North Londoner Raheaven grew up listening to a myriad of music, from Eritrean chanteuse Elsa Kidane to R&B stalwart Beyoncé, while she figured out life as a second-generation immigrant and eldest daughter – aka the glue that holds society together.
As the child of Eritrean immigrants who formed a band with friends to raise money for the Eritrean independence effort, music and performance has consistently weaved itself into her daily life. This has included everything from playing the steel pans for over a decade to joining her school’s drama club. Indeed, Raheaven credits going to an all-girls school for her no-nonsense outlook on life and music: “It was the best thing ever, in that we just centred women – so I carried that on with me through life.” She says school gave her space to feel safe in being herself. It’s therefore no surprise that she draws inspiration from contemporary R&B stars Summer Walker and SZA, women who are deeply honest about themselves in their work.
“This is a male-dominated industry and I’m so determined and hungry to take what’s rightfully mine – that kind of energy isn’t really spoken about in R&B”
The production of traditional Eritrean music has also played a part in her sound. This includes the percussion-heavy popularised ‘guayla’ sounds, using saxophones as bridges alongside melodic riffs. It also brings to mind vivid memories of the string instrument krar, as well as the guitar, being played at home.
Raheaven’s just released the short but sweet EP 2personal, a four-track slice of heaven that talks of unnamed lover(s) as well as the woes and throes of modern situationships. It took a year to put together, with production from the likes of Cadenza (Jorja Smith, Ms Banks) and Aston Rudi (Mahalia, Hamzaa) as well as writing credits from Elli Ingram, Jamilah Barry and Maverick Sabre. In our conversation, Raheaven points to how the process of creating music with others can be therapeutic, explaining a specific feeling or the situation that evoked it before bouncing off each other and adding their own experiences, “like group therapy”.
We spoke to her about her creative process, the city girl state of mind, and what’s been bringing her joy:
gal-dem: Your latest EP, 2Personal, has been so well-received, how are you feeling?
Raheaven: I’m feeling good thanks! I would’ve loved to have a celebration for the EP release because I’m a party girl, but we’ll just have to have a belated one once lockdown is over! I’m already working on new music. I gave myself about a week to be present and really celebrate and cherish the release of 2Personal but I’m very much somebody who looks forward, as opposed to taking time out and indulging in something for too long.
What’s your creative process like?
I normally like to write first thing in the morning or just before bed if I’m at home. Like most things, it starts with a conversation. I always aim to start writing a song from the hook and then building the rest of it around that, so I’ll just write one line then speak to the producers or the writers I work with to bounce off ideas. I’m also quite a perfectionist – I can spend hours overthinking and I’m trying to do that less…like it took five minutes to make [the track] ‘2 Personal’ but I spent five hours going over it because I thought it was too simple! It’s nice to have other musicians around you who can reassure you when you’re doing that.
When you’re constantly making music I feel as though it’s difficult to just stop and wrap-up, there’s so much continuity. The next EP I’m working on is definitely more intentional – I know exactly what I’m going in to do.
“I write music for after the lovey-dovey, sad R&B song where you’re pining for somebody who doesn’t treat you right. What did you do after? Did you sleep with his friends? Did you level up? Did you find yourself?”
I feel like the EP veers between vulnerable and assertive, sometimes within a matter of lines. You’ve referred to it as ‘the diary of a bad b’. What does that mean?
I think there’s definitely a contrast between how my voice sounds, and what my lyrics are. On songs like ‘7AM’ I’m literally asking somebody “why are you still here” after spending the night, on ‘leave him alone’ I’m in my toxic bag, talking about how I can’t leave an indecisive guy alone. [They’re] very truthful and assertive but [they’re] not love songs at all.
Looking at the tracklist, people assume it’s intentional and chronicles the course of a relationship – that’s not the case at all! One song, from verse-to-verse, even line-to-line could even be about multiple people – there’s no way I’m dedicating a whole EP to one person, nobody deserves that! This EP is about me and the streets! I’m honest but not vulnerable – it’s more of a “I’m not going to give you the privilege of knowing how I really feel”. In regards to relationships as well as everything else, I feel like to see me open up or to know my innermost feelings or insecurities is a privilege!
I write music for after the lovey-dovey, sad R&B song where you’re pining for somebody who doesn’t treat you right. What did you do after? Did you sleep with his friends? Did you level up? Did you find yourself?
The mood reminds me of the City Girls or Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘Hot Girl Summer’ mantra…
Being a City Girl is definitely a state of mind… of doing your own thing, of enjoying yourself and living life exclusively on your own terms.
Who are some of your inspirations?
In terms of work ethic, definitely Nicki Minaj. This is a male-dominated industry and I’m so determined and hungry to take what’s rightfully mine – that kind of energy isn’t really spoken about in R&B, moreso in rap because R&B is supposed to be this lovey-dovey genre. No! I’m here to redefine what you think a typical R&B artist is like.
Looking at your peers, such as Jamilah Barry, and the increasing focus on grassroots R&B with platforms such as ‘Sonic Waves’, what are your thoughts on the state of UK R&B at the moment?
It’s nice to see mainstream appreciation but I also love that British artists are taking this chance to redefine R&B on our own terms, because we’re still working it out. Rather than simply absorbing this huge genre that has such an impact and platform, we’re bringing in our own essence. The fact that artists can share their music more independently outside of the major label machinery also means that there’s more freedom and space to experiment.
Although there are definitely still influences in my own music , like ‘leave him alone’ has a strong Noughties R&B vibe, it’s very much still authentically me. It’s slightly comforting that there are other people making similar music, so I know I’m not alone, but at the same time – the games have begun!
What’s been bringing you joy during lockdown?
Simple things like my family, my friends … petting my cat Playboi, he grounds me. I never knew I could love something so much! Buying myself flowers and candles, burning incense, getting dressed up to the nines to do a food shop! Also without a doubt, consuming and creating music.