Carla Marie Williams has written hits for some of the world’s biggest artists, from Kylie to Girls Aloud, The Saturdays, Alesha Dixon and even Britney Spears.
An undeniably gifted songwriter, with the awards and accolades to prove it, she is perhaps best known for writing Beyoncé's smash hits Runnin and Freedom.
The founder of Girls I Rate, a movement that pushes for change and creates opportunities for young women in creative industries, Carla Marie uses her experience and wisdom to develop and empower the next generation.
This week’s Guest Editor Michelle Escoffery caught up with Carla to talk about launching Girls I Rate, taking up the space as a Black woman in the industry and overcoming barriers.
'It’s just having that raw talent and just keeping going, trying to find the opportunity. I feel like if I had it all given to me, I wouldn't be who I am today.'
Michelle: I wanted to speak to you regarding your journey, and just how you came to create Girls I Rate, and why you felt that was necessary. But let's start with your connection to music, and what brought you into the music industry?
Carla Marie: My mum started working at this community gathering place called Bridge Park Complex in Stonebridge. Back in the day, everybody did singing classes there. A man called Stephen Cole used to teach singing to the olders in the area and I told my mum I wanted to have lessons. She was like, ‘Okay, and go and ask.’ He kind of took me under his wing, took me to Italia Conti, and during the six-week holidays, to the classes that he was teaching.
Whilst doing that, I saw an article in The Voice about a competition called 'Hal Jackson's Talented Teens'. You could win the chance to go to America to sing in the Apollo in Harlem and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that's me. That's me.’ I ended up winning the competition and actually performed at the Apollo.
I lost one of my shoes, so I couldn't wear one of my outfits and lost points, but I still came in the top 10. I started college when I got back from America and I went for an audition at Italia Conti to join a girl group. I sang for this man at The Dorchester, and he ended up being the manager of Wet Wet Wet.
He loved my voice and asked me to join the group. So, I told my parents and they were like, ‘Who's this man now?’ I said, ‘It's this thing. They want me to go to Scotland to live.’ They were like, ‘Scotland?’ I was only 16.
So they flew my mum and dad over to see where we were going to live. He lives in a penthouse, so my mum and that saw it. My mum was quite a strict Jamaican. She didn't really believe in music like that. It was like, ‘Learn your book, and then you can do music.’
So, yes, I ended up leaving college. I left to be in this group [Schino]. I realised that I was a songwriter by those times. I might not have been the best singer, but I had lyrical and melodic ability. So that was the start of my writing career. Once I left the group, I just kept writing songs for myself. I wanted to be a rock soul artist and write alternative stuff. I was heavily into Mary J Blige but also Alanis Morissette.
Michelle: Do you agree that diversity isn't just about gender or race or disability; it's also about background and class and where you come from. How important do you think your environment is to what you bring to the table?
Carla Marie: 150 percent. You know that saying, ‘You can take the girl out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the girl?’ All those things that I went through in my journey, going to my music classes and my mum not even being able to afford it, knowing I had talent, but couldn't afford it. Also didn’t even advocate for it. It’s just having that raw talent and just keeping going, trying to find the opportunity. I feel like if I had it all given to me, I wouldn't be who I am today.
The amount of raw talent that came from the north west, whether that's Tubby T, whether that's Gappy Ranks, Donaeo or Taio Cruz. I think we were all just on our thing. It never leaves you. For some people, it leaves them, because they want to forget. But for me, I hold it. It's the driver, and it helps me not become complacent.
'I can innovate. I can inspire. I have the vision for songs and sounds, and I can tell you, from A to Z, what a song should sound like.'
Michelle: When do you feel like you started making waves? You spent all this time writing and honing your craft and being in a group, but also developing your skill outside of that.
Carla Marie: To be fair, when I joined the group, I was 16. I got my first writing break at 26. It took years, but it happened in a very big way. When I was 20, I met Brian Higgins. He ran Xenomania who did all the songs for Girls Aloud. But the way I wrote was so organic, when I went down and saw this massive house and heard the pop songs they were making, I was just like, ‘No, this is not for me.’ So I didn't really follow that up.
But he remembered me, and six years later, he called my lawyer, ‘What happened to that girl that you sent down? Tell her to call me.’ By then, obviously, nothing was really going on. I was doing my own album, but I’d gone back to study youth work. For a whole year, I was doing different things. I set up my own company, teaching songwriting, singing and so on.
He called me and said, ‘Come down. I want to meet you.’ When I got there just put a mic in front of me, put on the tracks and pressed 'Record' on a Dictaphone. Then I looked around and saw the 10 acres of land – not 20 anymore, but 26 – thinking, ‘I need to get some of this shit. ’I just sang my heart out, and the lyrics just started coming.
In that kind of environment, as well, it was all white people. My approach to melodies was different. He was just gassed. He was like, ‘I really want a Black girl in my team.’ He was just vocal about it. I just would go there and see all these different black girls coming out. He was auditioning for new talent, Black girls.
I ended up getting the job. That year, I think I had my first release with Girls Aloud, or three releases. Then, within two-and-a-half years of working there, I had six top tens. Then one of our songs won a Brit Award – The Promise.
That gave me the discipline to be like, ‘No nursery rhymes, light-hearted content. Quick delivery. Boom, boom, boom.’ It then made me into a different type of machine.
Michelle: How did you come about creating Girls I Rate? Why did you think it necessary to create that platform?
Carla Marie: After spending two and-a-half years at the production house, I had bigger ambitions. I wanted to manage and develop my own girl group that was like a UK TLC. I wanted to be like the people who helped me.
I started a girl group, and it went into a major label, and it all collapsed and fell, really badly, on its face and went terribly wrong. I didn't have any management or a team, and I felt really isolated and alienated during that time. I was like, ‘Wow, I wonder if there are any other women who felt like me.’
I was surrounded by men, and I was, sometimes, spoken to in really condescending ways. I felt compelled, after that situation, to really start having a voice. But it took me a long time to get it off the ground. I tried a few times, and it just didn't happen. Then all the stuff started happening in America, with Beyoncé stuff and Britney. But I was coming up against the same obstacles again. The higher up you go, the less of a voice you have.
'Always being one of the few Black women sitting at many tables, again, is that a choice, or are they only letting one or two of us at the table?'
I was like, ‘Screw it.’ I was in LA, and I called my friend, Vivianna, ‘Listen, I'm starting this thing that's called Girls I Rate.’ I got that name because of the boys from my area, who used to say, ‘Carla, I rate you. I proper rate you. I rate your ting. You do it differently.’ That’s where name came from. I felt more real to me. Then I went to sit with a PR, to say to her, ‘I'm in America. I don't have a website or Wikipedia with all my work that I've done over the years. Can you help me?’ She was like, ‘Cool.’ I told her about my career, up to that point. It was only Runnin that was coming out, up to that point, and then all my Girls Aloud stuff. ‘But I've also got this thing called Girls I Rate that I want to launch in March, next year, for International Women's Month.’ So, she then helped me launch Girls I Rate in 2016, saying, ‘Beyoncé songwriter launches initiative to help women in the industry, Girls I Rate.’ That was the start of it.
Off the back of that, I started the GIR Arts Academy, and in May that year, did my first songwriting weekend for girls 16 to 30. 16, because I left school at 16, and 30, because I didn't get my first deal until I was 26. People always end at 25. It drives me mad.
Between 26 and 30, that was a whole new journey for me as a young woman. I just found my feet after years of trying.
Michelle: What have been your barriers to entry with Girls I Rate? Have you found challenges, or has it been super plain sailing?
Carla Marie: I think the biggest challenge is just getting the funding and the money and understanding what things people will fund. Also, there are just so many people doing the same thing now. Initially, I wanted it to be inclusive of all these 100 women that came on board and we'd all work together. But I realised we aren't, as women, even set out like that. We’ve still got our own obstacles to overcome when it comes to collaboration. We don't like to do it.
I think I said it on my Music Week takeover – always being one of the few Black women sitting at many tables, again, is that a choice, or are they only letting one or two of us at the table? I still haven't worked it out for myself.
When I came from Xenomania, I was still the only Black person in that building, and I was let in. But at the same time, my background and the way I talked and my culture, I felt, was the bonus to being able to sit at these tables, not a hindrance. I felt my difference was why I should be at the table. I've always thought that. I've never even tried to assimilate to be anything different.
So, ‘Do we not feel, as Black women, sometimes, that we should be there? Do we even try hard enough?’ I don't know.
Michelle: Yes. I've found that, over the years, there has been a huge imposter syndrome, even for myself. If I speak for myself, in terms of sitting on the PRS board, I was approached three years before I even sat on the board, by Paulette Long. I just thought ‘How does that relate to me? What contribution can I make?’ I think, sometimes, we get into these spaces where, like you said, we talk ourselves out of it.
Representation is everything, so if there's no-one there that looks like you, you think, ‘I shouldn't be there.’ And then, ‘How is everyone going to relate to me? Do they even know where I'm coming from or understand where I'm coming from? Will my contribution be valued?’
The lesson that I'm learning is to encourage other women of colour and other Black women to say, ‘You have got something to contribute. Your ideas are so valid. Your experience is so valid. Yes, don't even think about, 'Should I be there?' Of course, you should be there. You should definitely be there, because we need to hear from you.’
'Now, if I can give myself and other people opportunities to write music that we listen to in our homes and on our radios, and we don't feel like we just have to write music in white spaces, for white spaces, that's where I'm at right now.'
Carla Marie: Do you find that there's collaboration between the Black community in music? With women?
Michelle: No, I think there's a lack of it. Sometimes, it's really hard. Because the industry is male dominated, it's even hard to find the women. I think, sometimes, it's that idea of, ‘Well, there can only be one,’ or, ‘There can only be two at a time.’ So when there is one there, sometimes, they don't want to share that space with another woman. They are the things that we have to break down, because we're so much stronger together.
Carla Marie: Yes, that's the mentality that I've been searching for four years but I don't think I've got it. Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to say I'm the easiest person, but I'm just the way I am, because I've been battered in this thing, hard.
Sometimes, when women come, I'm like, ‘We've got to work harder, you know. We haven't got time for excuses, because if we're going to really sit at these tables and really say we're adding value, then we've got to add value for real, not just because we're women and we're of colour.’
Michelle: So how would you change it? How do you see it changing?
Carla Marie: If I'm being really honest, I've kind of semi given up on it, in terms of women of our age group or around our age group. I feel like that's a battle that is just going to have to figure itself out. You see how you and me are talking now. I've known of you forever, and you've probably known of me, but we've just never found our way into conversation. But we have now. It's like, ‘Actually, do you know what? I've been knowing her. She's from where I'm from. She knows my people.’ It becomes natural.
But what I am working on is the younger girls. That's why I do the girls 16 to 30, so I've got the GIR Black girls. We have Zoom calls, and I'm re-educating them, and I encourage them to do link-ups and meet up in groups, have conversations. I feel like it's the future generation that I can help to change their mentality and the way they look at working with each other.
Michelle: Where will Girls I Rate be in five years?’
Carla Marie: I want to take it to an international scale. To push Black girls who were like me forward. I became a Keychange ambassador, because I believe that there should be change in festivals, within radio, and mentorship, especially for Black women. I'm trying to now say, ‘We want this in a global scale, within the Caribbean, within Africa, in places where our culture and music exists. But women still are the minority, even there.’ Also, I feel like, for Black women who from the UK diaspora, when we come home, we're different, and we feel different. We feel empowered and we feel loved.
The fact that we were a British colony, there is some synergy there, and that needs to be addressed. Organisations like PRS and PRSS, the British Council, all these companies now need to get behind giving full hours and doing cultural exchanges for women like us. Do you get what I mean?
Carla Marie: Yes. You know when you come to your family or you go to Jamaica, you're like, ‘Yes, man. They are happy.’
Imagine doing music where you're from, where your family is from. You've worked with Liberty X and I've worked with Girls Aloud. But that's not our music. I used to come home and my mum's saying to me, ‘What kind of music do they have you writing down here?’
Now, if I can give myself and other people opportunities to write music that we listen to in our homes and on our radios, and we don't feel like we just have to write music in white spaces, for white spaces, that's where I'm at right now. I know, when I speak to these young girls, they're so gassed about even thinking that it's okay. It's got better in the UK, obviously, with the afro scene and whatever, but it's still male dominated, and the girls are still few and far between.
'I want to be known as someone who was always pushing for social changes for women, especially, Black women, like me. I had Black people, but they weren’t my mentors. All my mentors were white men. All my opportunities came from white men.'
Michelle: Yes. Which girls are you rating right now?
Carla Marie: I love Alicaì Harley. She's amazing. I need to compartmentalise the ones that I just love, because I just engage with them. I love Br3nya, Trillary Banks. I think she's lit as well. There's a girl called Brix. She's bad.
There are just some up and coming ones that need a platform, man, that I just discover daily. I just sit there, and I'm like, ‘Oh my God, these lot are sick.’ I want to do something with them. There are hundreds though, literally.
We started GIR Army a few years ago, and then we relaunched it again in July, and we've had 300 to 500 sign-ups over the last few months. So I just know their faces and names. I haven't met them.
Inkra DeBelle is doing really well. I love her new song NAH. It's good. I'm happy she's doing that, the cultural influence. She's a mixed-race girl as well, but the Jamaican influence within her is really pushing through, and I love that. I want us to feel like we can do that.
Michelle: So, what's the biggest lesson that you've learnt on your journey so far?
Carla Marie: I feel like my biggest lesson and one of my biggest breaks was, when we wrote Runnin, we didn't write it for anyone. I wasn't trying to pitch; I just wrote a song that was with my friend, and we wrote it about us. It was heard by the powers that be, and then it ended up with Beyoncé. Not always trying to chase, but going away and creating things you love, that can get you to places that you love.
That’s why I'm in Barbados, because I don't think I need to be part of a rat race to produce what I need to do. I’ve decided I don't like the pressure. Even with camps and stuff, I'll go to a camp if I know who it's been organised by, and it's about the creative, not just about churning. I'm like, ‘I can churn, but is it good? Is it going to represent me?
Michelle: I hear you. Alright, last question: what do you want your legacy to be, Carla Marie Williams?
Carla Marie: Oh my God. Okay, my pinnacle is, obviously, music. I want to be known to be a writer and a producer. I'm a backseat producer though, I don't think I'm going to touch buttons any time soon. But I definitely know what I like. I can innovate. I can inspire. I have the vision for songs and sounds, and I can tell you, from A to Z, what a song should sound like.
Alongside that, social changes. I want to be known as someone who was always pushing for social changes for women, especially, Black women, like me. I had Black people, but they weren’t my mentors. All my mentors were white men. All my opportunities came from white men. So I'm happy, here, that I look like some of the girls who are like, ‘If you did it, I can do it.’ That's what I love, being that person.
This piece was guest edited by Michelle Escoffery. Michelle is an award-winning singer, songwriter and vocal producer. One of the UK’s most respected songwriters, she has penned songs for acts including Tina Turner, All Saints, Beverley Knight and Artful Dodger, worked on vocal arrangements for Rod Stewart and performed with Stevie Wonder and George Michael.