How Raye overcame music industry misogyny to become Britain’s brightest star

How Raye overcame music industry misogyny to become Britain’s brightest star

It's been a huge twelve months for Raye, the south London singer-songwriter who made a very public stand against the creative restrictions of her major label, escaped her deal altogether, and then went on to scoop a Mercury Prize nomination for her debut album My 21st Century Blues.

Now, she’s made Brits history,  and following her incredible winning streak over the weekend, she now holds the record for the most Brit wins in a single year.

Raye bagged an impressive seven nominations across all of the categories, and won six of them on the big night – the maximum number possible given that she had two nominations in the Song of the Year category. It races past the previous record of four wins in one night, set by Blur, Adele, and Harry Styles.

“When I heard how many awards I was up for, I was lost for words,” Raye told The Times ahead of the UK’s biggest music awards. “It is ridiculously overwhelming. I had hoped to get a nod, possibly two, because I knew I was performing. But the way I look at it, the Brits have already done me a service. Imposter syndrome is real — I know because I have it — but I’m an optimist. You need to be to survive in this game.”

And on the night itself Raye seemed slightly delirious by win number six: who can blame her. Picking up the prize for Album of the Year, the singer brought her grandmother up on stage for her acceptance speech and jokingly apologised for “ugly crying” live on television.

She also gave one of the best live performances of the night; a flawless, jazz-inspired megamix that raced through some of her greatest songs to date. Starting with a sparse, piano-led performance of Ice Cream Man (a raw, painful retelling of sexual abuse in the music industry) the opener was followed by an orchestral Prada, and then Escapism, the whole thing bolstered by a huge live band.

If you’ve been aboard the Raye-train since day one, it’s time to celebrate, but if you’re a newer fan, here’s everything you need to know about the rising star.

She fought back against her major label – and won. It has paved the way for other artists to demand better treatment

Raye’s long-awaited debut album My 21st Century Blues narrowly missed out on a number one chart spot and landed the singer-songwriter a nod at the Mercury Prize, and a win at the Ivor Novellos for Escapism. Now, it has beaten out the likes of Little Simz, Blur, and Young Fathers to pick up a Brit for Album of the Year. An especially vindicating turn of events given that she had spent years fighting tooth and nail to release it.

Raised in Tooting, Raye grew up in a musical household. Her dad was a musical director at a local church while her mum and Raye both sang in a gospel choir there; by her teens, she was a student at the Brit school, but dropped out after two years as she felt "confined...despite learning an extensive amount." “As a Ghanaian-Swiss Brit, I grew up with so many different cultures. Gospel, soul, jazz, and R&B were what I felt connected to as an artist,” Raye told Vogue.

Her siblings are both musical, too. One sister, Abby Lynn Keen, is a songwriter for the likes of Normani, Rihanna, Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez. Her other sister Lauren Keen is also a musician.

The singer’s initial breakthrough came when she released a debut EP when she was just 16, while an early track called HotBox impressed the UK pop star Olly Alexander, then the vocalist of Years & Years.

Then, off the back of this, Raye landed a shiny, four-album major label deal with Polydor in 2014 and spent the next seven years battling for creative control, and being allowed to release very little of the music she believed in.

“When you take a step back and remove emotion I was a product that needed to be sold.” she later told Louis Theroux, appearing on his latest interview series. “

Though Raye had a near-finished album ready when she signed the record deal, she grew frustrated as her label pushed her to make chart-ready dance pop. “'So what?', you might think,” she told Theroux. “If you can make a living from churning out identikit dance anthems, where's the harm?” But for Raye, doing so wasn’t just boring, it stifled her creative spirit and pushed her towards drink, and then drugs. "I was able to get along with my career because I was in some form of sedation," she said.

The singer has also spoken about a culture of misogyny in the music industry; her song Ice Cream Man is partially about a music producer who sexually assaulted her when she was 17, as well as a number of other experiences. Attempting to heal from these moments was tough, and she has spoken about using drugs to try and escape from her feelings. “Sadly, substance abuse was entangled with numbing the trauma that I had experienced,” she said. “I got pretty deep in and it got really dangerous at one point."

Eventually, Raye reached her limits with her major label situation, and spoke out against them in a public video in 2021. The singer explained that she had dozens of potential hits "sat in folders collecting dust" or being given away to bigger, more established artists, and begged to be released from her contract.  "I've done everything [Polydor] asked me, I switched genres, I worked seven days a week," she said. "They either listen to me now or we part ways and they can save themselves this headache. Because I'm about to make it a headache."

Polydor were admittedly sympathetic, and Raye was eventually released from her deal. Once freed from her previous obligations, she was finally able to put out an independently-released debut record,  My 21st Century Blues, after a long time in label limbo.

Her debut album lays bare some difficult experiences: from industry abuse to numbing her pain with substances

After years of being pushed as a dance-pop guest artist, Raye’s debut album is another prospect altogether; painting a stark picture of the toxicity that still runs rife, largely unchecked, through the music industry.

From hedonism to substance abuse, she doesn't shy away from taking aim at the highest echelons of the industry she started out in – “Look what they done to Amy,” she sings on Mary Jane. in reference to Amy Winehouse. On Ice Cream Man, meanwhile, she amalgamates a number of disturbing encounters with powerful men. “When I got there, should've heard what he was saying,” she sings, recounting a starry producer who invited her down to his studio, “Tryna touch me, tryna f**k me, I'm not playing.” It’s a chilling song.

"It’s impossible for the listener not to root for her, especially when the drums crash in on Escapism, the number one single that confirmed her comeback," wrote the Standard in a four-star review. "'Today I feel like a toilet,' she wrote that miserable summer. How far she has come."