The first time I saw Rayana Jay perform was as the opening act at Local Sirens, an every-few-months show hosted by Women's Audio Mission that features eclectic lineups of local, all-female bands.
Jay took the stage with her DJ, Red Corvette, who started a track. And then Jay's smoky, soulful voice took over the room. Her music is instantly danceable R&B, with an unconventional edge: her voice bounces between melding to the grooves and breaking into its own rhythm -- something like a slow, sensuous rap. By the second or third song, you'd be hard-pressed not to be dancing.
Between songs, Jay regularly takes a few moments to joke with the audience. On this particular night, she asked if anyone knew what it was like to go through a bad breakup -- cue audible moans, because oh, don't we all? The EP she released earlier in 2016, Sorry About Last Night, was based largely off of her own difficult breakup, she explained. It's catchy, and well-produced, but raw: pretty much the opposite of slick. Turns out people notice authenticity.
“I try to make sure that my music and my writing is always as honest as it can be. I write from experience, and I know if I went through it someone somewhere else has gone through it as well," she tells me a few months later, adding that people often say they were drawn to her music because they recognize their own lives in her lyrics.
"I don't like to sugarcoat anything, so you're going to get the love story and you're also going to get the heartbreak," she says. "You're going to get the drinking that came after the heartbreak. You're gonna get all of it. I write the songs that I would've wanted to hear when I was going through it.”
A native of Richmond, California, Rayana Jay began singing in her church's choir “pretty much as soon as I could talk,” she says, and went on to teach and direct the choir. She started making her own music at 16, and then began an internship with Youth Radio in downtown Oakland, where she began to see a possible future in music for herself.
“That's when I saw my first professional studio," she recalls. "And I said 'Hold on: I can just do what I want to do.'”
The rough breakup that became the subject matter for Sorry About Last Night happened soon after, and initially it drained Jay of her creativity. "I kind of quit the music and put it to the side," she says. "It was a lack of inspiration. I didn't have people around me who were keeping me inspired, so I was ready to give it up. I thought about doing artist management. I just couldn't feel it, couldn't hear the music anymore.”
It took the repeated urging of a friend, Evangeline Elder, to get her to continue.
“She said, 'You can sing. You have a great voice. What are you doing? You're just sleeping on yourself,'" recalls Jay.
When she began making music again, one thing was immediately apparent: Jay writes with a talent beyond her 23 years. Her lyrics speak to the confusion of navigating relationships as a young woman, but also the strength in finding and claiming independence. She told The Fader last year that Sorry About Last Night got its name when she “was sitting going over title ideas in my head and realized that I have said 'Yo, I am so sorry about whatever happened last night' more than any other sentence. It was just so personal and I feel like everyone could relate to that.”
She also emphasizes that she's made it this far because of her relationships with other women, including Elder -- who's now her manager -- and DJ Red Corvette.
With women still making up disproportionately small percentage of people working in the music industry, Jay wants just the fact that she's here, onstage, taking up space in a largely male-dominated world to signal to other women that there's room for them too.
“When I go to the studio, I never think, 'Okay, well, this song is going to empower women in some way,' but I do want people to know that that's still my goal," she says. "I think having an all-girl team helps push toward that. Just having my manager be a woman is rare, and then having a woman as a DJ, and we just picked up a photographer who is a woman. I want people to see that. And I want them to say 'Yeah, she’s all for female power.'"
Working in a male-dominated field has been difficult, she's quick to clarify. She just doesn’t let it limit her personal growth as an artist, nor her expectations. As the buzz around her grows around the Bay Area and beyond, she's working on a full-length album set for release later in 2017.
“I mean it's tough. It's so tough," she says. "But it's not so tough that I get discouraged. It makes me want to work even harder. Like, okay I'm a woman, I'm in this space right now. And I'm gonna work so hard so that you're gonna respect me.
"It pushes me," she says. "And I love it.”
Rayana Jay performs at the Phono del Sol festival in San Francisco this June.