Still Free: Clash Meets Jelani Blackman

How shifts in British music have helped empower his technicolour dream...

Jelani Blackman knew there wasn’t a space for his music – so he opened it up himself.

That low, almost whispered voice, flecks of guitar, and influences that run from soul to grime, the shadowy sounds of debut EP ‘1-4’ – and it’s logically titled follow up ‘5-8’ – introduced a genuinely original voice at a time when British music is in a state of flux.

“What I wanted to do before wasn’t viable, because there just wasn’t an audience for it,” he explains. “I don’t think people understood it.”

“Music in general in the UK has opened up in the last 18 months,” he continues. “It has definitely blossomed in a way, so the opportunity to do what I want to do the way I want to do is definitely a lot more open than it has been in the past.”

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An independent force, the West London artist is joined by a close-knit crew of fellow conspirators. Producer FRED helped sculpt those two astonishing EPs, but the core resolutely belongs to Jelani Blackman.

“I’ve always produced,” he insists. “But I’ve just been quite hands-on working with other people. Now I’m doing it myself and then bringing it to other people just to clean it up. It’s one of the reasons that everything feels a lot clearer. It is me to begin with.”

A whirlwind 12 months have pushed the newcomer to the forefront of British music, a talent tipped to breakthrough. With such personal songwriting, it’s perhaps natural these events spill over into his music.

“I think it comes from different places,” he reflects. “The last thing that I worked on, I woke up just before I was about to go to sleep and whistled it into my voicemails, and then the next day I kinda started working on it. It’s always there.”

“I actually go into the studio a lot less now,” he shrugs. “I just go in when I need to when I need to record. I used to spend all my time in there. Now I’m working a lot more in putting things together and doing it all in one.”

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There’s a real sound of confidence in his voice, with every project Jelani undertakes driven by that phenomenal sense of purpose. Having released those two EPs he feels as though he’s defined a certain landscape that his music can dwell in.

“It was definitely a period of exploration for me, the EPs. I still wasn’t sure what it was that is me. Now I definitely know,” he insists. “It’s nice just to be able to be hit points hard with singles. For the moment I’m quite happy to creatively focus on doing a run of singles, that makes sense for me now.”

The last we heard from Jelani Blackman was a high profile feature, sparring with Abra Cadabra on the explosive ‘Lemme At ‘Em’. “It just felt right,” he explains. “It felt like the right direction. I’m interested in so many different styles of music and different types of things – it just made sense. Everything fell into place.”

More collaborations are currently being plotted, with Jelani eager to throw himself into all manner of different projects. “Do you know what?” he asks at one point in our conversation. “You can hammer away at trying to make something work forever, but the real moment when you know something is worthwhile… It’s almost like finishing a jigsaw puzzle when you already have the main bulk of it there!”

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It’s a curious facet of our chat that visual metaphors litter the way Jelani Blackman describes music. He spent his teenage years working in the shop for London’s RA gallery, and used to walk around the exhibitions after closing time, soaking up those portraits in solitude; now, he takes creative control over each press shot, every video.

“The other day I was trying to explain a song to someone, and I realised I was thinking about it as a colour,” he recalls. “I had never said it out loud. I’ve always thought there is an element of synaesthesia for anyone that works creatively. Visually, I can see it. I can see the colour that my music should be. And it kinda informs the directions it should go.”

Aiming to build his live show, and expand his music in virtually every direction, Jelani Blackman’s technicolour assault is lighting up British music – he’s a firework in motion.

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Words: Robin Murray
Photography: T-Bone Fletcher
Clothing throughout: Tommy Jeans SS18 Collection

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