Bandmates from left: Mustafa Rahimtulla, 26; Jamaal Shurland, 25; Myles Stephenson, 26 and Ashley Fongo, 25.

Rak-ing Up Success

15th December 2017

After winning the coveted X Factor final two weeks ago, Watford band Rak-Su are all set to take the pop world by storm. Lisa Botwright finds out more…

“A fortnight later and the news hasn’t even sunk in. It’s the most surreal feeling. It means the world to us that we have the public’s support,” Ashley gushes, still clearly on cloud nine. He’s talking about Watford-based Rak-Su’s triumphant X Factor success, when he and fellow bandmates Mustafa, Jamaal and Myles scooped the top prize in front of a Saturday night audience of 4.4 million, and entered the record books for being the first boy band ever to win.

For the uninitiated, winning the X Factor is a Very Big Deal Indeed. Previous finalists One Direction and JLS, for example, have gone onto unimaginable beyond-one’s-wildest-dreams-success, and are worth £100m and £25m respectively. Olly Murs, 2009 runner-up, has sold over 13 million records and has used his success to springboard into a dual pop and tv presenting career. Leona Lewis, 2006 winner, went on to achieve global critical acclaim after being hailed as ‘the real deal’ by media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey.

However, pop is a famously fickle world, and for every One Direction or Olly Murs, there’s an equally sorry tale of spectacular falls from grace. Ten years on from Steve Brookstein’s win of the first ever series, his 2014 album, entitled with praiseworthy self-awareness The Forgotten Man, failed to even chart.

The band are highly aware of the fleeting nature of fame, and are keen make the most of their golden ticket. Behind the jokes and banter, there are hints of a steely focus and a commitment to longevity. “We need to work a lot harder than we ever did to sustain ourselves. The hard work starts now,” declares Myles. And when asked if there was much partying going on in the X Factor house (the finalists live together during the last part of the competition), Myles answers, “Our priority was the show. We were focused on the main prize. Partying comes later.”

Competitors are appraised by a panel of four judges – this year it was Sharon Osbourne, Louis Walsh, Nicole Scherzinger and Simon Cowell – with each judge in charge of mentoring a particular category (girls, boys, over 28s and groups). Simon Cowell, who is known for his blunt and caustic feedback and who likes to play the pantomime baddie of the line-up, is, according to the boys, ‘supportive, kind and genuine’. “Simon was everything in a mentor we had hoped for. He encouraged us to be ourselves and not to settle,” explains Myles. “He understood our vision from the start,” continues Mustafa. “He told us never to settle and to stay true to what we stand for. He got us completely.”

“Plus Ashley would have been too distracted if Nicole had been our mentor,” Jamaal laughs. “Oh, here we go,” Ashley retorts.

There’s a heart-stopping moment during Rak-Su’s very first audition when Simon signals for the music to be cut. That must have been incredibly disconcerting, I venture. “When Simon stopped our first song, we all looked at each other and thought we had made the wrong decision coming on the show. But looking back now, it was the best thing we’ve ever done.” In the episode, Simon calls time on a pleasant, but relatively lacklustre version of Justin Timberlake’s Señorita, and asks the band if they have any other material they can play. When the guys launch into their own material – the brilliantly catchy and uplifting I’m Feeling You – the atmosphere changes immediately, with the judges and audience all showing their appreciation by moving in time to the beat and singing along to the chorus. “The experience was amazing. Something we’ll never forget,” reflects Myles.

It’s their song-writing skill, as well as their musical talent, that’s contributing to their popularity. When Sting criticised X Factor for being “televised karaoke”, it might have been slightly harsh, but as a fan of the show since its outset, it’s so refreshing to witness a band with true originality. Proud mentor Simon is on record as saying “Rak-Su have now become an inspiration – I’m hearing this all the time. They represent what young kids like today, and young kids are now saying they trust the show again.”

The band’s sound is described on their website as ‘eclectic’, ranging from ‘future R&B to Hip-Hop & Grime, through to Spoken Word and all the in between’. There’s an urban influence to their music, but the band aren’t afraid of embracing the fun side of pop too. “We want to do the kind of stuff where we can smile while singing,” says Ashley.

They’ve been playing their upbeat numbers Feeling Good and Mamacita, amongst other songs, in pubs in and around Watford for about a year now. They ‘can’t believe’ that those same tracks are now vigorously climbing the charts. Dimelo, rapturously received in the final, went straight into the number two slot of the official singles chart, and, at the time of writing, Rak-Su hold an impressive four of the iTunes top twenty places.

Ashley, Mustafa, Jamaal and Myles held down various full-time jobs in teaching, business, physiotherapy and retail since leaving school, but they all shared the same lingering dissatisfaction that life in a business suit wasn’t for them. Despite the name Rak-Su sounding a little like a Japanese curry dish, it comes from ‘tracks versus suits’ meaning ‘music and fun versus adult life’. They have been friends since they were very young and claim that music has always been central to their lives – a way to express and project emotion, as well as a way to have fun and just ‘be themselves’. “I’ve always been musical,” Myles tells me. “Not that I realised until now, but looking back I was making beats from about 15 and recording from a £1 mic in my bedroom.” Mustafa echoes this: “I’ve always had a musical ear”, he says. “Since I was a young teen, dancing went hand in hand with music, being able to pick apart a song or instrumental and being able to relay that through dance.” They count everything from 70s funk to Kendrick Lamar and Drake as their musical influences.

They really appreciate all the local support that family and friends, as well as their new fans, have shown them. There’s a particularly moving scene in the X Factor final when the band are filmed coming home for a visit and driving through the streets of Watford where they grew up. When they visit their former school, Westfield, they’re overcome with the reaction from the pupils. “Growing up in Watford is cool. It’s close to London, but there’s enough to do in the town too. We used to hang out at McDonalds, at Shisha spots or at Cassiobury Park,” says Myles. “Yeah, in the summer we would definitely be hanging out in Cassiobury Park,” agrees Mustafa.

So what are their plans for the future? “We will just keep doing what we are doing. We are all looking forward to the next chapter,” says Ashley. And with a flash of that unmistakably steely glint, he promises: “We want to get new tracks out early next year… New music is the priority for us.”

They’ll be swapping shisha for champagne and McDonalds for fillet steak very soon, but I have a feeling that they’ll remain a credit to their Watford roots, and stay just as focused, appreciative and as down-to-earth as they come across now.

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