Rak-Su – Ashley Fongho, Jamaal Shurland, Myles Stephenson and Mustafa Rahimtulla – won The X-Factor in 2017 and picked up a legion of fans along the way.
Blowing the usual X-Factor formula out of the water, the group performed original material and dominated the iTunes charts throughout the series. Since winning, the foursome have released a number of singles, more recently dropping four-track EP Rome and last week their new single Yours or Mine.
I sat down with Rak-Su in London recently to talk about the new single, find out their plans for new music and to discuss their upcoming tour with Olly Murs.
The new single Yours or Mine is out now. Where the inspiration for that track come from?
Ashley: The inspiration behind Yours or Mine… we actually got into a studio and sometimes we go in and somebody’s got a clear image of what we want to write about and sometimes we just start having a conversation with each other and it just comes from that. On this occasion we asked each other what conversations we’d had with females recently and one of boys turned around and said, ‘well you know I’ve been in the situation where I asked the girl yours or mine?’ They said it is a joke, quite tongue-in-cheek but then the rest of us were like, ‘oh actually there’s a song in that’. We decided to start writing it. We like music that is kind of feel good and puts a smile on people’s faces and feel like the chords and the beat behind it do just that.
There’s a bit of a 90s influence in the track, and that’s something I heard in your recent track Into It too. Is the 90s something that’s really influencing your music right now?.
Myles: When we go to the studio we just vibe. We don’t really care what it sounds like as long as it makes us feel good, and we can put our positive spin on it with energy and knowing that if we perform it on stage we’re going to be able to give a full performance to it. That’s what we do. We don’t specifically go out looking for a 90s drum pattern or a 90s sound. We’re 90s babies anyway so I think subconsciously it’s probably something along those lines but I think we’ve all grown up around different types of music including the 90s music. I think it’s just music that makes you feel good and makes us feel good.
One of the things I like about you guys is that every time you bring a track out it’s completely different. On the Rome EP all four tracks are completely different and give a good feel of the breadth and versatility you have. Are you always trying to push yourselves musically?
Mustafa: Obviously because we all listen to different kinds of music and there’s a lot of different music that we’d like to make. During the show (The X-Factor) you saw one side of us whereas before the show we were making music as well so we’re just showcasing all the influences that we have.
You guys really switched it up on The X-Factor because until you came along it was very much just people singing covers. They had tried a few times to put originals in there but it never really worked. You’ve raised the bar for everybody else that now goed on that show. How did you feel being able to actually show who you were on the show rather than being forced down the traditional route?
Ashley: It took a few conversations to start with because I feel like everyone involved was expecting us to do covers. From the moment that we turned out we were very adamant that we wanted to do our own thing. Fortunately people liked our music and we wanted to carry on running with it. For us the aim was to get as many people to hear our music as possible and the only way to do that was obviously by performing it. We’re just really happy that everybody bought into it and that we managed to influence some other people into trying to do the same thing.
It definitely worked. You dominated iTunes for quite a while and your songs were so catchy, they felt like songs the audience already knew. The fans went crazy for them. What kind of reaction were you getting at that time?
Jamaal: It’s a weird thing being on a TV show because quite a lot of the reaction that you get, which was very positive, tends to be online. It wasn’t really until after the show when we went back to Watford to do Christmas shopping or something like that and it was very evident how much our music had touched people. It was an incredible feeling. I think the one thing that we managed to do across the show was have fun and that was one thing that on social media, when people responded or messaged us about the show or seeing us on TV, that they always said, ‘you guys look like you’re really having fun’. It was just about going out there and having as much fun as possible and as I said when we left the show it was very evident to see, especially in our hometown, how we had connected with people it and how many people had enjoyed it.
I think you’re just a breath of fresh air. Your music always picks me up whenever I listen to it and it’s so infectious, it feels like it’s what pop needs during these uncertain times. On the Rome EP there’s one track, Stick Around, that’s closer to a ballad but for the most part your music is upbeat. Are you going to keep it that way for the foreseeable?
Ashley: In our earlier stuff there was a lot more down-tempo meaningful heartfelt things but if we’re going to be performing in festivals across the summer we want to do the stuff that’s going to make everybody happy and be energetic. I think we’re always going to make a mix. The stuff that you’re going to hear first and the stuff you’re going to hear the most of is probably going to be the happier stuff but there will always be the slightly slower stuff there in the background.
You’re heading out on the road with Olly Murs this year. How are you feeling about that?
Ashley: Honestly we love being on tour. Olly is somebody who we’ve had the pleasure of spending time and he’s an amazing guy. We’re really, really looking forward to it. It’s going to be arenas so thousands of people on a nightly basis so we are buzzing. We are just really, really looking forward to it.
Watching you perform, you can see that connection and bond that the four of you have. You’ve known each other for a long time now. Does that make it more difficult or easier to be together all of the time?
Myles: Easier. Growing up we spent probably about the same amount of time with each other anyway. We would be around each other’s houses. They would come round to my house and they didn’t even have to tell me. We’d turn up to basketball or whatever, just to kick it. We’ve done that for years so it’s nothing. When it’s on stage the reason why there is so much energy and so much life is because we know each other so well. I like messing around on stage so I’ll pinch someone’s leg or I’ll tickle his ear or something like that. Just have fun onstage because if you’re having fun within yourself, it’s going to translate to people that are looking at you. That’s the way it is. You’ve got to have fun onstage. You can’t always be too serious onstage and worry about the next dance move or stuff like that because that’s when you start focusing on the job as opposed to the hobby.
Following Yours or Mine are you looking at another EP or maybe you’re debut album?
Jamaal: The plan is more music! (laughs). However that comes out. We don’t know whether or not that will be with an EP or whether that will be an album. I think for us it’s more important right now to be everywhere and putting out as much music as possible, and see where that takes us. More music and more activity basically.
Pop music in particular is moving away from the traditional album format. You guys, as you said, are 90s babies so you grew up as the physical format started to decline and streaming came in. How do you feel about the move from physical to streaming? Does it bother you?
Ashley: To be honest I think that we’re still learning and we’re fairly new to this ourselves. The way that we came into the industry means that every month there’s something new for us to get our heads around so it hasn’t really had too much of an effect on us. We know we want to do an album. We have an idea of what that would look like and sound like, and we’ve recorded a lot of songs toward it. As and when it comes, whether it’s more singles first or whether it’s another EP, at this point in time we really don’t mind as long as we are able to just put music out there for people to hear then we’ll be good.
Are there any plans for a Rak-Su headline tour following the Olly dates or are you taking each day as it comes at the moment?
Jamaal: One 100 percent what you just said. I think we would love to do our own tour and get back in front of fans doing our own stuff. It all depends on how well our music does and how well it’s being received. From there we can start building and hopefully that will be this year but it’s just trying to build that momentum so that when we do go on tour we can put on and give the best shows.
It feels like there’s enough passion from your fans and they are incredibly passionate. Every time we post anything about you it goes crazy on social media…
(laughter from the group).
Myles: They are funny! Them lot are sick. Honestly our fans are second to none. We put on two shows a few weeks back, just more intimate smaller shows in Camden Assembly for the Rak-Pack, that’s what we call them, our core fans. We want to give as much as we can to them because they deserve it honestly, they ride or die for us. Them lot are crazy!
Social media has replaced the old-school street teams that used to exist to spread the word about artists and bands. What’s your relationship with social media like?
Ashley: I’ll be honest with you some of them go above and beyond. There’s one of the fans, a girl called Jasmine, who’s actually come and filmed Q&As for us and edited videos for us. Sometimes they’ll give us content and make collages of pictures and all the rest of it. They have an active hand in helping us and that’s amazing. That’s a really positive part of it. Aside from that our relationship with social media… I feel like we all love it but then there are aspects of it as well where it sometimes gets a bit too much. You have to pull yourself away because you realise that spending a bit too much time with it can be unhealthy.
I read something recently where an artist said the worst thing that you can do as somebody in the spotlight is actually read the comments on social media. It must be hard because you want to respond to those fans that are supporting you and saying good things but equally you probably don’t want to see some of the negative stuff that floats around on there…
Mustafa: I think it depends on your perspective to be honest…
Jamaal: …and your mentality and the way that you look at it. For me personally a bad comment doesn’t potentially ruin my day. I look at it and I’m like, ‘the fact that you came to the post to comment means that you’re following anyway’. You have to see our stuff in order to comment in a good way or a negative way. I take it as most of the people who are commenting negatively are still following us and still there to see what we’re doing just in case it is good or it is bad to comment anyway. For me I’ll just take that as like, ‘OK well you’ve turned up to post, thank you for the comment. We’ll take that on board and that’s another drive to get you to come back to post on something that we do coming up’. it just washes off of me. If I see it doesn’t matter to me to be honest.
Ashley: I think that Mus is right about it depending on your mentality. You just have to know yourself. Personally I don’t like it. It doesn’t wash off me as easy as it does him. If it’s constructive criticism then I love it. If it’s just negativity for the sake of it that bothers me so you won’t find me searching my name or anything to find what people are saying because I know that I don’t like it.
Rak-Su’s single Yours or Mine is out now. Take a listen to the track below: