Raleigh Ritchie feels like he’s floating. The world is navigating a pandemic, and he reckons that maybe that is partly to blame, but this feeling is not new to him. He grew up wishing to be an astronaut, dreaming of detaching from this world and discovering a better one. For what seems like his whole life, he has been hovering above the same questions with the answers just out of reach.
“Identity is something I’m thinking about all the time. Constantly,” Ritchie, born Jacob Anderson, tells tmrw. “How I identify myself. How other people identify me. Who I am relative to my friends and my family.”
And so he made “Aristocrats,” released today as the first single from his forthcoming sophomore album Andy due out this summer. His 2016 debut album You’re A Man Now, Boy detailed the fear and hardship attached to coming of age. Andy takes a harder look at the loose ends that followed him into adulthood. “Aristocrats” is an anchor preventing him from drifting even further away from his true self. The album, titled after a nickname that originated with his grandfather and became his own, is his vessel to be as transparent as he’s ever been and “say things that I needed to say all along.”
Ritchie has realized in hindsight that, dating back to childhood, his identity has been unwillingly taken out of his control and placed in undeserving people’s hands. They have decided what was to be expected from him, how he deserved to be responded to, where he did and did not fit. To this day, he struggles with reconciling how he sees himself with how other people see him. When he feels especially low, he will tell himself he is inarticulate, awkward or boring. He won’t understand why anybody likes him at all. When he senses somebody else unfairly judging him, though, he comes to his own defense. Fuck you, he’ll think. I’m not that bad.
At 29 years old, he is growing more confident in believing that his identity is up to him and nobody else. That’s not to say he is immune.
“I don’t feel welcome always or part of the history of the country that I’m from, and it’s always bothered me,” he says. “Always. Since I was a kid. And I feel like it’s done me some irrevocable damage in how I see myself and my self-esteem. [I] wanted to make something that expressed how it feels to want that so badly and then sometimes it can put you in this weird headspace of self-destruction and confusion and not quite understanding what your place is in everything.”
With “Aristocrats” and the song’s accompanying music video, which he directed, he is asserting his presence.
The visual features Ritchie alongside two other black men and four black women posing for a family portrait in front of the U.K. flag. That by itself is a rebellion against the traditional British aristocracy. England, Ritchie notes, has a tendency to “pretend racism doesn’t exist.” The cast’s collective wardrobe changes from frame to frame, nodding toward the exhausting task of accommodating bigoted boxes. One second, they are royals. The next, they are military officials. The next, they are punks. But the whole time, they are the same people.
Ritchie’s vocals draw the focus inward:
I don’t even know if I know my own mind
I don’t even know if I’m on my own time
I don’t even know if I know what’s right for me
I don’t even want a patch on my jacket
I don’t wanna move another tax bracket
I don’t wanna be a part of my family tree
I don’t wanna turn my back
No, I don’t wanna part of that
In the aristocracy
The divide between how Jacob Anderson experiences and internalizes these traumas versus how Raleigh Ritchie portrays them is bridged when he begins to cry toward the end of the video. This is him. All of it. Even the small, scared boy helplessly watching untamed flames envelop the room. The screen goes dark, and you can’t help but want to find that boy and hug him. To go back and reassure Andy.
He sings that suppressing memories is easier, that he has sacrificed his whole life for people and systems that are reckless with the real estate they own within his mind.
But some memories, they can’t take from him.
As a boy, Ritchie loved a British television series called Desmond‘s. The black sitcom was set in a barbershop and gave him a sense of community through a screen before he could search for his own tangible community in reality.
He remembers the first time he watched Men in Black and fondly recalls the inclusive feeling associated with seeing Will Smith fight aliens. It didn’t matter that it was Will Smith. It mattered that it was someone who looked like him. I could be fighting aliens, he thought.
“I don’t think I was aware at the time that that was how it feels to not feel like you have to paste yourself into something that you’re not included in, but I guess that’s what representation felt like,” Ritchie says. “It’s just this feeling. It’s warm. Feels warm. It’s few and far between, still, now even. No, I don’t know when I first became aware of being left out, but it’s not necessarily being aware of something that’s absent; it’s being aware of something that’s present.”
“Aristocrats” is Ritchie’s way of paying it forward. He is not fighting aliens. He is fighting against alienation. He is reclaiming himself and showing those who feel and look like him that they can do the same.
“I felt like I hadn’t seen a lot of the imagery in the [‘Aristocrats’] video,” he says. “I hadn’t really seen it a lot, but I picture it in my head. It gave me goosebumps. It made me feel really safe and included. I think I was responding to the lack of something—or what I deemed as like a lack of something—and just wanting to make it exist for a little bit.”
“Aristocrats” and Andy‘s other 11 tracks find Raleigh Ritchie where he belongs. Take it or leave it, this is him. All of it. And he’s not going anywhere.