Despite Making Music For A Decade, Ravyn Lenae Is Just Getting Started

At age 24, Ravyn Lenae has spent nearly a decade in the music industry. By the time many of us discovered her through her second EP in 2018 — Crush, the five-track project produced by Steve Lacy — Lenae was 19 and wrapping up her teen years with two EPs, two tours, and a contract from Atlantic Records under her belt.
But I had no idea the woman whose music had me exuding main character energy as I walked through my college campus had actually skipped out on college herself. Instead, she forged a different creative path, ultimately producing several songs that were the soundtrack to my own undergraduate experience, like “Sticky” and “Computer Luv. I also didn’t learn until recently that she was Panamanian. Con estos dos detallitos, sabía que teníamos que hablar.
“I’ve always been artistically inclined and interested in creating,” Lenae tells Refinery29 Somos. Her career trajectory started at an early age because of her family, she reveals. “My grandfather was a soprano in a Doo Wop group in Panama called the Dominoes. I think he has the voice in my family, but he’s really shy about it.”

I would say around 15 is when I started to really dial in what I wanted out of art.

Ravyn Lenae
Ravyn Lenae Washington grew up in Chicago, raised by a Panamanian mother and an African-American father. Lenae never saw herself doing anything other than music. In her early years while enrolled in piano and guitar lessons, Lenae found her true calling: singing. With her talent and support from family, Lenae was a force by the time she reached her teen years.
That’s when she decided to attend a local performing arts high school called ChiArts, where she studied classical music, theory, jazz, and theatre. By the time she was ready to graduate, other students were looking at colleges and she had just her first tour. At this point, Lenae wasn’t waiting around for acceptance letters from colleges, and her family wasn’t, either. “There was never a moment where my family was disappointed, anxious, or worried about the direction I was taking,” Lenae says. “It’s already a very hard industry to be in. So as a Black woman in music, having that support from my family meant everything.”
After finding her place in music early on at her performing arts high school, Lenae caught the attention of the local singer NoName, who took Lenae on her first tour in 2017, quickly followed by SZA’s CTRL tour later that year. “Being able to be on those tours so young, with Black women was really special for me,” she recalls.
Around that time, she had been working with producer Monte Booker, who she calls a brother and credits for helping her find her sound. But these tours solidified that she could herself be the leading act, too. “I got to see the day to day, the behind the scenes, and I came to the conclusion that I can do it,” Lenae says. “That this is something I want to demand of myself.”

It’s already a very hard industry to be in. So as a Black woman in music, having that support from my family meant everything.

In reflecting on her upbringing and how it shaped her creative pursuits, Lenae reveals that her support system wasn’t primarily Latine, given where she was born and raised. “Honestly, I didn’t grow up in a Latin community at all,” Lenae says. “I grew up on the Southside so it’s all Black, and I’m honestly grateful to have grown up around people that look like me.”
Even so, while recalling her time growing up as a Central American Black Latina in Chicago, Lenae exudes hometown pride and excitement about the opportunity to connect with her Panamanian roots further. She’s hoping to return to the country sooner rather than later.
“I haven’t been to Panama since COVID-19 started and I used to go every couple years,” Lenae says. “I actually have a cousin in Panama who is a really popular singer and actress called Janel Davidson. I think that’s where I get the music from, and my grandpa.”
While it’s Chicago that nurtured the artist in Lenae growing up, her Latina roots stem from Panama, a country that has birthed many musical giants like El General and Rubén Blades. The country also played a role in the creation of popular Latin music genres, from salsa to reggaeton. “There’s something so special about those songs that live on for so long, and that type of dance music that gets played at family events and weddings,” Lenae says. “I want that moment.”
For Lenae, her current era is all about openness. “I think now I’m definitely open to exploring Latin music and collaborating with Latin artists,” she says. “I’m open to different friendships, different hair, different genres, and just exploring myself and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.”
Lenae’s latest release and her first full-length album, Hypnos, is an oath to her creative exploration as she plays with genres and explores new sounds. The 16-track project that will celebrate its first anniversary this spring, was written during a period of self-discovery that’s yet to end for the artist, who recently celebrated her 24th birthday on January 22. “During the time, a lot of things were happening,” Lenae explains. “[There was] COVID-19 and I moved from Chicago to L.A., so really big life changes were happening surrounding the pressure of creating my first full-length [album].”
The album, she explains, was created at a time when she had to look inward for inspiration, as everything on the outside stopped and she left the familiar comfort of her hometown. “I had to be okay with new things — challenging things, things that make me uncomfortable.”
Lenae thinks back to the pressures in her own life that surrounded the creation of her first full-length album. From traveling all the time and being out in the world to leaving her hometown and family to being forced to stay inside alone, Lenae used all those feelings that came up during quarantine to tell her stories.
Hypnos is the result of what Lenae calls her “intentional journey.” The album features the silky-smooth vocals that fans can find on her previous projects Moon Boots and Crush, with the addition of the nuance and confidence that comes with artistic maturity and evolving one’s sound. On the sixth track on Hypnos called “Where I’m From,” she softly yet proudly sings: “Dreaming of where I’m from / watch me spread my wings, Africa to Panama.” 
“This, in particular, is a song I think Black people need,” Lenae says. “It just hints at the diaspora and how we have this kind of identity issue with not knowing where we’re from, our real names, and our native languages. I think that’s why I have this yearning to spend a lot of time in Panama. I think I’ll have a lot more clarity about who I am, and where I’m going.”

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