor at 17 where she remained for the next 6 years. However, in July 2021, the artist officially split from the label after bravely speaking publicly about her difficulties releasing her debut album under their management via Twitter. Along with this, discrepancies in creative vision left RAYE feeling restricted. “I released a little mixtape called ‘Welcome To The Winter’ when I was young. When I listen back to those songs I like nearly gag, but at the time it was my early development of that Soundcloud-y, r&b kind of expression. I produced a lot of it. I signed my deal and was kind of told that it just won’t sell. This genre just doesn’t thrive in the UK. So, you’ve got to learn how to create our music. Got to give us the tempo. So that was kind of heart-breaking and really difficult for me to understand.”
Unfortunately, for a lot of R&B artists in the UK, the pressure to switch genres can become overwhelming. Artists like Ella Mai have discussedthe lack of representation for R&B musicians in the UK despite there being many talented homegrown artists. After the 2016 hit with Jax Jones, RAYE was encouraged to write verses for other dance tracks and “just go with the formula”, despite her desire to explore other styles. During this time she showed immense talent in songwriting, racking up credits on many musicians’ songs across different genres – Beyonce, Little Mix, Quavo and Charli XCX, to name a few.
The source of RAYE’s appreciation for eclectic styles goes beyond her family. She cites Drake – specifically, the Take Care album – Bombay Bi-Cycle Club, J Dilla and Jasmine Sullivan as musicians whose music “moved” her, in addition to Jill Scott whose conversational lyricism she fell in love with as a young girl. “She just sounds like she’s talking to me, telling me a story in the most unforced natural way.” Her repertoire expanded further as she later began listening to bossa nova, and tells me, “I wake up every day and immerse myself in jazz. If I had to listen to only one genre for the rest of my life, if I had to choose one, it would be jazz music. It’s just heavenly.”
Most might assume an artist with such depth and dimension to their passions and vocal range would find themselves extremely useful to a major record label, however, this multifaceted nature led to RAYE terminating her deal.
I don’t know about you, but most of the people I know don’t listen to just one genre. We’re out here consuming mass different types of music depending on how we’re feeling and what we need. I think it comes from an old school mentality back in the day, it was like you were a hip hop head, a rock head, you were a dance head, EDM, whatever. It’s just not like that today.
“The irony is, it’s actually been one of the biggest struggles I’ve had in my career, because the kind of mentality from the bosses is ‘what’s your identity?’ like, ‘who are you?’ … I don’t know about you, but most of the people I know don’t listen to just one genre. We’re out here consuming mass different types of music depending on how we’re feeling and what we need. I think it comes from an old-school mentality back in the day, it was like you were a hip hop head, a rock head, you were a dance head, EDM, whatever. It’s just not like that today.”
Now as an independent artist, RAYE is prioritising her creative vision. She’s determined to “rebel” against the restriction of her sound and maintain the freedom to create within the genres she sees fit. “I don’t think it matters. And if it does matter, then sure I won’t get that type of fan base, whatever. But I just think it’s so important to be true to myself, and I’m not one thing.” RAYE’s new single release and feature on Disclosure’s garage banger ‘Waterfall’ are teasers of her exercising this newfound freedom. Becoming familiar with Disclosure during her time at BRIT school, the artist was excited to work with them on the summer-y garage song, having “never done a garage song before”.
I just think it’s so important to be true to myself, and I’m not one thing.
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But it’s on ‘Hard Out Here’, RAYE’s debut single as an independent artist and her first solo release in over a year, that you can really hear what’s in store on her upcoming album. The song blends together a hip-hop and pop sound, with RAYE boasting her rap skills andvocals over a dynamic and punchy track. Lyrically is where we see the artist really go in – pen game never lacking – as she bares a vulnerable side that her fans were missing from her past dance-pop discography. In the fourth verse, she sings “Ooh, what you know about systems? / About drugged drinks, fucking nearly dying from addictions / You start to wonder why I’m Christian / Without the Lord, I’d take my life for all the times I’ve been a victim.”
Beyond her woes creatively, RAYE has experienced systemic adversity within the music industry as a woman and uses her latest single to set the record straight. The single’s unfiltered approach is just the beginning of the artist, “telling some honest stories”, something she could not do in her career before. “I just wanna be bold, and honest, and fearless, and real as I like. And the reason ‘Hard Out Here’ needs to come first is because that was the emotion I needed to express first. No holding back, I ain’t filtering my truth for no one. If you don’t like it, turn it off.”
I just wanna be bold, and honest, and fearless, and real as I like. And the reason ‘Hard Out Here’ needs to come first is because that was the emotion I needed to express first. No holding back, I aint filtering my truth for no one. If you don’t like it, turn it off.
Following the same spirit of “no holding back”, RAYE’s second single release titled ‘Black Mascara’ drops today. Fans got an early tease of the song during the end credits of the ‘Hard Out Here’ music video, as RAYE continues to share snippets of new songs with followers across her social media in a way that only an independent artist would, or even could. The single deeper explores her experience with being spiked, referenced in its predecessors’ fourth verse. After receiving pressure to continue working amidst the trauma, she wrote the song “in the thick of that emotion”, questioning why she should suffer in silence: “loads of people have gone through the same fuckshit.”
Sadly, RAYE is right in her assertion – many women have gone through the pain of being spiked. A 2021 report from YouGov found that a third of women had been affected by spiking, either personally or through someone close to them. The dangers of being a woman in a society that upholds rape culture are unfortunately inescapable, and it’s a harsh reminder of how rife systemic sexism remains when even those with more visibility and the perceived “privilege” of fame are at the same, if not increased, risk.
It takes considerable courage to be open about these experiences, particularly as a woman in the music industry where manipulation and abuse of power are practically unavoidable. As one of four sisters, RAYE felt it was important to share her truth despite the potential consequences. “I’m really coming out on a limb here peeling back the cover but at the end of the day, that’s just who I am as a person.” This theme of choosing empowerment over fear has followed RAYE since leaving Polydor. A defining moment in this decision came from a quote of Nina Simone’s. “I have a poster of Nina Simone in my room that says, ‘it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times.’ I remember literally standing there, with my hands and my hips, reading this quote over and over again, and my eyes just filled up with tears. I was like, what the fuck am I doing? You know, I think I’d gotten so lost in trying to please everyone else that I forgot who I am and what I want to do and say as an artist. And literally after that I went on Twitter and let it rip.”
Nina Simone’s legacy goes beyond the music; it reflects the passion, bravery and resilience of a woman who refused to have her voice stifled. Simone’s legacy inspiring a younger generation of musical artists, like RAYE, to demand their power back is an encouraging vision.
Flash forward to today, RAYE is putting the finishing touches on her debut album and is excited to finally release as an independent artist. After taking time out to decompress, and finding healing through her faith and music as a “medicine”, the artist is ready to bare all. “I feel the need to be honest now. It’s gonna be the opposite of how it was before, like it’s just unfiltered, straight to the point and ‘let’s talk about this’, you know?”
If you love music with every fibre of your being, and there’s nothing else you can see yourself doing … then just give it everything you’ve got. Ten million percent that you can give to it, because that’s what it requires.
For those starting out in a career as a musician and looking to get signed, RAYE has some advice: “you have to really be smart, have your wits about you. Discuss with people you can trust, like, take everything with a pinch of salt. Oh my gosh, the dreams I was sold when I was 16/17 years old were just crazy… It’s more like really trusting your gut and not rushing anything. Make sure if anyone is throwing you contracts, you get out-of-house lawyers. ” She also highlights looking into a Key Man Clause, a contractual clause that allows you to terminate your agreement if the person that signed you leaves as well. “The issue I had was, I was signed by an incredible guy, and then he left two years after that. Then I was like, at a place where I didn’t have that support from the boss anymore.” Ultimately, she concludes, “If you love music with every fibre of your being, and there’s nothing else you can see yourself doing … then just give it everything you’ve got. Ten million per cent that you can give to it, because that’s what it requires.”
With the new single ‘Black Mascara’ dropping today, and her debut album release around the corner, RAYE wants you to know one last thing: “I want people to know that I’m a real artist with layers and textures with things to say. I’m really excited for this new chapter and to redefine how people see me and what they think when they imagine my name. It’s not about being the biggest, it’s about being the best I can be, and that’s what matters.”
Liza became part of the BRICKS family in 2020, appearing as a Digital cover star for her anti-racism activism during the pandemic, and has since become the BRICKS Production Assistant and a Staff Writer, focussing on pop culture and sociopolitical issues.
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