As she exclusively drops the video for ‘My Hood’ on Dazed, we meet the singer to talk honesty, Beyoncé and coming to terms with the best and worst of life in her hometown
RAY BLK is the singer channelling her likes, loves and occasional dislikes for her hometown into soulful and honest R&B tracks that you won’t be able to get out of your head. Such as her breakout song, “5050”, released at the end of last year, in which she called out a drug dealing boy who treats her like she’s just his “bredrin”. Or her latest, “My Hood”, produced by Courage and featuring Stormzy – a bittersweet ode that riffs on the good and the bad of life in south London, with BLK hailing from Catford and the MC from Croydon.
Written at a time of disillusionment with her hometown after being robbed by her neighbours, the experience left her shook, but “My Hood” isn’t a diss, it’s a compromise. "On these streets, these streets / In the dark, we glow / On these streets, these streets / We’re high when it’s low / On these streets, these streets / Through concrete, flowers grow”, sings BLK, all-the-while encouraging us, “You should come to my hood, my hood, my hood, my hood”, because, yes, bad things happen here, but strength and beauty can be born from adversity – and that’s the trade-off for her, and the song.
“I’m no longer imitating myself – I’m making the music that I want to make” – RAY BLK
Releasing her first project Havisham on Soundcloud early last year, 22-year-old BLK followed it up with singles “5050” and now “My Hood”. She also mentions that her next EP is on the horizon. Previously taking inspiration from both her life and the lives of her friends – even Charles Dickens characters – she admits the project will be more personal; an obvious progression, she says, from Havisham. “It’s way more me. I’m no longer imitating myself – I’m making the music that I want to make.”
BLK doesn’t come from a musical background. Her mother was a nurse – “but she’s always been very supportive” – instead she took inspiration as a young teenager through shows like MTV Base and American artists such as Missy Elliott, Pink, Mya, Mariah Carey and Biggie. But for someone who found her feet through sounds from across the pond, BLK’s music is inherently British. Singing about “cafs not a cafe”, the Blue Borough (Lewisham), Pepys estate (Deptford) and fast food joints like Morley’s (“ best fried chicken is in south”), her voice is a welcome addition to a new wave of homegrown R&B singers.
As Dazed’s premieres the video for “My Hood” – directed by Hector Dockrill – we catch up with BLK to talk about Beyoncé, English literature and what’s good – and bad – down south.
How did you get involved in music?
RAY BLK: I first fell in love with music from watching MTV Base, watching loads of that while I was growing up. I got very inspired and I started writing my own raps in my notebook around 13, 14. It’s a funny one because no one in my family’s really that creative or was really into music. The music I heard in my house was the gospel music or Nigerian music that my mum would play.
I’ve heard your sister wasn’t as supportive – she told you that you couldn’t sing.
RAY BLK: (laughs) Do you know what... it’s that older sibling rivalry thing, they never want to tell their younger siblings that they’re cool. So when I first started singing, she’d tell me I was really rubbish, but she’s extremely supportive these days.
In the latest issue of BRICK magazine, you said you were imitating yourself rather than being yourself with your EP, Havisham. What did you mean by that?
RAY BLK: I didn’t have any contacts, any connects or anything when I wanted to start making music professionally. I didn’t know any producers or engineers, or where I could even find a proper studio. So I ripped the beats off YouTube and then wrote the song. Then I found someone who was creative/courageous enough to use their studio to record it, but because now I have relationships with producers where I’m lucky enough to be able to influence what they’re doing, and it’s more a collaboration, I feel like what I was making before – as much as it’s influenced by me – it doesn’t really feel like me in comparison to projects I’m working on now.
“The female artists that inspire me are the ones who are most honest” – RAY BLK
You’ve spoken about the importance of connection. I think that comes through being honest, and your lyrics are. Do you think women are becoming more publicly honest?
RAY BLK: I feel like it depends on who you are as an artist and what it is you want to do with your music. The female artists that inspire me are the ones who are most honest. I’m a massive Amy Winehouse fan, I love Lauryn Hill, I loved Lil Kim when I was growing up. I mean, we have had a few but there are not a plethora of honest, female musicians, but I guess it’s based on what kind of artist you want to be and what you want your music to say.
Beyoncé was honest on Lemonade and now people like, ‘oh it’s not about being a hysterical woman, it’s about being honest and strong’. As a woman, listening to lyrics like those you’re like ‘oh wait, that’s me too, I’m not crazy’.
RAY BLK: Yeah I agree, exactly. I love that album. I’m a big Beyoncé fan (and I think) it’s my favourite album of hers because I feel like, more than anything, that album’s going to let a lot of women heal from being betrayed, and I love that. I feel like what I want to do with my music and what I feel music should be, is to be for people to enjoy, but also enrich their lives at some point.
Previously you’ve spoken a lot about love and heartbreak, but “My Hood” doesn’t talk about love for a person – it talks about love, and dislike, of an area. Can you tell us about it?
RAY BLK: I wrote it last September at a point when I was reflecting on where I’m from. To be honest, at the time, I wasn’t really feeling Catford, where I’m from. I really hated it because I’d recently been robbed by my neighbours.
I can laugh now but it wasn’t funny at the time. My neighbours were two doors down and this young boy, him and his friend broke into our house and stole loads of stuff, including our garden chairs, which they thought it was appropriate to display in their front garden. So very shameless, and it’s not actually something that we’ve been able to do anything about because that’s not how you handle things where I’m from, you know? You can’t call the police on your neighbours because it might turn around and backfire on you.
I’ve been getting older, I’ve been realising that where I’m from is not a very nice place, to put it quite plainly. When I was younger, growing up, you don’t really realise what’s going on around you. I was saying to one of my friends, every day I’d see a police car, every day I’d hear sirens and it’s been like that since I’ve lived here from really young, but I never put two and two together that I actually lived somewhere that was quite dangerous, where police actually have to be around quite a bit. But I also saw the beauty in where I’m from, like the people, the culture, so there’s good and bad and that’s what I wanted to speak about in the song.
“I’ve been getting older, I’ve been realising that where I’m from is not a very nice place... But I also saw the beauty, like the people, the culture, so there’s good and bad and that’s what I wanted to speak about in the song” – RAY BLK
You worked with Stormzy for the song, how did that come about?
RAY BLK: I met him, I think maybe three years ago now, at a show in Croydon. It’s been amazing to watch him rise and the song is about positivity as well. Like I said in the song, I’m from somewhere that is a concrete jungle, it’s a difficult place but I think it rears us to be stronger, tougher people, more hardworking, and I feel like he’s a representation of that, someone who came from somewhere dangerous in south Croydon, and someone who’s risen out of that, so I had to get him on it.
What were your ideas behind the video?
RAY BLK: We decided to build a set and make a fake hood, so it was a bit more theatrical to show that although people feel like the hood isn’t a real place. People who aren’t from here, when they read in the newspaper that a boy’s been stabbed or this is happening, and that is happening, it’s very surreal, so I think for people who aren’t from there, it’s almost like a theatre show, and so we wanted to mirror that but to emphasise that the hood is a real place.
A lot of people only see the hood in movies.
RAY BLK: Exactly. I watched Paid in Full the other day, and obviously, I’m not from the streets in America, but it didn’t seem so far-fetched to me, but for someone else it’s a film. It’s wild to think that anyone could live somewhere where people get shot every day, people get stabbed every day and crackheads are running around, but that actually is what it’s like in my area, so it’s not fictional and we wanted to say that in the video.
I know there is that darkness to it, but it’s such a song I love to listen to, on a Sunday morning or something.
RAY BLK: It’s meant to be uplifting, this is the thing! I know it’s a darker subject but it’s meant to remind people from where I’m from – not to get all preachy, but – there’s hope and if you work hard you can make it out and this place only makes us stronger.
Lastly, if you could take us to one place in south – not Morley’s, too obvious – where would it be?
RAY BLK: Erm (pauses)... we call it ‘the caf’ so I’ve forgotten the name of it! (laughs)
You know somewhere that’s around you and you always go there but you don’t even know what it’s called because you end up there. (she texts later to tell me that it’s called Bluejay) It’s a Jamaican-slash-British caf and it’s a spot that everyone has to go to if they’re in Croydon. You’ll have a dumpling and you’ll get some ackee and saltfish and some baked beans on the side as well.