Jamal Edwards obituary

Music and media entrepreneur who helped launch the careers of Ed Sheeran, Jessie J and Emeli Sandé

Jamal Edwards, who has died suddenly aged 31, was a music entrepreneur whose online video platform SBTV has more than 1 million subscribers and collaborates with some of the world’s biggest musical names.

From a small acorn, filming his friends at school in west London on a cheap mobile phone, Edwards created a very large tree, helping to launch the careers of British musical figures such as the singer-songwriters Jessie J, Emeli Sandé and Ed Sheeran, and later working with established international names that have included Drake, Nicki Minaj and Wiz Khalifa.

As Edwards’ personal fortune grew, he expanded into other entrepreneurial ventures, often with a focus on improving the lives of disadvantaged young people.

Born in Luton, Bedfordshire, he was brought up in Acton, west London, by his mother, Brenda (nee Artman), an accounts manager and part-time singer, and a supportive stepfather, Patrick Edwards, a mortgage broker, who provided him with cameras and equipment in the early days of his experimentation.

Jamal Edwards, right, filming in an Acton car park in west London, 2011.
Jamal Edwards, right, filming in an Acton car park in west London, 2011. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

At Acton high school Edwards was by his own admission “a bit of a class clown”, rebelling against his strict Christian upbringing and subject to a short attention span that needed constant stimulation. The first film he made was of foxes on his local council estate, after which he began to turn his hand to recording classmates rapping, first on his mobile and then on a camera he had been given for Christmas.

A fledgling singer himself, he used the initials of his rapping name, SmokeyBarz, for SBTV, the YouTube channel he set up at the age of 16 in 2006 to upload his film clips and bring them to a wider audience.

On his parents’ advice, Edwards quickly switched the focus away from rap to the jagged sounds of grime, which had broken out all around him in its London birthplace and which he saw as “like the punk movement, in terms of lyrics and rebellious attitude”.

Shortly after its launch, SBTV became the first new media business to be featured on YouTube – then only a year old. As Edwards noted later in his career, “it was a local boy, global voice thing: when you put your stuff on the internet it goes out to a global audience straight away”. Within a short time SBTV was attracting a large number of subscribers and he was able to begin to make money out of his hobby.

Jamal Edwards with his mother, Brenda, on ITV’s Loose Women in 2021.
Jamal Edwards with his mother, Brenda, on ITV’s Loose Women in 2021. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Having left school with a handful of GCSEs, Edwards spent three years studying for a BTec national diploma in media moving image at West London College, while also experimenting on music studio equipment at local youth centres. He later worked as a retail assistant in a Top Man clothes store to support himself until the cash from SBTV began to roll in.

As SBTV gradually moved beyond grime to take in other musical genres, the scope of Edwards’s influence expanded. At the age of 20 he was featured as an example of the power of the internet in a huge advertising campaign to promote the web browser Google Chrome, which became one of the year’s most viewed items on YouTube.

From then onwards his star rose rapidly, and by his early 20s, after SBTV had received significant financial backing from a private equity firm, Edwards became one of the youngest successful entrepreneurs in the UK, a sought-after music mogul who was stopped on the streets by admirers.

In his teens he had tasted fame vicariously through his mother, who, after appearing on The X Factor, had picked up further television work and singing roles in a number of West End musicals. Now, however, he was in the spotlight. “I was always Brenda from X Factor’s son, and then it switched to her being the mum of Jamal from SBTV.”

While he was soon able to come to terms with the initial strains of fame at such a young age, Edwards’s youthfulness also created some difficulties in his business life. “Everyone I employed was older than me, which was very daunting,” he said. “Sometimes I was swayed by their opinions just because I’ve been brought up to respect my elders. I had to overcome that.”

Jamal Edwards with the Prince of Wales in 2013. He was an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust.
Jamal Edwards with the Prince of Wales in 2013. He was an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust. Photograph: Chris Jackson/PA

Appointed MBE in 2014, the year he became an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust, he branched out from SBTV into other projects.

He designed and launched a headwear collection with his previous employer Top Man – informed by his hoard of hundreds of baseball caps – and was involved with a number of other fashion ventures, among them Primark.

In 2017 he made a documentary with the Guardian about male suicide, in which he spoke to childhood friends who had suffered with mental health problems. Two years later he helped to refurbish and reopen four youth centres in Acton with money that he had raised from Google and the Wellcome Trust, later expanding the initiative into other parts of the UK.

In 2020 there was a partnership with the Department for Education to encourage young creatives to take up an apprenticeship, and in 2021 he launched the 8BARS app, a digital platform intended to discover new musical talent. Latterly he had embarked on a new, part-time existence as a club DJ under the name Jamal Artman.

Despite his swift rise to fortune in the rough and tumble of the music world, Edwards remained an unassuming character, describing himself as a “modern caveman” most at home in a quiet environment. “For me, meditation is removing myself from social media, switching off the phone, reading a book, chilling out,” he said. “Too much social media gives you a headache, damages your eyes. It upsets the whole system.”

A keen cyclist, he liked to visit the countryside and was an advocate of eating locally grown food, something he promoted through another of his co-ventures, a chain of health food bars called Ugot.

He is survived by his mother and his sister, Tanisha.

• Jamal Edwards, entrepreneur, born 24 August 1990; died 20 February 2022


Peter Mason

The GuardianTramp

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