IIn early February this year, Rachel Keen was preparing for the Brit Awards. She was nervous; her heart was pounding. The shimmering orange dress she was wearing suddenly felt tight, like a giant snake around her neck. It was like seeing your ex for the first time after the breakup, and in a way, it was. All the big bosses from Keen’s former label Polydor were present. “The label I recently had very publicly slandered on Twitter!” She lets out a throaty cackle.
Keen – better known for her disk name Raye – stretched out on her sofa, naked in a beige button down shirt and jeans. Her father makes tea in the kitchen of the west London house she shares with her two sisters. Keen can laugh at the label drama now, but every ring and chuckle was hard-earned. Things were looking good for the 26-year-old until last year. She has had seven top 20 hits and songwriting credits for Beyoncé, John Legend and Charli XCX. Keen’s dance bops underscored the summer. First was her 2016 breakout You Don’t Know Me, and more recently, last year’s Bed, a disco-laced chart-topping hit she did with David Guetta and Joel Corry.
To outsiders, Keen was a thriving singer. To Keen, she was a singer trapped in a four-album record deal without having an album to her name. She was ushered into a slipstream of fast hit features while her own music was gutted and given to other artists on the Polydor roster. She shared all of this and more with the world in a strongly worded tweet posted on a whim last July. “That was the low point for me. I haven’t thought it through; I tried not to be rude or disrespectful. I was just desperate. That was me. I was just desperate.”
Today, almost exactly a year after that night, she releases “Hard Out Here,” the lead single from her forthcoming debut album. It’s a moment Keen has dreamed of since she was seven, after setting her sights on becoming a singer after hearing Jill Scott’s neo-soul. Expect nervousness. Ironically, Keen says she’s never felt so calm. “The purpose of this album is not to be big. When I release a song for this purpose, I have felt the most anxious so far. But this next music, baby… my goal isn’t to be the number one artist. It should be as honest and authentic as I can be. To honor all these different sides of me.”
It’s a relatively new venture for Keen, who recalls being told throughout her professional life to pick a lane and stick with it. “Ever since I joined the label, the message has been: You have to choose your sound or you’ll confuse people. I got it into my head that I’m not a real artist because I don’t have a sound. It was, as she puts it, a real mindf**k. “If you’re told often enough that having different styles is a weakness, you start talking to yourself. I looked at everyone else on the label and I was like, ‘Raye… everyone else has a clear identity; who are you?'”
Even when lounging around her house, Keen carries an air of old-school Hollywood about her. Maybe it’s the coiffed bob. Or the razor-sharp jawline that could slice through bread. Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark above her lip certainly helps. But the glamor has an edge, which can be found in her barely-there bleached eyebrows and black roots creeping onto her red tint. Even her gaze seems to know that she could never exist in just one lane.
In reality, Keen has long known who she is. Only now could she express it. “I’ve really felt like this for the longest time,” she clasps her hands over her mouth, trailing off her speech. The image is featured on the cover of her single: two pink, liver-spotted hands frame Keen’s cynical expression. Desperation is palpable on “Hard Out Here”. It was the first song Keen wrote after breaking up with Polydor. And it shows: The track is angry and cathartic, a real emotional outburst. “I was beside myself with anger. I picked up the mic, put on headphones and just sat there, crying, writing, screaming.” She is now screaming, flashing big, bright teeth. “I made my peace, but that was the first thing I had to say just to get the fuck out there.” She laughs and apologizes for the swearing.
She doesn’t “shoot” anyone with the track, she insists. “This is not a personal attack. I express how I feel. I am a young black woman fed up with being controlled and manipulated. I look at the white men under my label, the support they get, the love they get, the encouragement they get, which isn’t necessarily there for women on every label.” But again, she says , she made peace with it. “I believe in forgiveness. Given all the things I’ve been through — not just in the industry but in my entire life — if I didn’t learn how to forgive, I’d be a really ugly, bitter person.”
Her ability to forgive was put to the test at the Brits when Keen saw label executives for the first time since her tweet and subsequent release from her contract. “I found my way onto the Polydor party bus and everyone is freaking out. “Raye’s on the bus. Raye is on the bus!’ I thought, ‘Why am I here? There are eight other after parties I could have gone to and I chose my ex label which I publicly slandered online.” Keen confronted her old team and people she used to work with. “We had some pretty lengthy conversations and I got some apologies, which was nice.”
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Strange, says Keen, curling up on the sofa and picking up one of two fidget spinners on the table; “I literally have ADHD.” She says, “I could see the business side of it. There was no malicious intent. I was just a business model. I was a product that had to be sold. I see the logic.” She absentmindedly whips around one of the fidget spinner’s wings. “These people, understandably, came from a business perspective. While I was thinking, that’s my soul!” Keen melodramatically grabs her chest and melts into the sofa.
Keen really tried Polydor. That hurts the most. She did everything that was asked of her. Jumped through every hoop. Squeezed into every box. By the time she signed at 17, most of the tracks she had put out were R&B. “Then they said, ‘Raye, this music doesn’t sell in this country. You have to tap into a whole different sound.’” Dance and pop music was the order. Songs had to be 115 beats per minute. “I felt like they were saying to me, ‘Find your inner white girl. Let her come to the fore.” Ken nailed it. She went to Sweden, the pop capital of the world, and learned how to write a hit. “I learned the math, the symmetry; how to do a catchy chorus that you can’t get out of your head.” Keen says thoughtfully, “I’ve really endured a lot. I really smiled and waved. I did what I think women do best, which is hold back all my feelings, and I went and smiled and did my best.”
Keen is a ray of sunshine, pun intended. She is easily amused and an open book as she professes to be. Within seconds of meeting I’m “babe” and “girl”. Sometimes “gyaaal”. But an experience like yours leaves bruises behind – even if they usually bloom undiscovered. Press the wrong spot and it will sing. “I used to dream that one day the label would send me a big bouquet of flowers and a card that said ‘well done’. I saw my labelmates get that and it broke my heart,” she recalls. Her voice breaks and she starts to cry. “I really, really tried. All I wanted was to make her proud and the saddest thing is, despite all the anger and all, the big bosses were never proud of me.” Her eyes fall down and tears fall into her lap. A moment passes before Keen takes a deep breath. She’s reminding me—and maybe herself—that she’s made her peace with that. “I really have. I’m so willing to try again, but this time for myself. I’ll make myself proud. This is my mood now. Make me proud.” The tears have almost completely dried up.
The album will open other scars as well. On “Hard Out Here,” Keen sings about “almost dying of addiction.” Elsewhere on the record, these struggles are made uncomfortably explicit. “Honestly, there’s a lot of things I had to do to keep going,” she says. “There’s this image of women: stay together, be happy and polite, be thankful and don’t make a fuss. But there are things that go on behind the scenes and sometimes you just have to find a way to get through it. Things I had to do to be able to do my job.” That’s about as accurate as she wants to be today, Keen says. “Let’s save that!”
Later, Keen shows me her tattoos. There’s an ace of hearts playing card, her favorite Scripture; her year of birth; her middle name, Agata, which is also her grandmother’s name; Flags of the countries she is from: Ghana, Switzerland and Great Britain. All of them – even the little heart she got on a drunk night – are glimpses of who she is. There is an arrow on her wrist. A few inches away, on her hand, is a target. “It means focus,” she says. But as far as I can tell, Keen doesn’t need the memory. “I’m ready for this.”
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/raye-interview-b2112273.html Raye: “I’m a young black woman tired of being controlled and manipulated”