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Talking to Jelani Blackman

The music industry has faced one of the most challenging years in recent memory. With the global pandemic of Covid-19 having a detrimental impact on most industries, music has taken a substantial hit. Performers have been restricted from stages, and the damage has been at its worst for those artists who are still endeavouring to accomplish success and stability. The journey of an emerging musicians’ career is uncertain at the best of times. They often bare their souls for little returns, in hope of a moment that could change it all. Significant victories on that path are everything, and a positive outlook is satisfying to behold. 

In 2017 at an earlier time in Jelani Blackman’s career, we sat down to talk about his journey so far. We spoke about the concept of success, and at the time he told me his interpretation was, “To live happily making music”. Three years on and I wonder how close he is to reaching that objective? “That’s quite a nice goal” [Laughs]. “It’s getting there. I’m definitely very happy with how things are going, and I’m making more music than I ever have, music that I like. I’ve gone a long way towards achieving that goal”. With a beaming disposition and an ever-emerging confidence, Jelani seems to be gliding past the grey clouds looming above us this year. “I think that’s success for me now, and I think more and more people are realising. Especially with lockdown, it’s about your own health, your mental health, your enjoyment of what you do, and I think more people are understanding that’s a better measure of success”.

“I’ma smile when they give me one mill” raps Jelani on his recent offering, ‘Tricky’. His accompanying release ‘Hello’, then swiftly reached one million views on YouTube through a COLORS performance. A milestone moment for any musician that I am sure brought his anticipated smiles to life. It turns out Covid-19 restrictions on performing live may have birthed this propelling breakthrough. “I miss performing. I feel like that’s what came across. That’s the energy that people got from it. I had a lot of energy pent up and it all came out in that one performance”, Jelani disclosed. “I’m a big believer in ‘everything happens for a reason’, so if I shifted one thing, who knows how that would have impacted on anything else. If I had been performing the whole time, would I have come with the same energy?” In a year that has been difficult for so many, a progressive impact for some is a blessing to witness. “I have actually, despite everything, had quite a good year. I’d say that lockdown, despite not being able to play stuff, I think it’s given me time for focus, so [it’s] probably more positive than negative if I’m honest”. But Jelani seems aware of his blessings in this time, and expectations of normality are not yet forthcoming. “It’s overly optimistic to imagine that next year there’s going to be a run of festivals as if it was the same. There’s still going to be measures put in place, there’s still going to be people that need to make sure that things are safe. By that point, there will be a lot of people that have either had to adjust or are not gonna be in the thing anymore. You know Glasto, there’s a couple of really long-standing people that make the stages, that are on the verge of bankruptcy”. A good year amongst these gloomy circumstances. really is an inspiration for gratitude. 

As we delve into the content of Jelani Blackman’s current output, we find a profound understanding of more bleak realities captured before our celebrations. Growing up in Ladbroke Grove, and going to school in Chelsea, Jelani witnessed a broad contrast amongst adjacent residents of London. The line, “A state school on a one percent road”, captures this juxtaposition. “I used to come down this road that for bare of my life I thought was normal. It’s basically Burberry to Fendi, to every high-end brand and jewellery shop you could imagine. When I used to go down there coming from school I would be like ‘this should be what I have’, but they never used to let us into the shops. They looked at us as if we were outsiders”, Jelani reflects. “It creates a sense of desire for things that maybe is unhealthy because they’re not part of your world at the time. And probably some resentment over the fact that you know there are those people that live that close to you, that are basically living in a different world. I think it’s difficult”. A backdrop recognisable to many London creatives that’s lead to the birth of genres, and an artistic output that has rocked the world. 

The chorus of ‘Hello’ chants, “I’ve been here since Ghetts was Ghetto”. A homage to early grime music that has clearly played a big influence on Jelani’s artistry. “Grime was fundamental, that was me. Probably the two biggest artists would have been Dizzee and Ghetts, that really moulded what it meant for me to have an energy and have a sound”. Birthed in the early 2000’s, grime gave the UK an authentic MC driven genre entrenched in London and UK identity. The content was familiar to kids growing up in the era, but it’s the energy that really drew them in. “That’s also what was really nice about ‘Hello’, is that the lyric kind of came with the energy. It wasn’t a contrived thing. It was more like, that was the energy that I came with because it felt really authentic to approach a tune like that. Which I hadn’t really done for a long time. I haven’t really considered myself like straight down the line grime. But you can hear the influence, and I think if anybody heard it on another instrumental maybe, they’re grime bars”. Another milestone for Jelani this year was a feature alongside Ghetts himself on Fraser T Smiths album. Grime is an obvious influence, but Jelani has a melting pot of sounds apparent in his work. I wondered where he feels that he fits in the spectrum of current Black British music? “I live somewhere in between Kojey, Slowthai, and someone else but I can’t remember the name. I feel like there’s a there’s a pocket of artists that, being conscious or being aware of stuff isn’t their whole thing, but it’s part of their character or part of their narrative. It’s a kind of newly accepted thing I think to an extent. There was a big period of time where at least most people only knew about commercially working grime MC’s or rappers. You had The Streets, which was a very specific moment and sound. Beyond that there weren’t loads of other artists that you’d be able to put into that category”. How times have changed with the broad spectrum of rappers coming out of the UK in 2020. An artist like Jelani now has a space to operate more freely than ever before. 

There’s an indisputable affection for standing up to social injustice in Jelani’s current output. But it is clear that it doesn’t define him absolutely. Though the climate of late seems to have brought this type of subject matter to the surface. “I’m that guy in private. I’d be willing to say it to anyone that spoke to me, whether it was in interviews, I’d be I’d be happy to say it. But the thing that wasn’t really willing to do, was I didn’t want to put myself in a category of a musical activist, because I actually feel like weirdly your position kind of gets weakened by doing that. I don’t know why”, he began. “I’m not gonna be like a token for all these issues that you’re not read to engage with in the first place. When you’re ready I’ll come and chat to you”. In this moment Jelani seems to have grasped the opportunity to be heard on these issues with both hands. With Black Lives Matter having such a recent impact, and a generation of young people becoming more engaged in social awareness, he has used his platform to put that side of his arsenal on display with pride. “Before the end of my lifetime I’m gonna be at the front of the revolution. I’m built for it”, he exclaims with vigour and assurance. “The older I get the more I realise that a lot of the things that I’ve ever been good at or cared about, have usually been kind of anti. We’re in a scenario now where things are starting to be highlighted in a really obvious way. If you choose not to see it now, you’re actively choosing ignorance”.

With the conversation of racial equality very present in his lyrics. There is a recurring theme I picked up on around the concept of those who claim not to see colour. It’s a conversation I’ve had a lot recently. It often comes with the best intentions, but the outcome is detrimental. Lyrics in both ‘Tricky’ and ‘Hello’ touched on this subject, so it was clear to me Jelani had been thinking about it too. “The first time it actually really became clear to me was, ‘The Hate U Give”, he began, citing the powerful 2018 film based on a novel by Angie Thomas. “She’s in the limo with her white boyfriend, and he says something like ‘I don’t see your colour’, and she’s like, ‘If you don’t see my colour, then you don’t actually see me’. I think that’s the best way to communicate that idea to those people. You’re not doing me a service by ignoring the fact that I’m black, you’re actually saying ‘I don’t acknowledge the fact that you’re any different to me’. Because maybe the fact that ‘you’re different to me’ is too hard for me to engage with. Because it means that I then have to acknowledge all of the hardship that you go through ”. A sentiment that Jelani explains he has gone through with friends as recent times have broadened their awareness. 

As a man who clearly has a lot to say, it’s important to address our current juncture. Jelani has managed to have a good year, but many have not been so fortunate. I wondered how he felt the government had been handling this immediate crisis? “Terribly man“, he declares without hesitation. “It doesn’t bother me to say, it’s very obvious that the government have lied on multiple occasions. I really thought that the school meals was going to be a turning point. There was outrage, but it’s almost a little bit like, people have almost given up the idea that what they say changes anything. Because it’s so obvious through the various marches and the causes that come up”. A disheartened perspective that is too well known locally, but Jelani also finds common ground with further. “From here, to the states, and kind of internationally, it just seems like this vibe is the same. There’s a massive thing at the moment of governments being dishonest and not really caring that people know they’re being dishonest”.

With a world of social discourse to communicate, I hope that Jelani continues to use his voice when it counts. For now, he’s having a moment that deserves celebration. I think back to our earlier conversation, and the length of the journey he has accomplished since. What is his proudest moment at this time? “I’ve got two. One is the COLORS. I feel like that really said a lot about who I am as a person. For it to be received so well because I feel like that’s the realist representation of me, and the performance, and the vibe, and the energy. That makes me feel quite proud that I’ve made something that connects to people like that. The second one would probably be the EP that I put out last year, ‘Average Joe’. That’s the first independent project that I’ve ever put out as Jelani. I did it with the kind of motivation and energy that it could be done. I didn’t need anyone to tell me it could be done or how it should be done. I knew what I wanted out of it, and what I said in it to be honest. That was a proud moment for me. I’ve done this, and it was off the back of coming out of this major label situation, and I was like, you can do this yourself”. 

It’s been very interesting for me to delve into Jelani’s career progression three years since I first sat to talk with him. Looking back on that interview I found a wonderful coincidence. At the end of 2017 I asked Jelani, “How do you want to be celebrating the end of 2018?” And he told me, “I wanna be working towards next year. Ask me at New Years in three years, that’s when I want to be celebrating”. A fateful revelation that we would next end up speaking on the approach to New Year’s exactly three years later. So, I ask again? “Celebrating the vision that I had in 2017 to know that in 2020 I would be celebrating because it had been a good year” [Laughs]. “That’s a bit mad. I think next year I’m going to be celebrating the fact that I have an album out. That’s what I’m gonna be doing at the end of 2021. And anything else I’m fortunate enough to have alongside that. Hopefully there will be shows again, and there’ll be the ability to play some festivals, ‘cause I miss it, I miss it so much. I think that’s the main celebration at the end of 2021. The album and a couple of big shows”.

Listen to the new music “Bubblin” here

This interview was taken from our winter issue 2020

Photographer OLLIE TRENCHARD
Stylist JESSICA SWANSON
Stylist Assistants SAVANNAH JONES and HANNAH MILL 

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