A megastar like Rita Ora is not someone you’d expect to rush to the aid of people left homeless after the terrible Grenfell Tower fire in London last year. But she grew up in the same neighbourhood. “My best friend’s auntie and cousins lived there. ey escaped with her kids, but they lost everything,” Rita explains. “ The day it happened, I went there with a bunch of clothes. I just hope I did enough,” she says.
Rita might have had 13 top ten singles and a number 1 platinum-selling debut album, starred in the 50 Shades movies and been a judge on the X-Factor, but her story begins in Kosovo. In many ways hers is the classic rags-to-riches story - a kid triumphing against all the odds to grab her dream. She was born Rita Sahatciu, the middle child of Albanian refugees who fled to this country in 1991. They lived four to a room in a flat on the old Brompton Road before moving to more a spacious council accommodation block just two streets from Grenfell.
“This album is a true labour of love”
So she knows what life is like on the other side of the tracks. Her non-stop work ethic (which at one point meant she collapsed and had to be flown by helicopter to hospital) is the product of someone who has had to battle from the word go. At first the family found the refugee tag was hard to shift. “ That word carries a lot of prejudice,” she says. “But it also made us determined to survive. When you put anyone into an alien environment, where other people aren’t completely comfortable with them being there, they are automatically going to be defensive. It’s the rule of the jungle, right?”
Growing up, she loved to listen to her parents’ record collection - Blondie, Hendrix and Earth Wind and Fire... and even (wait for it....) Celine Dion. She wanted to sing and act and, perhaps remarkably, her parents encouraged her. Her father worked double shifts and her mother waitressed tables to scrimp and save enough for her to go to the Sylvia Young theatre School. “I was the only student at school who wasn’t from a rich family: all these kids were Louis Vuitton’d out,” she says. “I was there with the same backpack for six years. But I didn’t care.”
By the time she was a teenager, the family’s hard work had paid off. Her dad owned a pub in Kilburn and Rita was singing there regularly. At 16, she managed to convince legendary manager Sarah Stennett, who’d discovered the Sugababes, to meet her for a coffee. “I was desperate to get some studio time,” Rita remembers. She certainly made an impression. “She looked at me and said: ‘I’m going to help you. We’re going to put you in the studio today,’” Rita smiles. Within two years Stennett had helped her land a five- album deal with Jay-Z’s record label Roc Nation. Not bad for a 17-year-old raised in a council flat.
Before she knew it, Rita found herself on a plane to New York, from where she was taken to a Manhattan nightclub to meet Jay-Z himself. “He said hello and shook my hand. I couldn’t speak for a few minutes, which is unusual,” she laughs. “’You have a firm handshake!’” said Jay-Z. “’I like that.’”
She clearly made an impression on the rap mogul too. “You can see the potential,” Jay-Z said. “When she enters a room it changes... and that presence — you can’t duplicate it, especially at a young age. It was just infectious. She’s driven in that way.”
The honeymoon didn’t last though. Her first album did phenomenally well, but she fell out with Roc Nation and sued them arguing that they’d failed to release a number of albums that she’d written. “It felt like the worst thing,” she says. “But it was the only decision I could make. My appreciation and respect for them hasn’t changed at all. It was an easy separation. It could have been bad, but it was very respectful. It was one of the easiest separations ever.”
It feels like she might be glossing over things a little. The legal action took years to finalise and in the meantime, there was no second album. For many artists a six year hiatus between first and second albums would have been disastrous. “ The best thing Jay-Z ever taught me was patience,” she smiles enigmatically. “He’s like the best older brother a girl could ever have.”
And she certainly had a bit of a girl crush on Jay-Z’s wife and superstar Beyoncé. “Beyoncé? Omigod. She’s the nicest person, bestest person I have ever met in the whole industry. I’m not just saying that. I’d die for her. Nobody can ever say anything wrong about that woman in front of me. I get emotional just talking about it.”
So freed from the Roc Nation contract, finally the new album - with a new record label - is here. It’s called Phoenix and features a number of singles that Rita has already released including Your Song last May and radio playlist stalwart Anywhere from 2017. And then there’s also Lonely Together which was a collaboration with Avicii, the renowned Swedish producer, who sadly died in April. “We were very good friends and he changed my life,” she says. “In a way, the album is dedicated to him.” A number of songs which she wrote and recorded with Prince look likely never to see the light of day however, which is a great shame.
It’s clearly been a great relief to get back into the studio and record again. “One of the most liberating feelings for me is performing and creating music,” she says. “ This album is a true labour of love. I’m so appreciative of the support from those who worked with me and allowed me to create something I’m really proud of. They gave me the space and freedom to create something from my heart.”
Part of the reason an artist like Rita can stay current even in the midst of a fallout with a record company is social media. “You can be forgotten very quickly,” she says. “So I am aware that I need to stay current, keep connecting and keep bringing things to the table... Otherwise you can just disappear.”
Twitter in particular hasn’t always been kind to her though. But she’s developed a thick skin: “Sharing my life with people is just part of my daily routine,” she says. “But I don’t take any notice of the things people say — it’s just white noise. I know the truth. I don’t feel I need to explain anything. Silence is the most powerful response. I know it’s contradictory to put yourself out there and then not want to deal with the responses, but that’s just how it is.”
And even if it looks like Rita Ora online, it might not be. “Are there fake Rita Ora profiles online? Definitely!” she laughs. “I see some things and I’m like, ‘ That is totally not me.’ Don’t have any expectations because you don’t really know who you’re speaking to.”
Let’s face it, if you’re doing what you love and enjoying every minute, who cares what the trolls and the fake profiles are saying? “People, everyday people, do jobs from nine to five that I don’t think they wished for when they were kids,” she agrees. “I love everything I’ve done as a woman and as a businesswoman, but my whole life and passion and fulfillment in my heart has always been about my music.”