Chat with Jelani Blackman and it’s easy to understand why a person might want to confide in him. Warm and enigmatic, the musician is the kind of guy you feel comfortable opening up to. Just ask comedian Seann Walsh, who apparently stumbled across the south-London artist at a tapas bar on Portobello Road in 2018, immediately after photos emerged of him kissing his married Strictly Come Dancing partner, Katya Jones.
“It was so mad,” the 29-year-old recalls, taking a sip of his pint. “I didn’t really know who he was, but he was crying. We had a long heart-to-heart, just standing outside the restaurant after it all came out...”
The Walsh encounter is, arguably, a rare example of Blackman being in the right place at the right time. Despite his unique voice – a baritone growl so deep it resonates in the pit of your stomach – he has flown under the radar for the past few years. It’s only now, almost a decade in, that he’s preparing to release his debut album, having received encouragement from veterans including Ghetts and Damon Albarn. Blackman suspects it might have something to do with industry pigeonholing; he’s a rapper, but he’s also a singer, producer and multi-instrumentalist.
“I think there’s been a thing of like, where do I sit [in the industry],” he says. “I came up in a time where there wasn’t really the same appetite or understanding of how that music works. It used to be, ‘You’re a rapper and that’s it’. People couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that you could be other things as well.”
As Blackman puts it on his 2021 single “Hello”, he’s been around “since Ghetts was Ghetto”. Born in Brixton and raised in Ladbroke Grove, he got a taste for rap early on, spitting bars with his mates in the school playground. His mum sent him to a local music class on the weekends because he wanted to play the sax like Lisa Simpson. You can hear it noodling away between shivery synths on one of his very first releases, the ominous “Repeater” from his 2016 debut EP 1-4. Ambitious follow-up 5-8 brought in orchestral strings and juddering bass; Blackman rap-sang from the shadows with a guttural menace: “I could never do that, follow, follow.”
His recent projects have skewed more playful in sound, but just as socially astute. In 2021, he was enlisted by Damon Albarn for the Gorillaz EP Meanwhile, vibing off a macédoine of electronic riffs, gliding strings and robotic glitches. The following year, he joined forces with Mercury Prize-nominated rapper Kojey Radical for “Izit”. The track bounces along a perky synth line as the duo trade laser-focused bars with an energy that grows increasingly frenzied: “Revolution manna finding guerrillas/ Trust me when the losers turn winners/ These days never know saints and sinners/ No one innocent, flesh antennas.”
This year heralds the release of his long-awaited debut album, currently teed up for autumn. While Blackman isn’t shying away from the social commentary, fans will see a more personal side to him on this new project. “I do have a tendency to be, not necessarily cynical... but I say what I think,” he says. An understatement, for anyone who heard him declare Matt Hancock a “d***head” on 2021’s “Gone Freestyle”. On the album, as yet untitled, he delves into “family stuff” that he’d previously struggled to address, including his relationship with his dad.
“It has been quite cathartic for me in terms of being able to look at a situation and see it for what it is,” he says, reclining against his chair. Blackman is concerned about what he perceives to be a lack of community, not just in the UK but globally. “It’s very divisive and polarised at the moment. And that’s for a lot of reasons – social media, the economy – but I think the main one is selfish politics. Obvious solutions are being willfully ignored because people are just greedy. I think that was highlighted during the pandemic, with [politicians] looking out for their best interests.”
When it comes to discussing race, he prefers nuance. He disliked the treatment of Micheal Ward’s character Stephen in Empire of Light, Sam Mendes’s Margate-set tribute to cinema starring Olivia Colman. “That film dealt with race really heavy-handedly,” he says with a frown. He found the scene in which Stephen is brutally attacked by a gang of skinheads particularly troubling. “It’s not necessary for the story. It felt like, what I guess a white person imagines racism to look like,” he says. “Obviously, it was designed to shock, but most of the time [racism] is a lot more insidious than that.”
‘Empire of Light’ felt like what a white person imagines racism to look like
Blackman wants to find new ways to talk about ongoing issues, “because otherwise, we’re never going to find a middle ground. And that’s the only way a conversation can work”. This state of mind has enabled him to change his own outlook, it seems. “I’m actually very happy,” he says, suddenly. “It’s surprising to me – I honestly can’t remember the last time that I was this genuinely happy, like... everything is good. I’m trying not to anticipate it ending any moment.”
In the past, Blackman has felt removed from what is going on around him; an “outside observer” of his own life. Now, he’s in the moment. “It’s about to be a big year,” he grins. “It’s good to be here, soaking it all in.”
Jelani Blackman’s latest single ‘Izit’ with Kojey Radical is out now. His debut album is set to be announced this year