BasementApproved sits down with enigmatic rapper, Jelani Blackman to discuss his new mixtape, opening up in his music, performing, and his go-to fit – a tracksuit of course.
I’ve always been a big Jelani Blackman fan. I mean, just watch that COLORS performance of ‘Hello’… I don’t need to say any more. Having teased us with a series of increasingly addictive singles over the last 18 months or so, I was delighted to hear from his management that, yes, a longer project was on the horizon. Fast forward a couple of months and I’m sitting with Jelani at his home in East, just days after his acclaimed headline show at Bush Hall. It’s safe to say the ‘Hello’ effect is still in full force. With his mixtape, Unlimited, having just released and an upcoming tour in 2022, things are looking pretty rosy for an artist who has, until now, been one of London’s best kept secrets.
“I’m from Brixton and Ladbroke Grove.” He states proudly in his signature baritone. Though he has since relocated, it’s clear his South and West London roots are still important for him and his music. “It made me very grime-centric, because that was around when I was growing up, in a big way. The style of grime is obviously different in different parts of London too.” His love for the genre is evident in the compulsive hook from his COLORS set: “Hello” which is swiftly followed by “I’ve been here since Ghetts was Ghetto” – a nod both to the musical world he inhabits and his long journey within that world to get to where he is now.
Grime’s influence on Jelani runs even deeper than the music. Not only did it give the UK an authentic MC-driven genre, establishing a distinct London and UK identity, it influenced his personal style in a big way too. “I’ve just worn streetwear for a lot of my life” he explains, casting a look over the tracksuit he is currently donning. “I hated jeans; you couldn’t force me into a pair of jeans, I’d be kicking and screaming. So yeah, I’m always in tracksuits.”
Jelani was first introduced to music at a young age. “I went to a Saturday music school from around aged 9, in Lambeth North,” he reminisces. “As I became a teenager I used to hate going, especially because it was every Saturday.” He tells me he played the saxophone: “I just thought it was because I was sick, but my mum told me recently it was because I liked Lisa Simpson.”
He released his first EP, 1-4, in 2016. Since then, he has forged a reputation as one of London’s hardest working underground MCs, releasing a slew of top quality music and collaborating with a diverse range of artists, from Stormzy, Kano and — of course — Ghetts, to the likes of Arlo Parks and Gorilla.
Looking back, the rapper sees 2018 as a turning point in his career. “I was like – ‘ok, I get it now, I understand this, it’s what I do,’” he asserts. “Firstly, I’m not gonna let anyone else dictate how I do this. That just empowered me; that’s when I became me I think. That’s when I did Average Joe, and I feel that was the most consolidating for me.” He cites songs like ‘Brixton’, with its deep introspection and personal lyrics like “it weren’t easy, I felt them scars like rah, how could I be taken apart”, as a catalyst for a more open and honest approach to his music making. “I just opened up and became me I guess.”
"I'm not gonna let anyone else dictate how I do this."
His track ‘Hello’, and that COLORS video in particular, was another turning point. Sitting pretty at nearly 1.8M views, I ask him about the whole process and journey that came with the video. The maddest part about that COLORS performance? “That was the first take, shot all in one” he smiles. In a typically humble way, Jelani is very aware of his blessings during the Pandemic, and his COLORS performance brought out that very energy. “COLORS was mad,” he says. “It was right in the middle of a time that felt like it shouldn’t happen. It was hard obviously, for everyone, and I just got really lucky. I had so much pent up energy to perform with, and I think it comes across in the video. I loved it; I was ready, I’d been waiting for time, so when it came up I thought it was the moment.”
If COLORS was the moment, Jelani grabbed it with both hands, the frenzied response to the song despite lockdowns and a national sense of impending doom illustrating just how impactful his performance was.“It was so nice to have that response,” he says. “It’s hard to translate that energy [of performing live] through a music video, especially when it’s so stripped back. I’m proud I could connect with people like that.” Since the COVID rules have been relaxed, the energy when the song plays at live shows has been inevitably electric. “It’s been mad playing the track since that COLORS video too; it didn’t feel real before, just seeing the view numbers, but when you see the reaction to ‘Hello’ live – it’s mad.”
"I’m a bit of an anti guy – not as much now, but I used to be a proper anti. I think that was because I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t happy with what music was for me at the time."
Jelani’s new mixtape, Unlimited, released in late October. A consolidation of the last two years for him, “some of those tracks were made in 2019. It should’ve been out last year, but obviously everything was fucked so I didn’t have an opportunity to do it. But yeah some of that music is crazy,” he explains. “It represents the energy I was at before my show that was meant to be in March 2020. It’s the energy I wanted to consolidate before lockdown, but I’m glad it’s out now. I feel like now I can actually move and start pushing again, hopefully. Now this is out I can go on tour, finally. Touch wood,” he laughs.
With appearances on Unlimited from fellow west Londoner Finn Foxell and south London’s Jords, the mixtape pays homage to where Jelani has come from, as well as where he is going. The mixtape proves Jelani holds a well-defined place within the UK rap scene, and I’m sure a space that he will continue to grow in through 2022.
“They’re sick guys,” he says of his collaborators. “It’s nice because I’ve not always been the best, I guess, at linking up with my peers musically. I’m a bit of an anti guy – not as much now, but I used to be a proper anti. I think that was because I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t happy with what music was for me at the time. So I wasn’t really in a space where I could chat to people.”
“I’m not like that anymore,” he continues. “I’m open to creating, collaborating, and good energy. If you look at the people I’ve featured on, it’s a massive range, you know, from Burna Boy, to Gorillaz to Abz [Abra Cadabra]. But it’s way easier for me to take that to other people than to bring it to my own stuff, for some reason.” He says his previously mentioned acceptance of openness and introspection in his music made him more comfortable opening up his projects to outside influence. “Pre Average Joe, I wasn’t really comfortable with saying too much, or being too honest about personal stuff about me, so I think it was quite hard for people to come from the outside and be like ‘this is his vibe’. But it was only when I started being honest with it, like ‘ok my music is gonna be more representative of me’, that it became easier to start doing that.”
The candidness in Jelani’s music doesn’t just look inwards. There is often discussion of racial equality present in his lyrics, and the recurrent theme around the concept of those who claim ‘not to see colour’ – as seen on track ‘Hello’ – is revisited throughout the new mixtape. “The first time I really registered it was with the film, The Hate U Give. It’s mad. [Amandla Stenberg’s character] was going out with this white guy, and he’s like ‘I don’t even see that your Black’. Then she’s like, ‘well then you don’t see me then, I am Black, you don’t need to be scared of seeing it, you’re allowed to see that I’m Black, and then still be normal in that situation, or deal with me however you want. You don’t have to not see it at all, because actually that’s doing the opposite.’ And I think a lot of the situations I’ve been in, lots of people have had that approach rather than registering it, because it means they then would have to acknowledge all of the hardship that we go through. It’s only one step away from being, ‘oh well you’re not that Black’, or ‘you’re not that type of Black person’.”
‘Yo it’s nice that you don’t see colour, but I’m black that’s me on the cover’
(Bars from Hello)
‘It’s a weird world out there
Childhood asking to touch my hair
Mmm they don’t say stuff but they stare
Or actually act like you’re just not there
That’s must be them ones that don’t see colour
But see that black guy that’s my brother’
(Bars from Tricky)
I acknowledged Jelani being one of the few I hear talking so in depth on this issue so raw and honestly. “It’s mad you say that, you know. I play ‘Tricky’ and bare people walk out. I don’t really play that song when there’s shows or festivals and people don’t know the track. Well, sometimes I do if I’m feeling confrontational,” he laughs. “I played Shoreditch House, and it was still Pandemic times; we were outside, and probably only about 30 people there, so you could see everyone. There was a couple sitting right in front of me, so they got the full force of all the bars, and they just couldn’t hack it. They stood up at the end of the song, and I hotted them — ‘too much for some’ — and everyone laughed. Obviously they didn’t look back. But yeah, still not everyone is ready for that conversation.”
With a niche, nuanced and intricate approach to music-making, it’s fair to say that Jelani Blackman is criminally underrated. Despite a cult following, I am surprised the rapper has not yet been recognised on a bigger scale. With Unlimited, however, that next step is somewhat inevitable, irresistible in its uniqueness and range. For now, though, he will continue to use his voice to communicate when it counts in a productive, sometimes assertive (but always sexy) way. I, for one, am excited to see him continue his rise.
- 8 minute read