Jamal Edwards: a pioneer of British music whose generosity paved the way for generations

Edwards’ platform SBTV became a hub for an entire scene and remains a vital snapshot of contemporary sound. But his dedication to nurturing talent reached far beyond music

In 2006, the first uploads appeared on Jamal Edwards’ YouTube channel SBTV. On grainy footage, young MCs dart in and out of the camera, spraying bars into the lens, old school grime instrumentals playing on loop in the background.

These rough cuts were a symbol of what was to come for a man and a generation of MCs emerging out of working-class corners of the UK. At a time when genres such as grime and rap had been barred from the stages of British mainstream music, and were largely absent from charts and radio, award shows and TV, Edwards and SBTV became a refuge and a haven for young MCs seeking an outlet. Edwards was a conductor and a vessel, embodying the culture’s DIY essence, and allowing adolescent expression to find voice on the newly levelled terrain of YouTube.

The channel raised generations of musicians. Known as Smokey Barz back then, it launched soon after YouTube itself. What started as Edwards filming local friends with double lives as MCs became a hub and a meeting point for an entire scene. In the first 10 years of its life, the channel ran music videos, interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. But its showcase pieces were its freestyle sessions, the most popular of which were F64 and Warm Up Sessions.

Over the years, the sound’s most popular and most cherished artists have graced those sessions: from respected veterans such as Boy Better Know and Akala, Margs and Black the Ripper, NoLay and Skinnyman, then staggering down the generations, featuring rising stars Dave and J Hus in 2015, and a standout Warm Up Session from Big Zuu in 2016.

When it came to the freestyles, Jamal was deep in the weeds – even once the channel had grown to over a million subscribers, and he had helped launch the careers of mammoth pop stars such as Ed Sheeran, Jessie J and Jess Glynne, and he had been given an MBE for services to music in 2014. Many MCs and musicians such as the late MC Cadet recount stories of how he would tell them to rewrite their lyrics, pushing them to go deeper, asking them to bring who they are, the conditions that shaped them, on to their records.

Edwards with his MBE.
Edwards with his MBE. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA

The result is vital collection of British music. The channel, still running, is a time capsule and a snapshot of contemporary sound in Britain. Through its videos you can trace the evolution of music in Black Britain, grime moving into UK rap, then both bleeding into Afroswing and UK drill. Its essence and meaning to the community from which it sprang is best captured in a Warm Up Session by Birmingham grime pioneer Vader, who raps: “Big up Jamal, best wishes … keep showing the world the best of the British.”

But the legacy of Edwards is not consigned to artists and MCs alone. There are generations of creatives who have passed through the revolving doors of his company. I worked at SBTV for about 15 months, stretching from 2016 to 2018, working across editorial and YouTube, searching for my break in a media industry that seemed sealed at the doors. In SBTV I found a space to deepen my craft. I found encouragement, connections and deep friendships that carry on to this day. In that experience I was not alone. There are a string of creatives and photographers, media personalities and directors, who Edwards has given a leg up.

“That to me is the most important thing,” he said in an interview, “because that’s what I got into it for, being able to help get these artists get to the next level.”

When Jay-Z was seeking to get in touch with talented rapper turned director Rapman, it was Edwards who linked the two. The result was Rapman signing to Roc Nation, and the eventual release of his successful cult film Blue Story. Many across the country have similar stories to tell. Sitting in the office, you would often hear stories of young creatives seeking Edwards out for advice, photographers who had stopped him on the street, asked for an opportunity to work and within a few weeks were shooting and creating content for brands and the SBTV Instagram.

Jamal Edwards filming in 2011.
Jamal Edwards filming in 2011. Photograph: Karen Robinson/the Observer

He was a dreamer who reached out and grabbed his future. And when he found success, he encouraged and inspired a wave of watching kids to do the same. “Everyone has the potential in them,” he once said in an interview with Ross Kemp, “it’s just at what point in your life you unlock it.”

In the hours since he died aged 31, social media has been awash with stories of his generosity from music executives and media personalities, producers and writers who he laid out a bridge for, a connection between his community and industries that had long resisted them.

This work to uplift and encourage goes beyond music. In recent years Edwards had launched JE Delve, a youth charity in Ealing, London, dedicated to giving young people the opportunity to develop skills in fields from film-making to architecture, continuing his devotion to nurturing talent emerging out of the edges. The same boy who picked up a camera and changed the fortunes of himself and hundreds of others more than decade back retained the same focus and intent as a grown man.

In a year where rap and Black music in Britain continues to scale new heights, now with its own official category at the Brits, producing some of the highest-selling artists in the country, Jamal Edwards’ contribution cannot be overstated or forgotten. He was a pioneer who laid the ground for those who came after, carved a door out of the ether and beckoned his people, his community, his friends and even strangers to walk through it.


Aniefiok Ekpoudom

The GuardianTramp

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