Photography by Calvin Ceile
Watching Rukhsana Merisse perform at a gig in South London, it feels like she’s an old mate and you’re chatting after a night out. She has the audience on her side, joking while sipping on a bottle of her favourite Honey Dew beer (which makes an appearance on the artwork for single ‘Sober’).
Rukhsana, otherwise known as Rox, exhibits a “girl next door” quality that women of colour so rarely get to embody in the music industry – she isn’t a “diva”, “urban” or “edgy” – she is just Rox. Rukhsana is about to release Today, the second part of her two-part album (the first half, Child, was released at the end of last year). Whereas Child is introspective, Today is bright. Describing her sound as “genre-less” and taking inspiration from the likes of Joni Mitchell, Lauryn Hill and Brandy, the artist is beyond tick boxes.
Like any self-respecting 20-something from London, Rox is still living at home with her mum: “I went to Holland Park School – Ladbroke Grove, Latimer Road, the usual nights out. I am a fully-fledged West Londoner – I love West London,” she tells me. Rox’s sound has clearly been influenced by a diverse range of genres which, she says, is in itself a reflection of her city: “London is a multicultural place… I can honestly say that I have been inspired by different things every day. I don’t eat the same food every day, I don’t make the same music every day – it is forever changing.”
“I don’t eat the same food every day, I don’t make the same music every day – it is forever changing”
Fortunately for Rox, she was able to benefit from the variety of performers at the famous Mau Mau live music venue on Portobello Road: “We used to get a lot of neo-soul artists – you would see a lot of them come down there when funky house was a thing. When soul was a thing. It was all about music and musicians just being musicians. That was definitely an influence and an eye-opener because it was always very free and a very inspiring environment.”
However, in June 2017, the community Rox loves was shaken by the events at Grenfell tower – 72 people lost their lives in the largest tower block fire in the UK. “I went to school with a girl who lost her life – God bless her soul and may she rest in peace. We can’t just skirt around it… We need to remember it as a great tragedy, but I do think it was corporate manslaughter. I do believe that and I stand by that.”
Despite the clear anguish at how the events were managed by the authorities, Rox was proud of not just how West Londoners pulled together, but how people travelled from afar to support the community: “People really did come together – I had friends from East London, North London, people from Croydon – I had a friend who rode all the way from East London just so they could come and help. It was an inspiring and beautiful thing to see.”
“I was just transitioning through life and everyone wants to see when the flower has fully bloomed, but everyone forgets that once you’ve planted it that it has to grow”
Through Rox’s music, particularly tracks such as ‘Sober’ and ‘Stay a Little Longer’, her music feels like someone who has lived beyond her 29 years. With lyrics like, “I talk too much like my heart’s got no mouth / I spend too much like my pennies are pound”, her words are definitely something many of us at our most broke and most broken can relate to.
This readiness to reveal her own flaws and insecurities is incredibly refreshing: “I was going through a difficult time – I didn’t really know who I was, what I was doing or who I was becoming. I was just transitioning through life and everyone wants to see when the flower has fully bloomed, but everyone forgets that once you’ve planted it that it has to grow. It was during that growing phase of my life, I was in limbo and I didn’t really know what was going on with myself.”
It is clear that community, family and friends are integral to Rox, and when our conversation veers off into discussing her family and support systems, she gets excited as she discusses her six-year-old nephew and how he has changed the game: “Nah, I think I am in a different space now. I think that a lot of the songs people will hear will refer to things like not knowing how to express yourself – like ‘Die in Vain’; wanting to live a bit longer. Being inspired by love, being inspired by my nephew and his childhood; seeing his happiness and joy over a little toy. [Life] is constantly changing and that is the thing – I don’t want it to constantly feel like [my music] is coming from the same place.” Her music makes it feel like you are on an epic journey by her side.
From performing with Ghetts at the BBC 1xtra Live Lounge to collaborating with both Wretch 32 and Kojey Radical, she has had an impressive 12 months. However, she seems unphased – she still considers herself an “upcoming artist” who has good and bad writing days: “If I can’t figure out what it is that I am trying to say in a song then I need to go off and experience and explore life again. I need an adventure and to go and do other things that make me feel inspired. It could take two weeks, a week or a day – it could take a conversation with someone entirely random that inspires something again.”
As somebody who used to sneak out to see Amy Winehouse perform in Camden, and who agrees with Rox’s assertion that Adele is “a fucking legend” – I can only compare her honesty and raw personality to such artists. Rox is a breath of fresh air who refuses to be boxed in: “For me, there really are no boundaries and I have always said this from the beginning – that no two things are going to be the same. The only consistent thing is that the lyrics will always be honest and my vocal is my vocal, and that’s it.” For young women of colour who, like me, enjoy a down to earth pub night with acoustic sounds, Rox is the representation and sound that I didn’t even realise I needed.
Rukhsana Merrise’s Today is out now on Communion. You can listen now on all digital streaming services