Yon early February of this year, Rachel Keen was getting ready for the Brit Awards. She was nervous; her heart was pounding. The shimmery orange gown she was wearing suddenly felt tight, like a boa constrictor around her neck. It was like seeing your ex for the first time post break-up, and in a way it was. Every big boss from Keen’s former label Polydor was in attendance. “The label that I had very recently, very publicly slandered on Twitter!” She lets out a full-throated cackle.
Keen – better known by her dial name Raye – is sprawled out on her sofa, barefaced in a beige button-up shirt and jeans. Her dad de ella is making tea in the kitchen of the west London home she shares with her two sisters. Keen can laugh about the label drama now, but every peal and every chuckle has been hard won. Up until last year, things had looked peachy for the 26-year-old. She had seven top 20 hits to her name de ella and songwriting credits for Beyoncé, John Legend, and Charli XCX. Keen’s dance bops soundtracked summers. First, there was her 2016 breakout “You Don’t Know Me” and more recently, last year’s “Bed”, a disco-decked chart-topper she made with David Guetta and Joel Corry.
To outsiders, Keen was a singer thriving. To Keen, she was a singer trapped in a four-album record deal without an album to her name. She was ushered into a slipstream of fast hit features, while her own music by ella was gutted and given to other artists on the Polydor roster. She relayed all this and more to the world in a strongly worded tweet posted on a whim last July. “That was rock bottom for me. I didn’t think it through; I tried not to be rude or disrespectful. I was just desperate. That’s what I was. I was just desperate.”
Today, almost exactly a year since that night, she releases “Hard Out Here”, the lead single from her forthcoming debut album. It’s a moment Keen has dreamt of since she was seven, having her set her sights on becoming a singer after hearing the neo-soul of Jill Scott. Nerves are to be expected. It’s ironic, then, that Keen says she has never felt so calm. “The purpose of this album isn’t to be big. When I’m putting out a song for that purpose, that’s when I have previously found myself feeling the most anxious. But this next music, babe… my purpose isn’t to be the number one artist. It’s to be the most honest and authentic I can be. To honor all these different sides of me.”
It’s a relatively new endeavor for Keen, who recalls being told her entire professional life to choose a lane and stick to it. “Since I joined the label, the message was: you need to choose your sound otherwise you’re confusing people. I got it into my head that I wasn’t a real artist because I didn’t have one sound. It was, as she puts it, a real mindf**k. “When you’re told enough times that having different styles is a weakness, you start to talk down to yourself. I was looking at everyone else on the label asking myself, ‘Raye… everyone else has a clear identity; quien eres?'”
Even slouching about 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. The Marilyn Monroe beauty mark above her lip certainly helps. But there’s an edge to the glamour, her barely there bleached eyebrows present, and the black roots creeping up on her red dye-job. Even her look of her seems to know she could never exist in just one lane.
In reality, Keen has known who she is for a long time. Only now has she been able to express it. “I genuinely felt like this for the longest time,” she claps her hands over her mouth, muffling her speech. The image is reproduced on the cover art for her single by Ella: two pinkish, liver-spotted hands frame Keen’s cynical mien. On “Hard Out Here”, the exasperation is palpable. It was the first song Keen wrote after parting ways with Polydor. And it shows: the track is angry and cathartic, a straight-up purging of emotion. “I was beside myself raging. I got on the mic, put headphones on and just sat there, crying, writing, shouting.” She screams now, flashing a set of big, bright teeth. “I’ve made my peace, but that was the first thing I needed to say, just to f***ing get it out” She laughs and apologises for swearing.
She’s not “gunning” for anyone with the track, she insists. “It’s not a personal attack. It’s me expressing how I feel. I’m a young woman of color who is 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 at any label.” But again, she says, she has made peace with it. “I believe in forgiveness. Given all the things that I’ve been through – not just in the industry but my whole life – if I didn’t learn how to forgive, I would be a really ugly, bitter person.”
Her ability to forgive was tested at the Brits, when Keen saw the 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’s freaking out. ‘Raye is on the bus. Raye is on the bus!’ I was like, ‘Why am I here? There are eight other after-parties I could have gone to, and I’ve chosen my ex-label who I’ve publicly slandered online.” Keen confronted her old team and individuals she used to work with. “We had some pretty at-length conversations and I got some apologies, which was lovely.”
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It’s strange, Keen says, settling into the sofa and picking up one of two fidget spinners on the table; “I literally have ADHD.” She says, “I was able to see the business side behind it all. There was no malicious intent. I was just a business model. I was a product that needed to be sold. I do understand the logic.” She whips around one wing of the fidget spinner absentmindedly. “These people were coming from a business perspective, understandably. Whereas I was like, this is my soul!” Keen clutches her chest melodramatically and melts into the sofa.
Keen really did try with Polydor. That’s what hurts the most. She did everything she asked of her. She jumped through every hoop. She squeezed into every box. When she signed at 17, most of the tracks she had put out were R&B. “Then they said, ‘Raye, that music doesn’t sell in this country. You need 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 front and centre.” Keen did it. She went to Sweden, the pop capital of the world, and studied how to write a smash hit. “I learned the maths, the symmetry; how to make an earworm chorus that doesn’t leave someone’s head.” On reflection, Keen says, “I really did put up with a lot. I really did smile and wave. I did what I think women do best, which is keep all my feelings tucked behind and I went and I smiled, and I did my best job.”
Keen is a ray of sunshine, pun intended. She is easily amused and as open a book as she professes to be. Within seconds of meeting, I’m “babe” and “girl”. Sometimes “gyaaaal”. But an experience like hers leaves bruises – even if now they bloom mostly undetected. Press the wrong place and it’ll sing. “I used to dream that one day the label would send me a big bunch of flowers and a card saying, ‘Well done’. I saw my fellow label mates getting that and it broke my heart,” she recalls. Her voice cracks and she begins to cry. “I really, really did try. All I wanted was to make them proud and the saddest thing is, despite all of the anger and everything, is that the big bosses were never proud of me.” Her eyes cast downwards and tears spill into her lap. A moment passes before Keen takes a deep breath. She reminds me – and maybe herself – that she has made peace with it. “I really have. I am so ready to try again, but for myself this time. I’m going to make myself proud. That’s my vibe now. Make me proud.” Already, the tears have dried almost completely.
The album will split open other scars, too. On “Hard Out Here”, Keen sings about “nearly dying from addiction”. Elsewhere on the record, those struggles are made uncomfortably explicit. “There are a lot of things that I had to do just to be able to get on with it, to be honest,” she says. “There is this image as a woman: keep your sh*t together, be happy and polite, be grateful and not make a fuss. But there are things that go on behind the scenes, and sometimes you just need to find a way to get through it. Things I had to do to even be able to do my job” That’s as specific as she wants to get today, Keen says. “Let’s save that!”
Later, Keen shows me her tattoos. There’s an ace of hearts playing card, her favorite Bible scripture; her birth year of her; her middle name of her, Agata, which is also the name of her grandmother of her; flags of the countries where she is from: Ghana, Switzerland, and the UK. All of them – even the tiny heart she got on a drunken night out – are insights into who she is. On her wrist, there’s an arrow. Several inches away, on her hand, is a target. “That means focus,” she says. But from what I can tell, Keen doesn’t need the reminder. “I’m ready for this.”