Ramsey Renée
Ramsey Renée performing at the Howard Theatre in April; Credit: Dorvall Bedford

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

The crowd cheered when neo-soul singer Ramsey Renée was called onto the stage at the Howard Theatre on April 21. Several performers, ranging in genre from pop to rap, had already come before her, hailing from both local and distant places. Their sets exuded the type of charisma and stage presence that comes with experience.

Then came Renée. At only 17, the young singer from Waldorf walked across the stage as though it was hers. Grasping the microphone, she asked how the crowd was doing and was met with the deafening scream of the audience. One enthusiastic person close to the stage yelled out thunderously, “We doing good!”

Before her set, Renée promised herself she would “sing with her voice.” And as she began her first song, she lived up to that promise. Performing with the grace of someone twice her age, Renée sang with a clear and strong voice that filled the entire auditorium. The audience was awestruck at the sight—and sound—of this confident youth. From the crowd, it seemed as though she had no fear at all, but after the show, Renée admits she was quite scared moments before her name was called.

“I was nervous,” she tells City Paper. “It’s crazy because after doing it for a while you would think that you would get used to it. But then I got on the stage and it was like a different world. The crowd was amazing.”

April was a big month for Renée. She began 2023 with the January release of her EP Phases, which has received tens of thousands of streams on Spotify in just a few months. Following that success, Renée had the opportunity to perform alongside Maryland rapper Flex Kartel at Union Stage in February. But her momentum really picked up speed last month when she was named Best Youth Artist at the Wammie Awards on April 1, just three weeks before her performance at the Howard Theatre.

“I feel like Icarus, not going to lie,” Renée says, referring to the past four months. “I worked so hard ever since I was 9, and I still have more work to do.”

Renée’s mother and manager, Christine Haynes, likes to joke that her daughter’s singing career got its start at birth. Haynes claims Renée began to sing before she could even talk and used to hum along to music at a very early age. In reality, the start of Renée’s career can be traced back to when she and her mom started to post videos of her singing on both YouTube and Facebook when she was about 9 years old. Though hesitant at first to shine a spotlight on her daughter, Haynes eventually decided to let Renée put herself out there since it seemed to be her way of expressing herself. “Ever since my children were little, I’ve always supported their creativity and allowed them to have an outlet,” Haynes says. “Whether it was art, music, dancing, or whatever creative thing, I was on board and would just go with it.”

But Haynes didn’t expect what would happen after she started sharing videos of her daughter on Facebook. Her posts garnered enough attention that, in 2015, Runway Moms for a Cause, a nonprofit organization that provides resources to families in need, contacted them about having Renée perform for an event in Arlington.

During that very first performance, Haynes’ support in fostering Renée’s career solidified. She watched her daughter perform Alesso’s “Heroes (We Could Be)” in front of the audience with no fear. Despite a music mishap, Renée miraculously managed to keep singing. “I always say it was like a switch flipped when she stepped on stage and the music started,” Haynes says. “The person in front of me wasn’t Ramsey. It was somebody up there really singing her heart out. It was at that moment that I really realized she has no fear.”

Almost eight years later, and now with her own music released, Renée is a locally rising star. In her own words, she writes what she calls “heartbreak music” that blends her neo-soul with rap, R&B, and pop. But it’s her lyrics that really drive the “heartbreak” part of her sound—she writes about love in various forms and sings in a slow style that’s filled with power.

“If It Ain’t You” off her Phases EP is a prime example of Renée’s sound, influenced by such artists as Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, and Lil Baby. The song grapples with the strong, unrequited feelings teenagers can develop toward someone they’re in a relationship with and Renée hopes it teaches young listeners to know and value their self-worth. “I want to show my audience that I understand,” she says. “With that song, I really want to say that you can find better and be better.”

Though Renée says teenagers make up a large part of her audience, her music can appeal to listeners of any age. “I feel like my main theme is all about shared experiences,” she says. “I just want people to know that things they’ve thought, felt, and been through are things I’ve experienced too.”

Haynes describes Renée’s music as relatable, even to adults. In fact, she finds herself often becoming engrossed in her daughter’s lyrics. To Haynes, that is what makes Renée stand out among other local talent. “If you were to listen to her music with your eyes closed and then find out later it was made by a 17-year-old, you would be surprised by her maturity,” she says. “More than a million times people will ask if she wrote her songs. There are a lot of young artists out there, but Ramsey teeters on the edge of being an old soul.”

That maturity has caused many to take notice of the young singer. Several years ago she received her first nomination for a Wammie award and Haynes recalls being told they’d have to campaign for votes. This year, however, they were not contacted by the Wammies and didn’t know that Renée was nominated for Best Youth Artist/Group, until she had already been named a finalist. “That email was a shock,” Haynes says. “I remember telling her, ‘Honey, I have no idea what’s going on.’”

“It was crazy to me,” Renée adds. “You think I’d need to promote myself to get something, and then all the people that have been following me were like, ‘Oh, she deserves this.’ That really humbled me.”

At the awards ceremony on April 1, Renée remembers holding hands with her mother and sister as the finalists in her category were named. And when she was announced as the winner, she felt as if the whole crowd looked at her as though she deserved it. “It was just so reassuring,” Renée says. “I was so emotional because I felt like I was the boss that I always wanted to be. I felt like the boss of the room—the youngest boss in the room.”

Ramsey Renée at the Howard; Credit: Dorvall Bedford

That win at the Wammies, along with the release of her EP, led Haynes and the people behind Open Gem, an locally based national open mic event, to organize a performance for Renée at the Howard Theatre. Renée was so excited about singing inside such a significant historically Black venue here in D.C. that she arrived two hours ahead of her call time that night just so that she could take a tour around the building.

As they walked, Haynes recalls, “We were looking at the pictures on the walls of all the people who sold out the Howard and we were all like, ‘Ramsey, you’re going to be next.’” 

And while she only performed two songs that night, Renée was amazed by the whole experience. “I felt like a superstar,” she says. “It was like a spotlight was on me. And seeing so many people scream and be so in awe with me made me feel like I’m really supposed to be doing this.”

It can be very intimidating to be such a young artist achieving as much professionally as she has, especially since being 17 means she has a lot of other things to manage. Not only is Renée an award-winning singer, but she’s also a high school junior who achieves honor roll, participates in extracurricular activities such as choir and school musicals, and works a part-time job. Alongside her desire to continue her career as a singer, Renée also plans to attend college where she hopes to study criminal psychology and she also wants to become a music teacher.

She’s faced criticism for her lofty goals and admits that being someone with so many dreams is not easy. Since she began performing, she’s had times when she took on too many responsibilities and Haynes had to step in and tell her to take a break. As Renée’s manager, Haynes also knows when to be her mother and when to remind Renée that she’s still a child.

“Their dream has to be yours,” Haynes says. “You have to eat, sleep, and drink their dream. It’s very hard and exhausting, but we believe in her. It’s been a family effort from the beginning.”

With that support, Renée continues to persist. She’s currently working on releasing a music video this summer as well as a new project, and she plans to keep performing and hopes to reach some of D.C.’s biggest stages. 

“Someone once told me I can’t chase two birds with one stone,” Renée says. “But I did it anyway, and I’ll keep doing it. Yes, I love music, but there are a lot of other things that I love to do. People always feel like you have to focus on one thing. With the right amount of balance you can do anything.”