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Muse interviews: wordsmith Jelani Blackman

Connor Paterson speaks with the London-based artist about his career

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Image Credit: Scott Alison

Jelani Blackman is sitting in front of me at a piano, pint in hand and a smile on his face. He’s just explained to me that he was still getting used to having his photo taken.

“I’ve been on tour,” Jelani says – pint still in hand. “I’m making new music actually, I had like a run of three sessions. It was like a camp, it was sick, I made a lot of tunes”. A soundcheck interrupted us, the bass seemed to shake Hyde Park Book Club.

Once we’d established that we could still hear each other, I asked Jelani about his latest project, Unlimited. “It was more of a mixtape to be honest.” He continued, “The [forthcoming] album will be a body of work. Unlimited was a lot of different tracks that I liked that I put together. But there wasn’t necessarily a feeling of narrative.” I suggested that Unlimited seemed perfect for touring. “It was made for it. You know what’s mad? The reason this feels different for me is because I made these tunes just before lockdown started. I was cool, in my pocket, playing a lot. I did ‘Don’t Matter’, ‘Bubblin’ and ‘Trust’ all in like a week. I was meant to be playing in March. It was a nightmare – I didn’t get to play them but they were made for being played live.” Smile returning, he added, “This is why this tour has been so good – they just feel real.”

Looking back on his university days, he mused, “I won’t lie, I was never at university – I actually was never there. I loved it, I did love the course, I loved being in Leeds. That’s why I came to be honest – it was never to do with the studies necessarily.” We were both laughing, “I met a lot of the producers that I still work with in Leeds. It was important – it set me off on a different level of career. I was making music already, but by the time I left Leeds it was different.”

Jelani’s early music, particularly his 1-4 and 5-8 EPs, took a neo-soul styling, a stark contrast with the hip-hop and grime of Unlimited. I asked him why the shift had occurred. He paused, “I went back to London and I got angry again.” He began laughing, “all of my older stuff, I love it, but it was more R&B and soul influenced because that was what I was listening to. But I had a bit of a mad time with the label that I was signed to. We parted on good terms but it gave me a different kind of energy. I got it off my chest – I went back to my roots, which is grime. Grime has always fuelled me – I would have loved to have been an MC from the getgo.”

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Image Credit: Scott Alison

Jelani arrived on the scene in 2016. “I never wanted to just make straight grime, I always wanted it to be more musical than that. There never really seemed like there was a lane for it – it had a really clear ceiling,” he said. He paused – “Weirdly, just after I started, grime had a resurgence. Stormzy came through and Skepta came back.” I asked him about competition, but then tempered my words and asked about peers – he said, “I started working at the same time with some of the same people as Slowthai did. Kojey Radical as well.” His smile grew, “Jords is one of my favourite artists – he’s coming today.”

Jelani has some remarkable but unsurprising collaborations under his belt. He featured on Gorillaz track ‘Meanwhile’ and has worked with Brian Eno, Ghetts and Wolf Alice. “I was actually in a band with the bassist in Wolf Alice when I was at college and also Rina Sawayama – all three of us. We had some interest and played a lot of shows. I liked it but it was still so casual. When I came to Leeds I was still making music but I enjoyed myself – put it that way.”

He looked around and signalled just down the road. “I didn’t come here like ‘this is where you’re going to achieve all your career-driven goals.’ I needed a break, I’d been working in education up until college. I think it’s the trap of the school and the system. You go to university, and then you get a job, but actually where’s the point?” Still looking down the road, he said “I’m about to walk down to where I used to live. I have to go salute the yard. I love it, I do – I have so many good memories of being here and the people.”

Asked if he had LinkedIn he replied his bio would be “Energy, Energy, Energy (Wordsmith)” – even MCs need to network. Pint almost finished he reaffirmed “I’m a wordsmith”

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