Living through two years of a pandemic, and about to enter a third, has been life-altering for everyone – this has been no exception for Rita Ekwere. Publically better known as Ray BLK, the award-winning south London artist, whose 2016 breakthrough track ‘My Hood’ catapulted her to fame, was forced to pause – something that was not always feasible amongst the EP releases of Durt in 2016 and Empress in 2018, touring with Nicki Minaj in 2019 and a host of non-album singles.
“It was a bit of a shock to the system because I think most of us aren’t used to being stopped, we’re used to working the way we did prior,” Ray BLK explains to me over the phone on a dreary December morning. Amidst the lockdowns, and emergences out of lockdown, the singer could find herself suddenly busy, or simply not, requiring her to try and return to a life she hadn’t lived in two years at a moment’s notice. “It was definitely a kind of learning [curve] for me. I feel like, through the pandemic, so much happened in my personal life that forced me to grow,” she shares, “it also forced me to assess my priorities, ambitions and whatnot. I think a lot has changed for me personally, even in my approach to work and to what I do.”
For the Nigerian born, Catford bred artist, this reflexivity has broken new ground for greater intentionality and purpose-driven movements: “I want to make sure what I’m doing is edifying and enriching for my listeners or people who come to my shows,” she outlines. It’s amidst this ripe ground for experimentation and self-expression that her debut album, Access Denied, came forth.
Some reviews of the album speak to the opening track, ‘BLK MADONNA’ and interpretations of how Ekwere compares herself to the pop sensation. However, what is possibly more interesting about the 14-track offering is the visible and ever-developing confidence of the artist, both within her craft and navigating the world, let alone the music industry, as a dark-skinned Black woman. Star-studded with features from the likes of Giggs, Kojey Radical and Kaash Paige, each track uncovers that little bit more about the 27-year-old: ‘Lovesick’ sees her blend soulful R&B with rap; ‘Lauren’s Skit’ reminds us that Ray BLK is a straight-talker lest we fever forget; ‘25’ speaks to how growing up in poverty and around domestic violence continues to shape her.
The ideation, and even the name of the album, comes from leaning into her own vulnerability: “Over time, I just saw a common theme about me writing songs about my challenge when it comes to being vulnerable in relationships and putting up walls just because of experiencing disappointment or trauma from my childhood.” Ekwere found herself grappling between how these walls have allowed her to create boundaries and assess who she lets into her life, but how they can also operate as a barrier to her own happiness and success. “So I wanted to put that into the album, and then, it had the other meaning where another recurring topic was talking about my experience within the music industry as a Black woman and feeling like I had to jump over hurdles and kick down doors.” It comes through, for example, in her track ‘Dark Skinned’ where she laments having to “redefine the hurt that made me hold my pride / Losing count of all the times that I had to cry / And dry my tears, pull up my socks, cause I have to try.”
I ask if the singer has always been comfortable talking about Blackness and what it means to be a Black woman in these spaces, or whether the confidence to be this vocal is something she has had to develop alongside her increasing visibility. There isn’t even a beat of hesitation before she says that it is something she had to learn. “Prior to the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and the passing of George Floyd, I feel like prior to that happening last year, a lot of people felt silenced, you know, there was a lot of fear in speaking up about certain issues in any sort of workplace,” Ekwere muses aloud, “because when you are the other, it feels too risky to be the whistleblower, to say that this is what I’m going through to people who have essentially no clue.”
She speaks to the fear of being accused of exaggerating and being misunderstood, with the possibility of alienation and blacklisting looming just behind. So when a number of Black people’s voices were coming together, it offered her courage. It saw the artist comment on the negative reactions to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘WAP’ with the assertion that “Black women are held to a different standard or are held way more accountable than our counterparts have been.” These are the kinds of things Ray BLK believes she can finally express, things she has been keeping quiet about for years until now “because now, you can’t call me crazy because everybody else is saying it.”
It’s evident that there’s a new lease of confidence in what she says and does and this now extends beyond her artistry and the music industry; alongside her studio debut, 2021 was also the year that Ray BLK expanded into beauty with a limited edition instant nails collection with Barry M Cosmetics, launching just last month. “I’m someone who does her nails every two weeks or less, not just because of what I do, but because I just enjoy looking good and, to me, my nails looking good is just as important as the outfit.” When lockdown made that impossible, Ekwere turned to online shops touting press-ons for application at home. “They were really boring! They were simple block colours and I just felt like, oh, I need something that’s a bit more exciting than this and it doesn’t exist.” And so the project with Barry M Cosmetics was born, yielding six bold styles, including bandana-inspired print tips named ‘Gang Gang’ and ‘Wave God’ denoting a marbled square set.
Naturally, I wonder if Ekwere is considering expanding her remit beyond the music world, to which she responds, “I think it’s just about timing. I’m a very creative person outside of music as well.” She adds that she has a lot of goals and endeavours she wants to bring to fruition, including tapping back into acting as she recalls her drama school days. There’s excitement in her voice as she explains that she wants to share more of herself outside of her music projects. “Over time, I’m becoming more and more comfortable because I can see that when I post stories, my fans really engage with that. They engage with my personality and want to see more of that so it’s like, okay cool, I’ll bring people in a little bit closer, whether that’s having my own podcast or whatever.”
It’s clear that having so much time to think and reflect over the last few years has given Ray BLK the push she needed to allow others into spaces where access has long been denied.