‘Black Mascara’: The Reclamation of RAYE

Jon Ali is In The Know’s music contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.

No hype, no gloss, no pretense. Just RAYE, stripped… finally, for the first time.

The South London-bred songstress is back at it yet again in 2022, strutting ahead with a whole new sense of empowerment and, yes, brand new music.

If you’re just getting acquainted with RAYE, you should know that she is no stranger to the dance floor. Over the past few years, RAYE supplied vocals to some of the biggest records the dance-pop scene has to offer: “You Don’t Know Me” from Jax Jones, “Stay (Don’t Go Away)” from David Guetta, “By Your Side” with Jonas Blue, “Secrets” with Regard, “BED” with Joel Corry and most recently “Waterfall” with Disclosure. Yes, she sang all of those smashes.

That’s not even mentioning the millions of streams she’s accumulated on her own with sublime solo releases like “Regardless,” “Call On Me,” “Please Don’t Touch,” “Decline” and “Natalie Don’t,” or the 3.5 billion streams for hits she penned for other chart-topping acts like Beyoncé, John Legend, Anitta, Ellie Goulding, Little Mix and Charli XCX.

No matter how you look at it, RAYE has been doing the damn thing and doing it well. It isn’t until this moment, though, that we’re finally able to hear her in the way she intended.

Just over a year ago, RAYE blew up her career to rebuild it on her terms. Frustrated by the fact that, despite all of her success, her label Polydor continually denied her the chance to release her debut album, she posted a series of tweets that revealed not only her struggles but also the plight of female artists in the music industry. There are countless female artists caught in an endless loop of faceless dance features and broken promises from their labels.

In that emotionally febrile period between posting her tweets and being released by Polydor in July 2021, RAYE started working on the recently released track “Hard Out Here,” her no-holds-barred reclamation and official debut as an independent artist. RAYE has since signed with the leading distribution and artist services company, Human Re Sources.

Taking aim at her old label, the broader music industry, the patriarchy and toxic masculinity, “Hard Out Here” revels in its raw honesty. “What you know about systems / About drugged drinks / F***ing nearly dying from addictions,” RAYE sings with angst over an epic concoction of scattergun beats, featherlight strings and ghostly backing vocals, laying bear her seven-year experience in the music industry. “Hard Out Here” covers everything from artistic frustration to addiction to religion to the treatment of female songwriters, with one line — “All the white men CEO’s f*** your privilege / Get your pink chubby hands off my mouth” — a potent metaphor for how RAYE has felt as a young mixed race female artist trying to navigate the music industry.

“What’s crazy is I made this song years ago but couldn’t release it. Once I became an independent artist, I revisited the track and poured into it from a different lens, with a completely new topline,” RAYE told In The Know. “Recording it and writing those new lyrics was pure medicine for me. It didn’t even feel real finally being able to release it into the world, even though it was scary too due to the intensity of the subject matters and departure from my previous sonics. I wasn’t chasing the charts with this song, nor am I with any of this new chapter, to be honest. I wanted to make an honest statement to express my true feelings, and in that, I succeeded.”

“Hard Out Here” is just the start. RAYE will announce her long-awaited debut album very soon, and, for the first time, she’s getting to do it her way.

“I’m in a space where I can finally express myself as an artist with absolutely no constraint, no filter,” RAYE told In The Know. “I’m feeling so empowered about where I am in my career and where I’m heading with my artistry, as a person and most importantly as a woman. Most people are familiar with me through dance songs they’ve heard me featured on, but putting this music out in the world is allowing me to invite people into who I am, completely, honestly and unfiltered.”

The second chapter of this deserved reclamation comes in the form of “Black Mascara,” another emotional release for the singer. Paired alongside a hypnotic, pulsating dance beat, “Black Mascara” finds RAYE harkening back to her dance roots with a dark and brooding undertone to push the song’s heartbreaking narrative forward.

“Yes, this is the second chapter I wanted to share. Juxtaposition is so important to me personally and musically. ‘Black Mascara’ is another story that contributes to my ‘blues,’” RAYE told In The Know. “I used the contrast of a fast-paced electronic dance track to tell a dark story of being misled by someone I really stupidly trusted, which caused me so much distress. The video tells this story through art, movement and a sad glass of milk. It is me taking my ugly pain and transforming [it] into a healing power. It’s me with black mascara accepting my pain and knowing I will find a way to get rid of it, which is exactly what creating this song was for me in the first place.”

The new standout is notably the only dance song said to be featured on the upcoming LP, and that’s how she intended it. “Yes, when I am really hurting, I can’t listen to sad music. I needed to create something that allowed me to accept the dark space I was in, hence the dark yet euphoric nature of ‘Black Mascara,’” RAYE continued. “This is the only dance song on the album, and it felt like the right second song from this body of work to share with the world. And yes, I guess it was intentional.”

Our first two glimpses into RAYE’s upcoming LP only further illustrate the artistic rebirth of RAYE as she sheds her tears and steps into unconfined territory. 

“I’d love to consider myself a multifaceted artist. Music is my first love; I never ever want to be confined to genres,” RAYE said. “I guess that’s what led to my frustrations before becoming an independent artist – the inability to express myself creatively and constantly being restricted to certain requirements and bpm’s. I’ve always pushed the boundaries with my music; I’m just finally getting the opportunity to share it.”

While the record may not be jam-packed with the dance tracks we’ve come to expect from her, RAYE promises the album will be a true reflection of herself told through “many different sounds and sonic landscapes.”

“I don’t want to give away too much now. I want the music to speak,” RAYE continued. ”Nina Simone is one of my biggest icons, especially for her boldness and her lyricism, and I was very passionately inspired by her quote, ‘It is an artist’s duty to reflect the times,’ which has guided me to tell some honest difficult stories about my own observations and my own blues. My wonderful executive producer and one of my closest friends Mike Sabath and I have worked so hard studying different musical histories in depth across the years, which has inspired my modern-day interpretation of my ‘blues.’

“All of these songs on the album are really special to me,” RAYE added. They’re all stories I’ve collected throughout my life poured into the music. Some I have been holding onto longer than others. I talk about difficult but important subject matters, such as body dysmorphia, abuse, addiction, climate change etc. It is all very personal, I would say there are even some I am nervous to share, but being this transparent and raw, in my humble opinion, that is true music.”

Now that RAYE has a supportive infrastructure that allows her to focus on building on those years of hard work, we can expect the healing to begin.

The best artists are those who dare to challenge and dare to question, who break free and liberate themselves. This is where RAYE is now, and we get to be along for the ride. There’s no holding back anymore — and the time to fully get onboard with RAYE is now!

Credit: Sebastian Kapfhammer

In The Know: Are you finally saying everything you want to communicate through your music?

RAYE: Yes, and I hope it allows for my fans to have a safe space to share their pains, hidden anxieties and fears, as well as sonic landscapes to empower and carry you through these moments in some way, as they have been medicine for me in my life.

What do you hope listeners take away from this body of work?

I hope they come away from this body of work understanding me better, as an artist and as a human. I also hope this connects with those who need it. We’re often left to navigate uncomfortable situations and feel too ashamed to share it. Even though I am aware this will be a big departure from my previous music and I may lose some listeners, this body of work has allowed me to heal boldly and loudly, and I hope it does that for my fans and new fans to come.

What more can we expect from RAYE moving forward?

More music as I continue to step into myself as an artist. Thank you <3

If you enjoyed this story, read Jon Ali’s spotlight on Gia Woods here!

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