"We're from the Bay," Rayana Jay announces proudly. She's telling me about her musical role models, but her answer has evolved into a love letter to the East Bay. "[My friends and I] were kids who grew up listening to Mac Dre and Mistah F.A.B., but we also really loved Nujabes and Dilla. Because of that, we were able to make music that felt like home but also felt like something different."
Rayana Jay is a rising neo-soul musician with three EPs that have scored millions of streams on Spotify, drawn praise from NPR and The Fader, and made possible a national tour. But despite her increasing profile, her loyalties remain with her hometown of Richmond, California. She rhapsodizes about what she calls the "post-hyphy Millennial sound" that was pouring out of the Bay Area in the mid-2000s. Now, at 25, Jay says she's grateful for the lingering hyphy influence that informed her songwriting as a teenager—and for the local community that supported her at the beginning of her music career.
"There wasn't another career path for me; it was either music or nothing," Jay says, though she also gives thanks for the jobs that paid her bills before music could. (She cheerfully shouts out one former employer, the Oakland-based clothing store Bosk.)
She's also adamant about the importance of financial transparency among rising artists.
"We have to stop romanticizing the starving artist," Jay says. "I make sure I tell people who want to pursue art to do it, but make sure you're able to survive. Nobody wants to work, but capitalism is an ugly beast."
For about a year, Jay worked retail and produced music on the side, and gradually began to start booking local gigs and seeking a manager. Then, in 2016, Jay released her first EP Sorry About Last Night. A languid, sultry record, Sorry About Last Night chronicles the unraveling of a relationship. "Heartbreaking and writing go together so well," Jay says, noting that she put the EP together after a messy break-up.
"I can write love songs until my hands ache, but there's something about heartbreak that hits a little different," she says. "It's the part of love you never want to talk or write about."
Once you master the art of talking about heartbreak, Jay tells me, "you're damn near invincible." For Jay, that sense of invincibility is crucial—not just in romantic disappointment, but also in confronting the broader obstacles that she faces as a marginalized person.
"I see how hard the world tries to break down anyone who isn't the standard," she says. "Not even just because I'm a black woman. That's a battle in itself, but I'm also trying to change the ideas that people have about plus-sized black artists."
"I've seen how sensuality and sexuality are stripped from those that go above a certain size, and I want to end that. People assume that we don't have a sexy side, so when we do something that's even slightly sexual, the scrutiny comes," Jay says. "That's why I applaud Jill Scott, Lizzo, Cupcakke, and so many other black women being their best sexy self while ignoring what society thinks they should be."
Jay credits her mom with instilling in her a steady sense of confidence—"She made sure I knew how brave I was as a black woman going out and existing in this world"—and, today, the R&B singer is determined to spread this message of affirmation to other marginalized people around the country. Last July, she collaborated with ESPN and Disney to write a song championing black female athletes. The result was "Undefeated," a buoyant anthem written and produced by an all-women team.
"We weren't just recording a song to uplift women; we were actually uplifting each other as we were creating," Jay says. "It helped make the song that much better. It was created with so much love."
"Undefeated" literally shouts about the need for better representations of black women, and Jay's activism outside her music has been equally vocal and unapologetic.
"Personally, I'd be doing black women a disservice if I didn't speak up for us," Jay says. "But that doesn't go for everyone. I cannot demand anyone else to speak up for me or others.”
Jay's sense of urgency in advocating for black women echoes a larger, growing frustration regarding black female visibility in the music industry. In the past decade, only three black women—Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Mariah Carey—have had songs chart at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 rankings. And even as black artists set the cultural agenda for contemporary music, they often remain confined to the label of the hip-hop or R&B musician, while white counterparts are lauded for defying or transcending genres and creating a "global" sound.
It worries Jay when media outlets condense portrayals of women and minorities into single, pigeonholed categories. Ultimately, Jay points out, conditional acceptance is still a form of exclusion, and exclusion isn't something she has the time or patience for.
"There isn't a problem highlighting women in their own categories; I just hope that it doesn't become the only way we're acknowledged." Jay says. "I appreciate being recognized, but I hope that it doesn't give an excuse for me to be left out of the bigger conversations being had."
"I'd be honored to be called one of the best female R&B singers," Jay adds, "but I would also love to be known as one of the best R&B singers period."
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