If there’s one thing we’re taking away from our time in lockdown, it’s that we never want to do another Zoom call ever again. Even the introverts amongst us, we didn’t know how much we valued social interaction until it was replaced by anarchic Zoom conversations and laggy internet connections.
The silver lining for anyone in my profession, is that artists are now infinitely more available, but there’s only so many Zoom/phone interviews one can stomach. So when the opportunity arose to briefly escape to the heart of the city with the promise of human contact, I did not hesitate to make my return to the much loathed, sometimes loved; London Underground. Carriages which would have been barely breathable amidst the stifling concoction of aftershave, B.O and halitosis, were now remarkably airy, and the social distancing guidelines had seemingly brought about a uncomfortable truce amongst commuters who would usually be engaged in a bitter conflict over the right to a seat.
To any seasoned commuter (face mask ubiquity aside), this was most certainly uncharted territory.
My interlocutor for the evening, JyellowL, an Irish rapper trying to breakthrough, by definition also finds himself in unfamiliar surroundings. Despite that fact, we have seen artists from previously marginalised regions become bonafide stars over the last five years. Gone are the days of claiming that ‘rap only sounds good in a London accent’, with the ascent of Bugzy Malone, Jaykae, slowthai and Pa Salieu all proving the contrary.
This acceptance wasn’t handed to them though, it was hard fought. These same archaic battle lines have now moved to the far reaches of the United Kingdom and its neighbours, with the likes of JyellowL and his cohorts from Scotland and Wales now vying for that same acceptance.
J hasn’t always called the Emerald Isles home. In fact he spent most of his early years in Nigeria, only moving to Ireland when he was 14, J recalls the experience with perhaps more fondness than you might expect:
“It was a big culture shock. A culture clash even. In terms of everything from fashion to humour, to social interactions, everything was just new to me. I’d done most of my growing up in Nigeria, I’d developed a lot myself and my personality in Nigeria, that in an Irish context it doesn’t really help you navigate through society, you need a different social education. It was a great experience ultimately, and now I don’t even remember what it’s like to not be Irish.”
Navigating life as a teenager is difficult enough, without the added pressure of having to do so in a completely foreign land. Music is a landscape that isn’t too dissimilar from life as a teenager though: it’s fickle, governed by the most popular, and often mercilessly uninviting to newcomers. With J already deftly manoeuvring through his teenage years in Ireland, he had the music industry firmly in his crosshairs.
The barriers for entry are already high for your average artist, but JyellowL’s chosen musical direction certainly has not made things any easier. As someone who draws inspiration from legendary artists like Fela Kuti and Bob Marley, J was never going to emulate the hordes of auto-tuned crooners that dominate the current market. Instead, opting to bring us thoughtful lyricism delivered with his nimble, yet heavily packed lyrical verses or his melodic musings, JyellowL’s approach certainly rewards the active, rather than passive listener. Well aware of the situation he’s faced with, J remains confident that his socially conscious style will bear fruit in the long run:
“Of course its always nice to have quick success and everything. You can have a track, or a couple of tracks, that do really well for a certain purpose like a big club or radio song, but you don’t actually retain the listenership. You don’t retain the fans, because they’re not actually fans of you, they’re fans of the song. So I’m trying to build a fanbase that want to hear from me, so it will take longer, cause its a filtration process. For every million people that hear the song, let’s say 40% of them will like it and then 20% of them will wanna hear more, then 10% of them would be sold on me as an artist and actually wanna do the digging and hear everything I’ve done.”
JyellowL wouldn’t actually begin pursuing music full time until after he graduated from university (with a degree in politics). So by J’s own admission, he has only actually been doing music professionally for two years. In those two years, J has achieved a considerable amount for an artist hailing from a region like Ireland, where we haven’t really seen a thoroughbred socially conscious rapper breakthrough before. That’s not to say that the Irish haven’t produced their fair share of Black Music proprietors, with the likes of: Rejjie Snow, Hare Squead, Ink, Lethal Dialect and more recently the likes of Offica and A92 (who charted with a “Plugged In” freestyle).
These select few are J’s brothers in arms, fighting for the recognition of homegrown Irish Black Music. The paradox these artists find themselves faced with is, despite there being an obvious appetite for the music, the Irish audience don’t have the same support for homegrown artists, as they do for the more recognisable international stars. This has meant they’ve not been able to follow the tried and tested blueprint of their regional English compatriots of blowing up locally first. Instead, they’ve often had to seek success elsewhere first, before Irish audiences would accept them. A cursory glance at the most successful pair (Rejjie Snow & Hare Squead), reveals that the majority of their listeners on Spotify are coming from either Australia or the US.
Despite being well aware of all this, J has been determined to do things differently. Still choosing to operate out of Dublin, he’s managed to get one of his songs, “Ozone”, on the FIFA 20 soundtrack, opened up for The Game, and before that had huge success with “Oh Lawd”, a collaborative effort with Aaron Unknown; not too bad for someone who’s only been doing music professionally for two years. Talking about some of the struggles he’s faced as an Irish MC trying to breakthrough J says:
“Every first generation scene has this same struggle in terms of convincing the audience. If you look at the North now, the scene is doing really well, but before I remember it was a case of “nah grime is a London thing” or “English hip hop is a London thing”, and Manchester artists weren’t being taken seriously, or people were actually saying “nah the Northern accent doesn’t sound good on hip hop”. But now you have artists like Bugzy Malone and Aitch who have crossed over not only to London, but globally as well. It’s a battle that you have to undertake when you’re on the frontlines, you take all the shots so everyone behind you doesn’t have to, it comes with the territory.”
How big is rap in Ireland?
“You know what, I think it’s an interesting thing, because you ask most people that question and they’ll probably say it’s not that big, but it depends on what you’re talking about. Because yeah, local artists aren’t that big at the moment, but that’s not to say that there isn’t an audience for hip hop. Cause when artists from other countries come to Ireland, they sell out whatever venues you can name. Stormzy sold out 3Arena two dates in a row for his tour pre Covid. All the American artists that come through, they sell out everywhere, so there is an audience for it, it’s just a case of convincing the general public that our music is of that same level”.
Is it daunting not having a blueprint to success laid out for you like London, Manchester and Brum artists have?
“It is what you make of it man. It could be scary or daunting, or it could be exciting, those are two sides to a similar emotion. For me, I always look at it as I have the opportunity here that a lot of people from in established scenes don’t have. Because they have all these gatekeepers, and OGs who have torn down doors for them. I’m in a unique position where I get to do things as the first generation artist to do it, that is a beautiful feeling in itself. Also knowing that people behind you are going to look to you as that person, as that OG who opened so many doors, that’s always something that motivates me as well. But I think on the flip side of that it can be frustrating, because we lack infrastructure in Ireland.
“It’s frustrating, because it’s an uphill battle trying to convince the audience in Ireland who aren’t accustomed to associating hip hop with Ireland . You have to convince them of your credibility, I’m actually sick, you have to listen to me cause its high level artistry, it’s not just good for Ireland, its good period. You have to constantly convince people of that, that is the uphill battle.”
JyellowL’s neutral accent might well be the secret to his success. Since it cannot be so easily placed, it has allowed him to connect with audiences that would otherwise feel alienated by unfamiliar references and colloquial terminology. By that same token though, it may also explain why Irish audiences have been slow to champion artists like Rejjie Snow and Hare Squead. Perhaps because they don’t sound like them, local fans may not view them as “Irish enough”, and therefore cannot identify with them as one of their own.
J’s trajectory appears to be the anthesis to this theory however, as Dubliners currently make up the second largest group of his listeners on Spotify. J himself has always seen the accent as a strength:
“I think it’s a strength, but it does depend. Because I’ve had conversations with people that have said because you can’t listen to my music and immediately recognise ‘ah this person is from Dublin’, thats why I don’t necessarily have that same degree of relatability as some of the other artists in Ireland. That is one conversation that I’ve had, but I’ve also had conversations where people tell me that because my accent is so easy to understand, it makes me more relatable to a wider audience.”
Accents aside, good music is a universal language that will always find its place, something which JyellowL is hoping for with the release of his debut album 2020 D|Vision. The 15 track album doesn’t disappoint, and sees J journeying over a bouncy range of soundscapes beautifully crafted by Chris Kabs. Chris Kabs also gives a star turn as the only feature on the project, on one of the stand out cuts “Mademoiselle”, proving that J is more than capable of holding court himself. Unsurprisingly, COVID19 massively disrupted J’s plans for the album and he reveals he’s actually been sitting on it for a while:
“We’ve had it a long while. We had a great idea to do an album rollout from the start of the year, because we had the album ready since last October. So the idea was to roll out the album track by track and create this listener path all the way down to December 2020 where the last track would come. So, we’d do a track a month off the album with visuals, so each track gets what it deserves in terms of attention. It was always a case of trying to show people how much thought goes into the creative process, because the whole idea was everyone would be able to clearly see the progression throughout the album and be able to make that connection. It’s also great, because as an independent artist, you don’t have a massive fan base, who want to listen to 20 songs of you at once, so you have to spoon feed people to an extent. But you know how the year went, a lot of things kept getting pushed back because of the circumstances.”
Despite the unexpected hiccups of 2020, JyellowL’s progress hasn’t been halted, and it’s clear that he’s well on his way to not only achieving success, but proving there’s more to Irish music than The Corrs and U2.
“Success means being able to have all the freedoms that I can possibly have, so creative freedom, financial freedom and mental freedom. Saying that, the most important type of freedom for me is not ever being held back by the thought of “what if”. Also making sure that I was able to do something for peoples lives. No matter how many people, or how few, I just wanna be able to say that I impacted people’s lives positively however that maybe.“
Be sure to stream and support the album below!