Rak-su shot by Callum Mills

#IMMusicMonday: In Conversation With UK R&B Group Rak-Su

One of life’s greatest achievements is experiencing growth and success with people who have known you from the beginning. For childhood friends, Rak-Su, this could not be any truer. The group has experienced a profound level of success throughout their public triumph.

It began in 2017, when the group auditioned in front of a panel of judges on the X-Factor, later going on to win the show and being the first male group to do so. Last year was a transformative year for the group as they set out to adapt their brand to become more fitting to their current selves. 

After the release of multiple singles in the past year, they are back with Left Right featuring the ever-talented Donel which features on their Lost Tour EP (23rd April). Here’s what happened when we sat down with Rak-Su to discuss what can only be described as a whirlwind journey.

Rak-su and Donel photographed by Callum Mills
Photo Credit: Callum Mills, L-R: Myles, Ashley, Donel, Jamaal

Most people probably remember you guys from The X Factor, which to you must feel like a world away now. A lot of people go on the show to be developed but you guys came in as a ready-made package. With that being the case, what were your motivations for going on the show? 

Ashley: I guess it was to try and finesse the situation as well as possible really because by the time we went on the show we’d done every open Mic that we could get our hands on in London. Whether it be ones at the decent places like upstairs at the Ritzy in Brixton or that one did Notting Hill to then also pubs here there and everywhere.  The open stage at Westfield…basically just everywhere we could. We released a couple of EPs as well. We had some music videos out, like one up on GRM and one up on Link Up, and had some BBC introducing support as well, so we were just trying different ways to get our music out there to as many people as possible. We just saw the show as a vehicle where we could just accelerate that really. We knew that we were completely different from everyone else that ever been on the show. We didn’t think it was going to go very far, but we were like if we can perform one of our own songs on national TV for 90 seconds on a Saturday night, we’ll take that, run with it and keep going from there. 

90 seconds isn’t a long time at all. What the public sees is really just a snapshot of everything going on. What about the parts that we don’t see like the rehearsals and living in the house?  

 Jamaal: (laughs) It kind of felt like being at school when you go on a trip. Everybody is in the same house, you eat more or less at the same time. It was very scheduled but it was good. Like Ash said it kind of allowed us to focus on what we wanted to do and what we wanted to do was just survive every week. If the week before went really well, it was like okay that’s great but how can we do that the same next week, and just trying to be consistent and keep our heads down. Outside of being in the X-Factor and being in the house, you’re obviously on a show and in competition with everybody else that’s around you so. I’d like to say that we were good friends with people but we were also in a competition and took that part of it very seriously, knowing that we could do really well but we never actually thought about winning the show if that makes sense. It was a fun experience and quick experience but I definitely wouldn’t have traded it for the world. 

And was the intent for you to then go on and be signed, because I know that you’re actually independent now, but was that always the intention?  

All: Nah!  

Ashley: We tried to get out of that. We hired a lawyer beforehand and asked them if there was any way around the contract. There were certain clauses within the contract that we wanted to get changed as well. We read through the whole thing from start to finish before we signed it. So we knew we were going into before we signed it, but it was basically a case of you either sign this thing or can’t continue on the show. So we were like let’s not cut off our own noses to spite our face, so that’s what happened. But it was definitely not the plan. 

That’s actually very interesting because you hear about these “nightmare” contracts that artists go into and all of these clauses that people aren’t aware of when signing. It’s quite intriguing to me that you guys were so aware of what you were walking into because that’s not a narrative you hear often.  

Myles: That was a straight-up terrible contract to be honest (laughs). Initially, they tried to make us sign to a specific management company. That’s how it initially started. It was like you have to sign to this specific management company or you can’t go on in the show. They sat all the contestants down together and they basically said if you want to go further in the live shows, you have to sign this and you have to sign to this certain management company. And we said no. That was off our own backs, we’re grown men here, we don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do. Our music had already started going on Spotify playlists and stuff like that. So if they had said we had to leave [at that point] we would have done that. At the end of the day, it’s a TV show, that’s how TV runs. We’re obviously appreciative of everything Simon has done for us but he’s not a multi-millionaire for giving people the world. 

So on a more positive note, how are you guys enjoying life being independent? 

Ashley: I think it’s been a lesson in celebrating the small wins because it’s a lot more work.  A lot more thought goes into it and everything matters so much more. When it’s your money going into things and when it’s your planning and your work, every L you take is a big L and it really hurts. But then every win is so much bigger as well – even the little ones!  So I feel like, speaking for us all, we all have a bit more peace in being able to operate like this. You’ll have to ask us again in a year’s time once the pandemic is over because that might change things again.  

From my understanding you all grew up as school friends and that’s how the group met. What I want to know is when you all knew that you were going to pursue music together? 

Myles: It’s weird…so basically me and Ashley grew up on grime. So back in the day even before Rak-Su was a thing me and Ashley would do little freestyles on Council Estates in Watford. Jamaal came over from Barbados to my school in year 10 and started singing on that very first day. He took everybody by surprise and everybody fell in love with him because of his amazing voice. He wasn’t too shabby to look at either. 

Jamaal: (laughs) Wow 

Myles: Ashley then realised Jamaal could sing when they were at uni. We weren’t all at uni together but because we were all from Watford we had the same friendship groups. They started putting up covers and stuff, then Mustafa joined and then I joined a few years later. 

Do you remember what your first impressions of each other were? 

Myles: I hated Ashley. I’ve always hated him. 

Jamaal: I don’t think that impression has changed. 

All: (laughs) 

Myles: I still hate him.  

Jamaal: Those exact words will come out at least once a day when we are together. 

Myles: Ashley is like one of those people that for some reason he’s just in my life. I’ve tried to shake him off so many times. We used to play Sunday football and our standard of Sunday football was very competitive. Ashley was always the better footballer.

 Ahh I see where this is going… 

Myles: He wasn’t fitter- 

 Ashley: -why you lying? 

Myles: He’s been 5ft10 and 80 odd kilos since he was 8. He used to bully me on the football pitch and I hated him but eventually, we became companions. When I met Jamaal it was like, oh my gosh there’s a guy from Barbados and he’s got an accent AND he can sing! 

Jamaal: Me and Myles weirdly spent so much time together. I’d kind of walk home with Mus and we’d stop and get the casual cheesy chip combination at the end of school and then I’d come back and jump on my bike and everybody that I used to hang around with lived nearby but Myles was within riding distance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to Myles’ house. I didn’t even know that he did music like that. I met Ash at athletics. Every time our schools met up we would see each other and after that it kind of evolved into seeing people at parties or events.  

Rak-su photographed by Callum Mills
Photo Credit: Callum Mills, L-R: Mustafa, Ashley, Jamaal, Myles

You guys are clearly quite a racially diverse group, so what’s it been like for you navigating a space that has a very cookie-cutter type fit, especially when it comes to male groups? 

 Ashley: I think it helped us because when we presented to the public as men who were all 5ft10-6ft3 – 

Myles: -I’m 6ft3 

All: (Laughs) 

Ashley: We all bang gym we are very athletic and we’ve all been through our life experiences, but at the same time we carry a good energy and we are about positivity, having fun and just being nice to each other.  I think we were an image that people were used to but probably broke down the stereotypes in a lot of ways because of our personalities. I think that actually worked well for us.  

Speaking of your energy, I know you guys spend a lot of time on TikTok, so what are your thoughts on social media and how it interacts with music? 

Jamaal: I think it’s kind of like a two-headed snake sometimes. Like when we were in the show, for instance, me personally and I’m sure the boys have similar thoughts on this, social media was hectic! Sometimes we’d come back from the show and I’d literally just turn off my phone. Obviously, we’d look and see some of the responses, but so many people were hitting you up. Your family even people you didn’t know. With the pandemic, it’s a brilliant tool! Sometimes you have to take a break from it because it can be overbearing. But I’d say now more than ever, especially with the panoramic, it’s a massive way for us to connect with our fans and to still be engaged. It’s definitely been more of a blessing over the last year or so because we’ve been able to keep that connection with the fans and the family. 

Do you think that people are creating music specifically for TikTok with all of the dance trends or does that sort of thing happen organically? I’m asking because I’ve noticed your latest single “Left Right” is quite dance-centred. 

 Myles: Oh yeah for sure! 

Ashley: We did that before though anyway. We made “Pyro Ting” which kind of had a dance to it before [the trend] was there. Regardless of whether we had TikTok or not, we would do that sort of thing because that’s just who we are. There are obviously other people who are like let me just secure the bag and make something for TikTok. 

Whose idea was the choreo? 

Jamaal: That kind of came in the studio believe it or not. We had the chorus and were just trying to figure out what we would do. It definitely was done with TikTok in mind. Listening to the song we thought it would do well on TikTok so let’s try to centre it towards that. Looking at some of the moves we chose, it was just going through what was popular then thinking about how we could make it our own. I think we’ve got a video of us just standing around the mic trying to figure out what would look good and also what we could do. You know there are some real OTT TikTokers out there and we were just trying to do the easy stuff. 

Who’s the best dancer out of the three of you? 

Myles: Jamaal 

Ashley: Depends on what style but it’s Jamaal across everything except for Afro and house. It’s just footwork that Jamaal can’t do.  

Myles: I’m good with house. 

Jamaal: So who’s better…all of us. Everybody is good!

How did the collaboration with Donel actually come about? 

Ashley: Our stylist Viv is kinda like a big sister to us. We’re like family and we just talk a lot now. She has a similar sort of relationship with Donel. He’s also on the same management as us as well. We’ve always crossed paths and overtime we developed into friends so we talk on a regular basis and when he’s around in London we’ll link up. It was quite an organic thing of, we’ve still not done a song together you should jump on this. 

One thing I did want to talk about before we wrap is your forthcoming EP, which is coming out in the spring I believe?

Ashley: Yes, it’s going to be out on April 23rd.

Nice, so what can we expect from it? 

Myles: Listen I don’t even know what songs are on it now. 

Has it changed that much since you first started recording? 

Ashley: It’s changed a lot. There are 3 new singles, “Switching Sides”, “Lowkey” and “Fuego”. 

“Lowkey” is an afro swing song and it’s just about girls that aren’t necessarily clout chasing or trying to be out there in the public eye for no reason and just about having a lowkey girl whose priorities and things that she values are elsewhere. 

Half of the project has been Afro so it’s a nice way to finish it off. There’s a song called “Switching Sides” on there which is a garage song that Myles actually produced. It’s nice to have something he’s worked on by himself on there. The last song is a song called “Fuego”, which is like a summery reggaeton pop song. So altogether we felt like it would be a nice balance to the EP where half of it is Afro R&B vibes, they’ll be a garage song on there, “Left Right”, which has sort of trappy vibes, and then “Fuego” which is just a big pop song. 

You’ve also got some performances scheduled for later in the year so which song would you say you’re most looking forward to performing? 

Myles: ooo 

Jamaal: That’s a tough question. There’s so much time in between now and then that I don’t even know. I’m more hoping that we can actually get back to touring. At this point I’d take Kumbaya. 

Ashley: Man said just get me on stage!  

Jamaal: Just get me in front of people. That’s what I’m trying to do right now. For me personally lowkey is going to be an interesting one to perform just because it’s something that is very exciting for me to perform. I think that the track that is going to go off is Fuego though. In fact no switch sides as well…all of them all the tracks. 

One final question before we close. What is one piece of advice that you would give to anyone who wants to pursue a career in music? 

Myles: Trust your gut instinct. You know yourself the best and you know your music the best. Keep a small circle and go with what you want to do.  

Ashley: Work with people that care about you as a person as much as the product you produce.

Watch the video for “Left Right” by Rak-Su here: 

The EP is available for Pre-Order here: https://lnk.to/LostTour as well as tickets for their UK tour: https://www.ticketmaster.co.uk/rak-su-tickets/artist/5279093

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