Raye's lockdown listening: 'Nina Simone tears your skin and burns your eardrums'

The British dance-pop star considers Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come amid the Black Lives Matter protests, and picks out tracks by Otis Redding, Miraa May and more

I’ve been quarantined at the family house, with instruments everywhere, and we have a little studio in the back garden so I’m not having a creative drought. I’ve been writing on Zoom with Ryan Tedder [a songwriter for Adele and Beyoncé and OneRepublic frontman], exploring powerful feminist messages which I’m very passionate about. I’m so used to being out and about, soaking in everything around me like a sponge, and writing down snapshots of things I see or feel. So in this stillness, I’m forced to look inside myself.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on the ups and downs I’ve been through as a woman – some of the tough things I’ve maybe buried, which I’ve had to pull out of myself and look at. I’ve had an unfair share of negative experiences and trauma. It’s not particularly nice to even talk about, but I’m getting the confidence to put these feelings and emotions into music.

I’ve been working on a project that explains the seven stages of grief. The first song is a really dramatic, confused power ballad, and then we progress through to the last song when you finally say with your full heart that you’ve healed. The goal is a mini album, and I think I’ll be more proud of this work than I feel about anything I’ve put out so far. I’m grateful to have a book I can write in and sing out of – if I didn’t have a pen I would be so lost.

When lockdown started, I thought, right, that’s the end of Tequila [Raye’s track with Jax Jones and Martin Solveig]: it’s literally talking about being in a club doing tequila with your friends. But when shit hit the fan, sales of dance and electronic music seemed to skyrocket. It’s escapism in its finest form – you can close your eyes and be where you want to be. It provides euphoria and positivity. Secrets [with Regard] strikes that balance of positivity and escapism, too, but it has these dark tones, which marry really well together at a time like this. Both tracks have ended up providing people with happiness, little house party vibes, having a barbecue when the sun’s out – you can almost pretend for a hot second that there’s nothing wrong with the world when you have this kind of music.

Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come

I’ve been listening to Sam Cooke, and sadly we’re still singing this same message. He released this song in 1964, and a lot has changed since then, but a lot hasn’t. But I do believe a change is gonna come – a real one. As dark and depressing as this moment is, I don’t think I’ve seen the same message being drilled home with this intensity: black lives matter. I have never seen so many white people opening their mouths and saying this, people like Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga, all unapologetically saying black lives matter and nothing matters until that matters. It gives me hope.

Because we’re sick and tired. Things that even little me has witnessed on my family – I’m from a Ghanaian history – and on some of my closest black friends: being called the N-word for parking wrongly; being fired from a job because her hair wasn’t right. I don’t know where all this hope is coming from but we’re getting there, we’re stepping towards saying what needs to be said, unfiltered. And it can’t just be black people – black people should not be having to fight this issue because we did not create it in the first place, white people did. So it’s up to white people to fix it.

Nina Simone – Baltimore

This song is so beautiful – when the strings come in, my heart is so happy. With songs like Mississippi Goddam, Nina was unafraid to say what needed to be said. I aspire to earn the platform to say whatever I feel needs to be said. She was being told from all sides: you’re at the height of your career, you need to stay singing what the white people and the pop audience want to hear. And she was like, no, I’m going to use my voice to scream the painful truth in your face. The grit of her voice, and the tone – she tears through your skin, she burns your eardrums. She’s incredible. There’s a reason hip-hop and R&B has been sampling her voice for years – because she is one of the most important voices in music, recurring and re-evolving, that we need to hear right now. What a woman.

Otis Redding – (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay

My song for the first two weeks of quarantine was Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, because I felt as if I was doing absolutely nothing. It’s such a beautiful song, one that validates just enjoying your environment and processing that stillness. As soon as the sun came out, I started playing Modjo’s Lady – that makes you feel happy even though you don’t know what you’re happy about. It chases the blues away.

Miraa May – Woman Like Me

On another positive note there’s Miraa May, who has just given birth to a baby boy, and I’ve been completely indulging in her song Woman Like Me. It’s sparked some sort of light within me; it’s beautiful, sensual, feminine, gorgeous. I’ve been putting it on, closing my eyes and feeling: ah, I’m a woman, it’s great!

Skepta, Chip & Young Adz – Waze

Skepta, Chip and Young Adz did an album together and there’s a song on it called Waze that I just love. It makes me feel empowered, it fuels me, it sets my ego alight. I put it on loud in the car when I go to Tesco for the weekly shop. It’s like when I put on JME in the car when I need to feel like a bad bitch.

The Weeknd – Too Late

Earth, Wind & Fire have been keeping me positive too – they are optimism in its purest form. The Righteous Brothers keep me going, and the Weeknd’s new project is amazing. I like Too Late, it has this trip-hop influence, with Massive Attack and Portishead vibes. He has his particular verse delivery that he repeats across his whole career, but the way the music has evolved is stunning.


Interview by Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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