Wonderland.

RAY BLK

Unsigned, unassuming, uncompromising.

Jacket JULIAN ZIEGERLI, T-shirt TOPSHOP, trousers MCQ by ALEXANDER MCQUEEN, sunglasses DRIES VAN NOTEN for LINDA FARROW, rings EDGE OF AMBER and shoes PUMA BASKET HEART DENIM COLLECTION.

Picture this: it’s a harsh Sunday the morning after the night before. My brain feels like it’s about to drip out of my ears thanks to a night of drum and bass, fuelled by cheap spirits and the kind of knock off energy drinks that make your tongue feel like shag pile. I’m curled up in a student house, sharing a bed with three girls I’ve known for most of my life and I’m trying to remember what it’s like to feel normal. 

RAY BLK is playing in the background on a loop and has been for 20 minutes. Partially because no one can bear to move but mostly because she’s what we need right now. Between us we’ve lived through all of the experiences the 23-year-old Nigerian-born, Catford-raised singer writes about: drug dealer boyfriends, fierce hometown pride (0121 ‘til I die) and trying to scrape recognition in unforgiving industries. Searching for the relatable in Rita Ekwere’s lyrics is like playing coming-of-age bingo for 20-something-year-old girls – she sings about real life, the kinds of things that will make you feel normal.

“That really touches me and makes me feel like I’m doing something,” Ekwere says of her hoards of female fans when we meet on a sun-trapped street in her native south London, weeks after my hangover has healed. “Making music, on the surface it’s such a shallow industry… but to hear someone saying your music helped them feel better, it means something. Black girls as well, I always have them coming up to me and saying, ‘I’ve never seen anyone who looks like me doing what you do and get into the mainstream.’ It makes me happy that they’re happy to see themselves.”

(LEFT) Jacket and shorts FENDI, bra NEW LOOK, choker CHANEL, rings SIF JAKOBS and shoes PUMA BASKET HEART DENIM COLLECTION.
(RIGHT) Hat ANGEL CHEN, top FORTIE LABEL, trousers WAN HUNG, choker MARIA FRANCESCA PEPE and shoes PUMA BASKET HEART DENIM COLLECTION.

Since her first release – March 2015’s cinematic “Havisham” EP – Ekwere has been doing it for the ladies. Named after the Dickensian spinster and detailing a realist’s view of relationships, the seven-track collection set the tone for her frank and confrontational brand of R&B. Even her moniker stands for empowerment—developed by Ekwere and her closest friends—BLK expands to Building, Living Knowing.

Rewind further and you’ll realise she’s been forming the foundations for a music career since childhood, learning how to harmonise in church choirs and joining a rap group with master producer MNEK and his wordsmith brother Bartoven aged just 13. “We didn’t know what we were doing but we were really having studio sessions,” she raises black lacquered talons to cover her mouth as her laughter reverberates around the narrow street. “Writing the songs, doing multiple takes, even at that age MNEK and Bartoven were so good at what they were doing, they helped direct me in how to sing. I’ve taken so much from it and learnt so much from it… In our heads, we were gonna be fricking superstars.”

A decade of doing things her way means Ekwere is hesitant to sign with a label, not that they haven’t come knocking. It’s a brave but bold choice, after all, what kind of woman could preach power then hand it over to suits? “I’m still at an early stage so I don’t want to jump into something too fast without giving myself the opportunity to see what I’m capable of doing without that major label support,” she reasons defiantly. “One day I might sign, one day I might not… It would have to be a situation where it feels like it’s the right partnership… And you know, more coins!”

Top SADIE WILLIAMS, trousers MCQ by ALEXANDER MCQUEEN, ring SIF JAKOBS, socks TOPSHOP and shoes PUMA BASKET HEART DENIM COLLECTION.

So far she’s excelling alone, having released mini-album, Durt in October last year. Flickering between rap and soulful hollers, set to shimmering beats and punctuated with slang, it exhibits not only Ekwere’s talent but her personality too. Calling it “a sneak peek into what an album could be”, the seven songs are the result of a year’s development, featuring grime’s current golden boy, Stormzy as well as Wretch 32 and a particularly resonant collaboration with SG Lewis on “Chill Out”. Ekwere flew to Jamaica for the track’s video, determined on making transgender women, the “Gully Queens” its stars. She set out to raise awareness of the discrimination they face daily, living in storm drains and sewers for fear of being attacked. 

“They were showing us their scars and telling us how the week before, one of them had come out of the hospital after being bottled, yet they’re just so lively. They’re dancing, they’re up for being in this video, they don’t even know who I am, what I’m about, whatever,” Ekwere tells me. In the clip they’re kitted out in couture donated by Stella McCartney, anything but victims, strutting down an unpaved road like it’s fashion week in studded, towering platforms. “They’re just enjoying themselves,” she beams. “It made me feel like, ‘Why [am I] worried about [my] pathetic little struggles?’ They don’t mean anything.” Since returning home, Ekwere and the video’s creative team have set up a GoFundMe page for the Gully Queens to help the women find homes and jobs.

Sunglasses GUCCI, jacket MISBHV, gloves LOUIS GABRIEL-NOUCHI, trousers SERENA BUTE and shoes PUMA BASKET HEART DENIM COLLECTION.

With her beliefs and work so intrinsically linked, after just one listen you’ll know what Ekwere stands for and what she’s against, namely Tories and wastemen (although last time I checked they were basically the same thing). It’s this transparency between person and persona–along with her undeniable talent–that helped her claim the top spot in the BBC Sound of 2017 poll in January, much to her own humbling disbelief. 

“Before I was in the music industry, it wasn’t something I’d known about or paid attention to,” she confesses, still incredulous to be joining an alumni of winners including Adele, Sam Smith and the daddy of decadent rap, 50 Cent. “I remember the day [the announcement] was filmed, we’d been filming promo videos and stuff so I thought, ‘Oh maybe we’ll be top five or something, that would be cool.’ Then they had this massive TV-style recording camera and I was like, ‘That’s a big camera innit…’ I was blown away when they said I was number one, I still think back to it and it was so surreal.”

The next step is an album, “that’s my focus,” she promises. Don’t fear, there’ll be more singles in the interim, the most recent being Ekwere’s only original release so far this year, February’s “Patience (Freestyle)”, penned in LA last summer on her first US tour. “I was at a point where things were happening and going really well but it wasn’t happening at the speed of lightning,” she explains of the track’s subject matter: the importance of focusing on your own progress. “People were signing deals around me… I was questioning things.” Her refusal to be swept up in hype as an easy way to the top—no matter how well deserved—is how Ekwere is setting a new standard.  

“Even though things have been picking up and I’ve been doing a bunch of amazing things, day-to-day, my life hasn’t really changed that much,” she shrugs, satisfied. We stay in the sun a little longer than planned, debating whether Rihanna would be our mate if we met her (we both think so) and the golden years of MTV-era Missy Elliot (“i-freaking-conic”). Ekwere will make you feel normal, even though she’s anything but.

Shirt ALEXANDER WANG, bra NEW LOOK, shorts DKNY at HARVEY NICHOLS and choker TUKA.

Photography
Rosaline Shahnavaz
Fashion
Daisy Deane
Words
Lily Walker
Hair
Brady Lee at Stella Creative Artists using ColorProof
Makeup
Crystal Riley at Stella Creative Artists using Weleda
Fashions assistants
Lucy Hamilton, Jessica Gardener and Kayla Garner-Jones
Thanks to
Leman Locke Hotel, Whitechapel
RAY BLK