Musician Debo Ray

Musician Debo Ray, a born and raised Bostonian, has done it all. From her collaborative work in “Social Science,” a band formed by famed drummer Terri Lyne Carrington that produced the Grammy-nominated jazz album “Waiting Game,” to her solo work, which incorporates jazz, rock, hip hop and funk styles. 

This is a headshot of a woman. She is wearing a leather jacket, a black shirt, a black choker around her neck. She has long black hair that falls down her back. She is looking at the camera and smiling
Debo Ray
Holy Smoke Photography Debo Ray

Ray, who is also an assistant professor at Berklee College of Music, joined GBH News ahead of her Sept. 8 show at the Boston Harbor Distillery to talk about her musical journey and her plans for the future. 

Excerpts from the interview are below, lightly edited. You can listen to the full discussion by clicking the "listen" button at the top of the page. 

Haley Lerner: I'd love to hear a little bit about your journey as a musician and where you've gotten to now in your career.

Debo Ray: I have been doing music professionally for as long as I can remember, at least since my teens. When I started off, my parents were singing in churches, and they just said, “Hey, do you want to do this with us?” I was probably 4 or so years old, and I'm like, “Of course I do. Yes, please!”

That started my journey into really what music was doing for me, healing me. And it made sense in ways that other aspects of the world were just kind of confusing. Music always felt like home.

I went through a bunch of programs trying to get to know my voice more. Whether it was in choir or solo, style didn't matter to me, I just liked sounds. And [I] went to college for music at Berklee College of Music. I started to pursue as many different vocal styles as I could get my hands on, joined a bunch of bands ... and going through all of these different types of music, I realized I have things that I want to say, too. The best way for me to do it is to take all of these different sounds that I love and combine them in a way that feels adventurous and creative and emotionally driven.

Lerner: You've really grown up as a musician in Boston. Can you talk a little bit about that and kind of how the city has shaped your career?

Ray: Boston's a really important city when it comes to the music scene. There are so many amazing musicians in the city. And so for me, it was a no-brainer that I could involve myself in certain communities. I love that there's a scene for every style of music.

In my adult life, I get to perform at some of the places that I used to frequent as a kid watching other people perform at. It's a homecoming feeling, for sure.

Lerner: When it comes to the future of your career, what are some things that you're excited about?

Ray: I'm definitely touring a lot more heavily now, and so my main thing is putting on a production. I'm really big on visual elements and theatrical elements, so things like music videos or cultivated events that people can experience the music on more than just one sense, just more than their ears.

Lerner: In terms of visuals, what goes into your creative process when it comes to finding the best way to visually represent your music in videos?

Ray: I believe in symbolism, and I believe that it's super easy for us to attribute the symbols we see to a memory.

I have a black cat logo right now — I love cats so much. The black cat in particular gets a bad rap a lot of the time. But I've always loved the kind of ferocity and kind of elegance of a black cat. So by using that image, I can bring a feeling of acceptance of things that are not typically acceptable or a chance to find happiness and joy in something that might be considered a sidelined.

Lerner: I saw you’ve spoken about feeling like an outcast growing up, including with your Haitian identity, can you speak to that? I feel it really relates to what you’re talking to with this black cat imagery you mentioned before.

Ray: Labels just never seemed to fit entirely who I am or what I represent, what I feel. So in groups of people, I found myself kind of othered very often like, "Hey, you're Black, but you're not Black enough." "You're feminine, but you're not feminine enough." "You're articulate, but not articulate enough."

And I thought to myself, why do we keep using these labels and these boxes? I want to define who I am on my own terms. And I invite others through their journey of finding joy and self love, self worth, to express themselves in a way that makes them feel those things regardless of the label.

Lerner: With your Grammy nomination for your work with “Social Science,” how did it feel to have that recognition?

Ray: Every member of the band put so much blood, sweat and tears into that album. Terri Lyne, the bandleader, got this concept after 2016 when President Trump had won. She was like, "We need to talk about some things."

So she, with the other members of the band, we all came together to create a body of work that talks about social justice issues through the vehicle of music.

Being the vocalist of this band, I have the ability to carry these lyrics, tell these stories. Being a Black woman — I always tell my friends this — my personhood is, in itself, a form of protest. My Black hair, my Black voice, what I choose to do, it's showing you Black joy is real and it is valuable. It is valid. So my hope is that in being the front person of a band like that, people can acknowledge that that Black joy is real.

Lerner: Overall, what are you most proud of when it comes to your music and what you've created so far?

Ray: I feel like being able to see the audience's face after a song or after a show and knowing that they came away from it feeling renewed. I'm so blessed and proud to take part in that journey for them, and it's a part of my own journey. Just to remind us, joy is real and joy is valuable.

Debo Ray and her All Star Band perform at Boston Harbor Distillery on Friday, Sept. 8 at 8 p.m.