Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Rayana Jay is the sort of talent that doesn't stay a secret for long. After getting some local traction from posting some early songs on Soundcloud, the Vallejo-based singer garnered nationwide buzz with her 2016 EP, Sorry About Last Night. Though she's known for a languorous, neo-soul sound and lyrics about heartbreak (Amy Winehouse's Back to Black and Tweet's Southern Hummingbird are major influences), Jay's recent singles "Everything" and "Magic" are upbeat and hook-laden enough to land on Top 40 radio -- as soon as the labels discover her, that is.
Just 23 years old, Jay springs from a productive tribe of young Bay Area hip-hop and R&B artists, counting among her peers 1-O.A.K., P-Lo, Iamsu!, Drew Banga, Mikos Da Gawd, Jay Ant and more. When that much talent has your back, you know you're doing something right. And there's this: every friend who I've introduced to Jay's music has become a diehard fan.
Before her next EP comes out this fall, I talked with Rayana Jay about love, the Bay Area, and the future.
How would you describe the importance of love in your music?
Love is everything to me. Before I put out my first EP people would ask me, "What kind of music do you make?" I just write love songs. It's like an all-encompassing love. I'm in love, or I'm out of love, or I hate that I love you so much, or even, like, I love alcohol -- love is at the root of every song. There's a song called "Sunkissed" on my next project that's about how much I love my people, how much I love black people. It's one of my favorite songs of mine. So I don't think that I would be the artist that I am if I didn't have such a strong belief in love. Whether I'm in it with someone else, or I'm just in it by myself, I'm just always in love.
What are some of the things in the Bay Area who made you who you are today?
One of the main places is Youth Radio in downtown Oakland. That's where I was first given the opportunity to make music, and shown that music was even a possibility for me. That's also where I met 1-0.A.K., who ended up becoming my mentor, who's now like a family member. And then Lake Merritt, in Oakland, just because I love it there, and it's become a tribal place for me and my friends. We just go on Saturday, and drink cheap champagne and chill. We don't get to do a lot -- everybody’s so busy coming into their own greatness -- so it's always nice to settle down and come back to where we all started.
And then my church, Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist, in South Richmond. My great-uncle was the pastor since I was born, my auntie played the piano, my mom is a preacher, my granny has cooked for almost every occasion there. It's not too big, it's not small, everybody knows everybody. It's a community, which I think a church should be. It's the type of church where, if you're sick or your family member's sick, my granny will cook and take food to your house. It’s always been like that. For me, my church definitely helps not just to make me a spiritual person, but to give me the tools I need to remain strong and grounded in the music industry. A lot of people have problems with that.
A lot of people are stressed out and tense in the Bay Area right now. Are you a stressed-out person? How do you cope with it?
I'm always stressed. I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety. But I've been super blessed to live in a household where taking care of mental health is a very important thing. So, when I was younger, my mom would let me go to therapy, and I learned really good coping mechanisms there. A lot of people can recognize a stressful situation, but they don't ever take themselves out of it. I've learned to remove myself when I need to. I’ve learned breathing techniques. I journal. I write a lot.
Music definitely helps me, and hopefully my music helps other people. I just want listeners to understand that I've been there too. Every song that I've written comes from a personal place, from experience. I write songs that I needed to hear when I was going through certain things. Like "Nothing to Talk About" -- I wrote that about a breakup that I went through, and that's one of my songs that's doing the best, and I think it's because they're so many other young men and women who are going through that same exact thing. Which is perfect, it's exactly what I wrote the song for.
What are your personal deal breakers in a romantic relationship?
I was just talking about this with my mom! I can't stand people who try to be funny and fail. Like, if you can make me genuinely laugh I'll probably love you forever, but the moment you start trying too hard to make me laugh, and all the jokes are misses... I can't do it. If you can't make me laugh, I can't see the future. And then people who are mean -- like, if you go out to eat and you’re mean to the staff, that really grinds my gears. But other than that, I’m a pretty open person. We all have flaws.
What red flags have you experienced that you'd advise young women to steer clear from?
The moment you see that you're putting in more effort than your partner? That's one of the biggest red flags. It feels like you're in a relationship with yourself. That's the worst.
Your songs thrive on intimacy and honesty, operating like a one-on-one conversation. Which living person would you most like to meet, and what would you talk with them about?
I'd want to meet a poet named Nayyirah Waheed, and I would talk to her about love and writing, because her poems are just ridiculously good -- she makes you feel all these feelings in, like, two sentences. When I was going through my breakup with my last boyfriend, I was really, really sad, and my friend Bianca sent me this quote that said, "If someone does not want me it is not the end of the world. But if I do not want me, the world is nothing but endings." I was like, who said that?! That was what started this love I have for her. I don't really know too much about her. She's not too much older than me, so to see someone have such a firm grasp on the concept of love, and how she can write among this whole spectrum of it -- I just want to know how her mind works.
You've had a prolific run in your twenties so far. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years I'll be 33, and I want to be living in London and I want to have started a family. Of course still making music, playing shows, but I want to be almost iconic at that point -- like a Kelis type artist, where I don't really have to put out new music because everybody loves the old music so much.
I want to be successful on my own terms. I want to get my family a big house, or houses. I want to make sure my friends are good. I don't necessarily want to be super rich, but I want to be successful in the way that I picture success.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
I think it looks like not having to be classified as women artists! I want us to have the same ranking as our male counterparts. I love the idea of all these women being put on these platforms, and getting so much recognition, but I just kind of hate the fact that we have to do it. We don't have, like, the "Men to Watch."
So for women artists, I just want us to be in the front, instead of having to be highlighted at certain times. I want our music to be the standard. I want our art to be the standard. I don't want us to have another subcategory -- I just want to be recognized as artists.