Garden · Saturday
Outside of those two days in the late August summer, Ladbroke Grove is a forgotten enclave surrounded by the wealth and decadence of the tall, white homes of West London. The arrival of West Indians to the area in the 1950s changed the landscape forever but they were met with socialinequality, physical violence by the state and otherwise, as well as policies enacted by governments that would lead to devastating events such as the Grenfell Fire in 2018.
How does an area, a city and a nation move on and heal from such a trauma when the injuries that created it have never been adequately addressed or treated? It’s hard not to feel a sudden rush of melancholy wrapped up in fired up spirit when ‘Tricky’ plays. It’s anger harnessed into something so potent. One can't help but feel affected by Jelani’s words and candor.
Born in Brixton and raised in Ladbroke Grove, Jelani Blackman has steadily emerged as one of London’s most rousing voices in recent times after what has been a testing past few years: “It’s just me, and I’m saying so much more. | Know what ! want to say now and | feel like I’ve unlocked another door.”
“| had to be broken to remake myself,” he says. It’s been a challenging period for Jelani but he’s appreciative of where he is now. “There was a moment when | wasn’t happy, and | ended up starting my own thing, and since then | can’t really ask for more, especially when you put your energy in and start receiving it back,” he adds.
Britain has had its many race reckonings over the past century. We were reminded of the death of Stephen Lawrence and Mark Duggan, eighteen years later, how many more within that time? The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 during the COVID-19 exacerbated what was already a tense and hostile environment.
“| had to get really good at opening up and sharing more of myself which allowed me to make songs like ‘Nobody’s Son’ and ‘Brixton’. After the BLM protests, | felt pushed to dig deeper, and before that, | didn’t feel like people would listen to me, even though | touched on it. But after the protests, | just felt that fire. | was able to dig deeper into myself as well outside of the writing and have a better understanding of the world around me.”
A career that began like many Black British musicians, in the church, has since blossomed and those years singing gospel, as well as the grime and rap influences of his local area in west London have moulded Jelani into one of the most eclectic MCs of our time. However, Jelani’s sound is far more expansive covering arange of sounds that reflect Black music in Britain such as jungle, soul and R&B where traces can be felt and heard across his music. Widely known for his low-pitched, bass-heavy vocals, Jelani feels as though this is his second chapter despite being on the scene for a couple of years. After starting his own label, 18 Records, Jelani’s mantra has been strength and unity, guided by a sense of being more discerning with the choices made.
Last year saw Jelani release his fourth EP, ‘Average Joe’, which was arguably his most intimate andrevealing offering so far, exploring themes of belonging and home. 2020’s been a difficult one for all, but Jelani’s used the time to be more intentional with his writing, allowing him to be more vulnerable and build a stronger sense of self.
‘Average Joe’ was the manifestation of Jelani redefining himself as an artist. The music that has since followed sees Jelani unlock another part of himself, going deeper and revealing more. Recentr release ‘Tricky’ sees him explore the inequality and social disparities one can often find in any one area in London. It’s a poignant story close to Blackman having grown up in Ladbroke Grove, close to Grenfell.
There are still moments where Jelani wants to have fun with the music he’s making, like on his next single ‘Foolish’ featuring Essie Gang’s L3: “Foolish is me talking to myself the morning after a night out with a smile on my face and some memories that | might want to forget. | would always do it all again because | think everyone should live life fully and make mistakes, mistakes can lead you to the best times.”
With a Fire In The Booth recently under his belt and the views in the millions for his COLORS Session of new single ‘Hello’, it’s clear that people are ready to hear what Jelani has to say. This rise in stature is perhaps most sharply shown in his featuring on a track with Ghetts on Fraser T. Smith’s debut album 12 Questions, sitting amongst a who’s who of UK talent including Stormzy, Kano, Dave and Arlo Parks. Jelani can add those to an already impressive list of collaborators that spans from Brian Eno to Big Zuu and Wolf Alice to Burna Boy.
Jelani’s star is growing, that can be felt in his charisma on the mic and it’s made evident by the tastemakers that have shown support recently. Annie Mac, DJ Target, Rickie and Melvin, Maya Jama, The Fader, Complex, Dummy, Nick Grimshaw, GRM Daily, Clara Amfo and The Line of Best Fit have all supported and amplified his art in recent months, a testament to his unique storytelling and voice.
Jelani’s reached a point in his life where he’s figured out where he stands and what his position is, and as he no longer wants to negotiate or compromise on anything that will stand in the way of his well being and happiness; his art is also an extension of that approach to life. “It’s time for me to go deeper and I|’m beginning to learn how to write out my pain and use It as a tool,” he explains.
In the past twelve months Jelani Blackman’s artistry has grown tenfold, not just because he’s far more sure of himself and what he wants out of music, but much of that has been aided by his ability to go within and pull out those stories. Jelani’s career has been somewhat turbulent so far, but that’s given him the impetus to keep pushing. And since taking back control of how his voice is presented to the world, he’s set his sights on wanting more. His story is far from over, that much is clear.