"When I put out my first EP I genuinely expected to have no more than 20 listens," says 23 year-old singer songwriter Ray BLK, reflecting on her rapid rise to fame. "I made it with no resources. I ripped the beats off YouTube. I begged someone that I found online to let me use his studio and I just sent it to a bunch of my friends, who I thought would be the only ones who heard it. So to be here is really crazy."
Life is also about to get a whole lot crazier, after BLK -- whose real name is Rita Ekwere - was today (Jan 06) announced as the winner of the BBC Sound of 2017 poll, previously topped by everyone from Adele to Sam Smith to Ellie Goulding. "I'm sure everybody [nominated] hopes to win it and I'm a dreamer, but this was really unexpected," says Nigeria born, London-based BLK, who is the first ever independent artist to top the annual poll, voted for by around 170 industry experts, DJs, festival bookers, critics and bloggers. Second spot went to 2017 Brits Critics' Choice winner Rag N Bone Man (signed to Columbia) with 18 year-old London singer Raye in third.
"It's a bit crazy to be amongst the names of the alumni winners," continues BLK. "It means the voters must have seen something special because they saw something special in those artists who have gone on to achieve so much success. I just hope that I follow on from that, take the torch and achieve some success as well," adds the singer-songwriter, whose adopted surname stands for Building Living Knowing.
The artist describes her music as "new school R&B influenced by soul and hip hop" and cites her childhood singing in a church and school choir as lighting the fire for her future career. In her early teens, her tastes expanded to U.S. hip hop artists like Missy Elliot, Jay Z and Nas, swiftly followed by Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill, who she describes as "two of the biggest influences" behind her own sound, which blends raw and candid lyrics about life in Catford, a far from glamorous part of South London, with soaring melodies and soulful, gospel-tinged vocals.
"I just write about me and the environment and where I'm from," states the singer, whose debut Havisham EP tells the story of a girl who falls in love, has her heart broken and becomes a cold hearted man hater. Released in March 2015 on SoundCloud and named after the character Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, the 7-track EP was followed by 5050, which sees BLK document a rocky relationship with a commitment-phobe drug dealer over skeletal beats and glacial synths. The Aston Rudi-produced track landed BLK spots on the A-List of influential radio stations BBC 1Xtra and Rinse FM, introducing her to a wider audience. Last year's bittersweet "My Hood" -- written after her home was robbed by her neighbors and featuring a guest vocal from British grime artist Stormzy -- brought her further mainstream recognition.
"I wanted to get Stormzy on it because I felt like the message of the song really represented who he is and what he means to people. People see him a real inspiration and I wanted the song to hopefully inspire people where I'm from," explains BLK, who says she has mixed feelings about the area where she grew up in and continues to live.
"Some mornings I love it and some I don't. As an innocent teenager who wasn't involved in anything rough at all I just walked around blindly and I never felt like I lived in a rough area, although people would always tell me that. But I feel like coming from [Catford] has really grounded me and made me a strong person. It pushed me to work harder."
Last fall's "Chill Out," a stirring electro soul torch song made in collaboration with British producer SG Lewis, with a video shot in Jamaica that features BLK performing alongside members of the Gully Queens, a community of LGBT individuals living in one of the world's most homophobic countries, offered further evidence of the singer's talent. It features on Durt, a 7-track mini album that collects together the artist's singles to date, released late last year. Today also sees the release of a soulful new freestyle called "Patience," although BLK says there's no concrete plans for a debut album proper quite yet.
"You never know what might happen. But for now I'm just working on compiling the best songs I can for whatever it will be that I put out in the future," says BLK, whose elevation through the pop ranks comes at a time when home grown urban artists are thriving in the U.K. Four of the top five Sound of 2017 acts are black British women, reflecting a blossoming of female R&B and hip hop talent, largely based in London.
Last year also saw grime, a long underground, hard-hitting and distinctly British form of hip-hop, make its mainstream breakthrough, with Skepta's Konnichiwa album beating David Bowie and Radiohead to the 2016 Mercury Prize and scene stalwarts like Kano and Giggs scoring commercial success.
"It makes me so happy that Britain is starting to appreciate British music more," declares BLK, who says that, like many of the current scene leaders, she intends to remain independent (in partnership with Kobalt Music Services). "It makes me so happy to turn on to the radio and hear acts form the U.K. and also see them being successful. It's a privilege to be among those names. It's representative of what's going on right now. The more artists that come out being authentic to who they are and what they want to do will influence other people to do the same."