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JYellowL: "My music is something that can't necessarily be categorised"

Ireland's newest hip-hop star talks politics, growing up in Nigeria and how Renaissance artists influenced his debut album '2020 D|Vision'
Written by Red Bull Ireland
Published on
JYellowL's star has been firmly on the ascent in the last year or so, largely thanks to a major profile boost with the inclusion of his song 'Ozone' on the FIFA 20 soundtrack.
Non-gamers have taken notice, too; a slew of singles and a couple of very promising EPs in recent years have marked him out as one to watch.
Now, the 22-year-old Nigerian-born, Dublin-raised rapper also known as Jean-Luc Uddoh has cashed the cheque on that early promise with his impressive debut EP '2020 D|Vision'. We caught up with him while he was in the studio with producer Chris Kabs to learn more about growing up between Benin City and Dublin, his early influences and his newfound role as a political activist this year.
You've got a really diverse cultural background, right?
My dad is Jamaican-Nigerian, and I grew up with my dad's parents; my grandma is actually Jamaican-Irish but she grew up in Jamaica. I grew up with them in Nigeria and then I moved here when I was 14 to come and live with my mum, because my parents are separated. So I came here when I was a teenager.
What was that like?
It was the first time I'd lived with my mum and it was definitely something that I needed to do, because she'd already missed out on so much of my childhood. So it was a personal decision for me. I was shivering when I landed, I was so cold [laughs]. And I saw my mum after not seeing her for a couple of years, that was a very emotional moment. It wasn't planned for me to stay, it was just kind of like a floating option - but then I guess the love that I felt that I'd missed out on was what motivated me to stay. My little brother was living here as well, and I didn't want him to miss out on growing up with him, either. But the culture was different and I was excited; it was a new challenge for me.
Were you always into hip-hop and music?
My brother shares my love of music and creativity, and when we were really young, my grandma was a big party-thrower; she loved hosting parties. So he said 'Wouldn't it be cool, instead of them getting a band to come and play, if we did the music?' I was like 4, and I was like 'That's a great idea, let's do it!' So we started making these little jingles, music to never be referenced again [laughs]. They were little childish jingles and the adults humoured and encouraged us – but my brother really made a point of nurturing that skill I had, and my ear for music.
What sort of stuff were you listening to in the early days?
I think when everyone's starting to learn a new skill, you always try to imitate the people who inspired you to take it on. So initially, when I started learning how to rap it was a case of me trying to copy peoples' cadences and flows; I was a big fan of Eminem, 50 Cent, Tupac, Talib Kweli, Rakim. I guess as I matured and started being comfortable in my own sound and got good enough to play with my own rhythmic patterns and create my own structures for songs, I had an idea of the kind of music I wanted to make, because the people that I looked up to – like Fela Kuti, Damian Marley, even Eminem and especially Rakim and Talib Kweli. The messages they had in their music... I wanted my music to have that kind of impact as well. So I always took it upon myself to have meaningful lyrics and have thought-provoking lyrics, as well. So it was a conscious effort for sure, and I spent years trying to hone and master that craft.
Fela Kuti's an interesting influence for a young rapper to cite.
Well, I grew up in Nigeria, and for that part of my life I was living with my grandparents and my dad – and I had a lot of uncles who put me on to Fela's music. They'd explain the cultural importance of his songs; this particular song 'Beasts of No Nation', where he's talking about the political injustice in Nigeria and across Africa. I didn't understand at the time, but I knew I liked the music. And my uncle took me aside and said 'You know, what he's actually talking about is this particular period and this happened in his life'. Even the fact that he came out to say these things and be a political activist through his music; at the time, it proved to be life-threatening, but he was no brave – and that's why he's idolised so much. I got so fascinated by that; it just had so much meaning. So that was definitely something that marked me from early on.
How long has your album '2020 D|Vision' been in the making?
We started the actual official recording date on the 18th of December last year – but I had the songs written long before that. I feel like my whole career, I've been working towards this. A lot of the songs were written three to four years ago; 'Hypocrite' was a couple of months after that. And after I heard how the album was progressing, there were some changes and tweaks made; 'Jewels' came as a result of 'Call It What You Want', for example. So a couple of years.
You graduated from UCD with a Politics degree last year, and you became a spokesperson for the Irish Black Lives Matter movement earlier this year – tell us about that.
The Black Lives Matter protest was organised by myself and a couple of friends; it was a case of 'Somebody had to do it' [laughs]. But we didn't expect the numbers at all; we just wanted to voice our frustration and hopefully be heard, stand in solidarity with a bigger cause - but also shine a focus on the issue in an Irish context, and one that relates to all of us. We were expected to be socially distanced and thought there'd be maximum a hundred people; then we got to O'Connell Street and there was a sea of people. And everyone was looking for the person in charge because they need direction – so we all had to step up to the plate, all the organisers. We led the protest and we spoke, so I had to just step up to the plate. It's definitely something I enjoyed and I'm happy to have contributed in that way.
In terms of your songwriting, what are you most influenced by?
I'm influenced by a lot of things. I get inspired by things that I see, first and foremost – but also by conversations that I have, people I meet, books that I read. For example, the inspiration behind 'Ozone' was when I was reading a book that led me to do more research on the Renaissance period. I got really interested in Michaelangelo and how he is responsible for a lot of the change that we see in the art industry, in terms of how artists are able to make a living. That really inspired me, and I thought 'If - at a time where it was ridiculous to pay an artist for their work - the Michaelanglos and Raphaels and the Donatellos and Leonardos were able to say 'No, we're changing the landscape of what you know art to be today, and this is our worth', and against the popular belief that art wasn't something to be taken seriously at that time... then there's no reason for me to be brought down by the criticism or the resistance that I fear for my music. That's why the first line in 'Ozone' says 'I won't even try handle opinions / Nah I'm seeking Michangelo brilliance'.
'Tunnel Vision' is about something else entirely, though – tell us more about that.
Tunnel Vision came from an experience that I had at a support show that I had in Rathmines. I was the support act for an American act called Hi-Rez, and the night before I got really drunk – just being young and silly, not knowing your limits. I kept drinking, I had a whole bottle of Hennessy, just thinking 'Let's go wild'. I had the show the next day and I got alcohol poisoning, I was so sick. I couldn't eat, I was throwing up: and I spoke to myself that day. I said 'Jean-Luc, this is the last time you're ever gonna be so sloppy.' Thankfully the show went well and I got a great reception from the crowd and the artist, but it could have gone the complete other way – because I did consider telling the promoter that I was too sick, I couldn't come. How unprofessional would that be? That I got too drunk the day before I knew I had a big show? So that was the day I thought 'I've got to have tunnel vision here, and avoid a lot of these distractions if I wanna get to where I wanna get to.' That was the moment that sparked that song.
There's been a lot of buzz about JYellowL over the past year, with the FIFA 20 soundtrack, you had a song on the 'Normal People' soundtrack, you were featured in the BBC's 'Rap Game' documentary, and now the album. What do you think people hear in your sound?
From the conversations that I've had with people, especially UK A&Rs and managers, they all say the same things: 'Your music is just so fresh and different, it's not something that we hear all the time on the radio or online platforms'. So I guess that's what it is: they hear something that they don't hear all the time. It's something that can't necessarily be categorised.
'2020 D|Vision' is out on JYellowL Records now.
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