It’s afternoon rush hour in the Big Apple, and despite a mid-February streak of warm weather, the temperature has reverted to its brittle 40-degree chill. That should be light work for 18-year-old songstress Ravyn Lenae, who hails from the windy city of Chicago, but instead, she quivers in between snapshots outside of Le Poisson Rouge, her third to last stop on The Telefone Tour with fellow Chi native, Noname. “I’m not a fan of cold weather,” she jokes, bundling up her shaggy Big Bird yellow cardigan. Despite the occasional shiver, Ravyn effortlessly shifts from profile to full-body shots as she poses against a mural of a world, diagonal to the Bleeker Street concert venue. After the mini photoshoot wraps, she walks with purpose past a deformed line of anxious fans barricaded by metal gates leading up to the entrance. Whispers and subtle motions of recognition trail behind her as a security guard shuts the door, silencing the loud chatter outside.
The Rouge’s toasty basement welcomes us back in, prompting Ravyn to peel her cardigan back, unveiling a coral tube top, high-waisted pants and vintage-style platforms. Following a fairly smooth soundcheck that only endured two interruptions—the first of which was by a call to alert her that her Thai food delivery was waiting upstairs, and another to correct the echoing feedback that was blaring from one of the speakers at stage left—Ravyn is fully ready to spend her hour and change ‘til showtime chatting.
While her small talk often fuses with witty humor, Ravyn’s more intimate dialogue is steered by her senses. She speaks and hears in colors—symptoms of synesthesia, a condition that essentially merges one sense with another. A curious fan diagnosed the artist a couple of shows back and since then, Ravyn has warmly embraced the label, often using a selection of Crayola-named colors to navigate the conversation.
Ravyn herself is a young woman of purple, red and yellow hues. Her warm and inviting spirit, which makes even the most guarded stranger at ease, illuminates with pure yellow light. Her rose red hair, which has temporarily been coiled into box braids instead of her signature bob, speaks to her fiery and independent personality that isn’t deterred by other people’s opinions. And she often projects a royal purple glow of elegance, strength and self awareness as she weaves in and out of pondering and answering questions. Those shades will find their way back into the discussion and later into her stage banter, as well as others from her imaginary stash.
“I like patterns, anything fun,” she says in reference to her fashion sense. “I think as we get older, we tend to get boring with our clothes. Kids have the cutest [clothes]. They have polka dots, hearts, all of this cool stuff. Why all of a sudden do we switch to boring after our 20s? It’s just so cruel. We have to keep that liveliness on the outside to portray what’s on the inside.” Although Ravyn is on the brink of her early twenties, she isn’t willing to get swallowed whole by that typical narrative. Scrolling through her Instagram account, it’s clear she keeps the kid spirit alive, opting for loud, striped and abstract patterns. Her favorite zig zag-printed clogs and multi-colored pom pom earrings are only two of the articles in her wardrobe that speak to her retro aesthetic.
Just the same, her passion for patterns rolls over into her musical style, which she trademarks as “dream-scape.” “I don’t like the tag R&B,” she declares. “I think [my music] is beyond that; it’s more cosmic.” Although it’s unlikely to catch Ravyn sporting a galactic-themed ensemble, constellations may be her favorite pattern. After all, the singer has a fascination with the night sky. More specifically, she is captivated by the moon. “I have an obsession,” she admits. “I feel like the moon is a very beautiful woman. She’s in control. I feel like I’m [her] sometimes.” As she attempts to form clear sentences to explain her deep connection, she suddenly remembers a mission she and the rest of her band and crew have on their next tour stop in Canada. “We’re actually going to Toronto, and we were all going to get a tattoo,” she says as she turns to her iPhone for her tattoo sketch. After a couple of seconds of fishing through her media library, she finds what she’s been looking for. It’s a black and white sketch of a crescent moon incorporated with the bottom half of a woman’s face. “But a black girl,” she chuckles, suggesting the artist will have to alter the skin complexion and make her nose a little “fatter.” Soon, Ravyn will be inked with Earth’s favorite pendant, but in the meantime, she has integrated it into her musical projects.
While her first and second project fall in line with the lunar trend, Ravyn assures that fans get far from the same material. In fact, she boasts that there is a progression lyrically, vocally and, of course, visually. “A lot happens in a year or even a couple of months, and I think it shows in my music,” she says. To her, Moon Shoes was an infant project. It was simply “slopped together,” but in a good and organic way. “I was just making music,” she admits. Despite its willy-nilly process, Ravyn managed to attract an impressive audience with her soulful vocals, that carry a 50s-style twang to it (at times, her musical influences like Erykah Badu and India.Arie sneak into her style, too). Her single “Free Room,” that blends her classic style with modern Chicago house music, is definitely one of the standout tracks.
Midnight Moonlight, on the other hand, was nurtured by a schedule. “That doesn’t take away from the creative process, but it definitely sets a different tone,” she explains. In addition to her evolution in the creative department, she’s also grown musically speaking. “I think I challenged myself vocally and my writing style is a tad different in [Midnight Moonlight]. It’s more mature. I picture Midnight Moonlight being the mom of Moon Shoes,” she says. Even though she’s touring nationwide, the singer is still a student at Chicago High School for the Arts in Humble Park. She admits it’s intensely difficult to balance a singing career and her schoolwork, but says her classical background has helped her 100% with conveying that maturity, from altering her breathing techniques to her overall understanding of Western European music and jazz. Her color palette has also blossomed from one project to the next. “Moon Shoes is more pink and yellow and youthful, while Midnight Moonlight is a little more blue, purple, more sultry.”
Even those without her colorful superpower can probably see the shades in Midnight. The six-track project sounds a lot like an ode to love and relationships. Her sensual number “Unknown,” reflects a somber, yet sexy aura of blues as she sings about a particular loneliness that overwhelms her when the night hits and she thinks of a certain someone. “I’m only lonely when the night won’t hold me / I long for a warning / Won’t you let me know,” she sings with a chillingly low pitch. The project’s third song, “Spice,” illuminates in more of a purple gradient. The fairytale single feels like a romantic evening dinner in a Spanish city in front of a magenta sunset.
Ravyn doesn’t know all the answers, but she still holds this tangible, confident sense of self. She has somewhat of an old soul in the fact that she has come to terms with her uniqueness and talent and isn’t afraid to show it off, but that doesn’t come across as arrogance. Instead, she is simply passionate and warm-hearted. “I think a major part of having that personality is the support system at home,” she says. “A lot of the bravest people aren’t fully brave enough because they’re not having that full support from home, which is really where you seek that support. It’s cool if the world loves you, but if you go back home and your mom is [cold], it diminishes the entire aura. I think that the way I was raised and the people who raised me definitely instilled that boldness in me.”
Her mother, Angela, is the farthest thing from cold. She’s on tour with her daughter, often seen organizing merch on a neatly set table parked just outside of the main concert hall. Her manager, Lyrical, is also warm and appreciative, as she cracks a joke here and there. It’s almost comedic to see how fun-loving and high-spirited they all are, considering the media’s critical review of Chicago and the continuous violence that rains over the city. Just four days after the Presidential Inauguration, Donald Trump threatened Chicagoans on Twitter, insisting he would send in the Feds, “if Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible carnage.” To that, Ravyn says she doesn’t give any of it her time or energy. “I like to steer away from politics,” she says. “I’m not a fan of him... In the black community, we know what’s up. So I don’t think it needs to be said or spoken on.”
Instead, Ravyn focuses her attention on the positive things coming out of her hometown, namely the many talented faces finally getting the recognition they deserve. Although they are all at different points in their career—Chance the Rapper leads the pack with a record three Grammy wins—the singer reveals they are all united in lifting each other up. “I feel like we’re all one big, musical family because we support each other. We go to shows, we cap on each other’s songs. It’s a huge support base in Chicago that I can’t compare it to any other city, music wise. I’m really thankful to be able to be friends with the people I am inspired by.” She also uses that support and success of her friends as inspiration. “It’s inspired me to the point of seeing that it is possible, that a girl from the Southside of Chicago can do it.”
Being the independent person that she is, however, Ravyn’s finish line is fairly different from her fellow musicians. In five years, she sees herself somewhere in Hawaii or under the palm trees, making music her way. And awards, while they are cool, don’t hold much importance to her. “I think the biggest reward is not physical,” she says. “I rather obtain things spiritually. I mean, it’s so cool to be acknowledged by the public, but that’s not my goal. That’s not why I make music. I would do it anyway, if there was no reward.” Ravyn may not care about gratification from her peers or fans, but she does have one request of them: to feel the colors.
Videography by Jason Chandler