When Rita starred in Cinderella at St. Cuthbert’s primary school, her music teacher told her parents that their daughter had a gift. She later enrolled at the prestigious Sylvia Young Theater School (Amy Winehouse’s alma mater). Rita went on to appear in the British smuggling flick Spivs at age 14, sang a duet with UK garage star Craig David at 16, and at 18 auditioned to represent Britain in 2009’s Eurovision Song Contest. That same year she was spotted at a Lykke Li gig where she connected with Jay Brown, who co-founded Roc Nation with Jay-Z in 2008. Before she knew it she was catching her first flight to NYC, where she met Jay, Ty-Ty, and the rest of la familia. Now she’s Roc Nation’s next big thing, joining a roster that includes J. Cole, Willow Smith, and Jay Electronica. Roc Nation also manages Rihanna, M.I.A., Santigold, and Shakira.
Everyone thought that Rihanna and I hated each other, but the whole thing was created by the media.
“When I first got signed I was this random girl from London,” she recalls. “I was thinking my whole world was going to be turned around. I thought I was gonna be on Oprah next week with a new single. Three years later I’m just starting to come out. I wanted to release everything I’d ever recorded, but I was lucky enough to have someone like Jay to say, ‘This isn’t good enough. You have to find yourself.’ It was the best advice he could have given me—to be patient.” While working on her debut album, Ora (due out this fall) she’s had the opportunity to work with an A-list creative team—songwriting by Drake, The-Dream, and Ester Dean, and production by Stargate, Diplo, Fraser T. Smith, and will.i.am.
Despite all the advantages that come with her Roc affiliation, Rita understands that the buck stops with her. “You can add as much production as you want but if the music is shit no one is gonna listen to it,” she says. “It’s important that you know yourself musically. I was always that girl who loved music and thought of music as an escape route.”
At age 16 Rita worked in a sneaker store on Portobello Road in West London. She grew up collecting Nike Airs and loving ’90s rap. “I’m the biggest Biggie fan,” she said during a showcase at SOB’s in New York last April, during which she threw on a Coogi sweater to perform the single she still calls “Party & Bullshit,” although it has been renamed “How We Do” for the benefit of pop radio programmers. “Diddy gave me the stamp of approval,” she says. “He said, ‘Thanks for honoring Biggie.’ And I said, ‘Are you crazy? Thanks for letting me.’”
Signing with the Roc has opened all kinds of doors—like this gig on the Coldplay tour. And then there was the time Jay-Z walked Rita into Z-100, the biggest pop radio station in America, for what was supposed to be a meeting and ended up getting “How We Do” played, plus an on-air interview on the spot. In September Rita will perform in Philadelphia at Jay’s Made in America festival. “It’s my first festival, so we’re gonna bring it all out. I might get, like, a Biggie hologram,” she jokes. But we all know the blueprint: every gift comes with a curse.
“Rita is the kind of artist who’s going to win by just being herself,” says Tyran “Ty-Ty” Smith, a partner in Roc Nation. The hard part, he says, is simply establishing her identity. “When Rihanna came out we heard the Beyoncé comparisons. People jump to that when it’s someone they don’t know. Like, ‘Oh, that’s that girl who wants to be Beyoncé.’ Now they’re saying the same thing about Rita, that she’s the new Rihanna. She just has to show them who she is and she will be fine.”
But Rita doesn’t mind the Rihanna comparisons one bit. “I admire Rihanna,” she says. “She works her ass off. She hasn’t had a break and she has given people hit after hit after hit. That work ethic and discipline is hardcore. That’s the kind of shit that I want to do. That I will do.”
When Ty-Ty celebrated his 40th birthday at London’s DSTRKT nightclub this May—right after Jay-Z and Kanye ripped the O2 Arena—Rita flew in from a Coldplay date in Madrid just for the occasion. Among the stars in the room was Rihanna, who planted a kiss on Rita’s cheek. “People were like, ‘What the fuck!’” Rita recalls, laughing at their supposed rivalry. “Everyone thought that we hated each other, but the whole thing was created by the media. That’s what’s so funny. She said, ‘Let’s just tweet this and get people mad.’” Rita sent out a photo of the kiss with the words “@rihanna hatin a$$ biatch!!! Mwah!!!!”
“We made a joke out of it,” Rita adds. “It’s love. Roc Nation is such an incredible, unique team, especially in the music industry. Everyone genuinely loves and cares about each other.”
Though he sees a bright future ahead for the young singer, Ty-Ty sounds a note of caution. “Rita makes friends easily,” he says. “That’s a good thing and it’s also a bad thing. Everybody in this business doesn’t have the best intentions, but she still thinks people are who they say they are. She’s going to take some knocks along the way and she’ll learn with time.”