Jamal Edwards In MA.STRUM

Jamal Edwards In MA.STRUM

Wearing none other than MA.STRUM, we catch up with Jamal Edwards MBE to discuss the importance of learning from your mistakes, appreciating each day as it comes and keeping an eye on those all-important VAT receipts.

Collector of talent, creator of content, connector of worlds – entrepreneurs don’t come more multi-hyphenate than Jamal Edwards. Over the last 14 years, SBTV’s founding father has dedicated himself to building a platform that gives a voice to cultures, communities and movements beyond the mainstream. He’s come a long way since what was pretty much the dawn of YouTube. And for all intents and purposes, he’s just getting started.

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First off, let’s go way back to before that famous Google ad: How did it all begin for you? How did you go about creating the platform you now have?

It all stemmed from my love of UK grime, rap and hip hop. I wanted to create a platform that would give those scenes the representation they needed and deserved.

It was entirely unheard of back then. YouTube wasn’t really about that kind of content back in the day; it was more about cat videos and ‘Charlie Bit my Finger’. It wasn’t really a destination for original music. So I saw a gap in the market; a chance to champion original music content. And as it turned out, the timing was perfect. SBTV was born and the rest is history.

How did you go about getting your name out there? 

The whole thing grew from word of mouth really. There was no budget thrown at it or anything. I already had a small following from my days making tracks. It was all guerrilla tactics, really. Back in school, in the very early days, I’d set the PCs’ homepages to the SBTV YouTube page. The school got wise after a little while and stopped me doing it. So I started doing the same thing over at the Apple store. It actually got me a few hits too. It all sounds a bit silly now but it really was that grassroots.

You didn’t just create a platform for yourself. You helped so many other people get their thoughts, faces and voices out there. Was that always the goal?

Yeah, and it took on a totally different dimension to what I was first expecting, too. I soon realised I wasn’t just helping to build the profiles of on-screen talent, but off-screen talent too. That really surprised me. I wasn’t just getting artists’ names out there, I was creating an alternative route for people looking for options beyond the typical. I’m talking about people who were stressed out at uni and were looking for different paths to take, for example.

It’s been amazing to fuel their passion and help them to develop their skills and carve out a totally different direction for themselves. It’s all about recognising talent. Full stop. It doesn’t matter if that’s on-screen or off-screen. Passion is passion.

You must have amassed quite the network with an approach like that. Is it ever a challenge keeping on top of it all?

The network has become vast, man. It’s almost too big! In terms of social media, I used to try to limit the amount of people I followed because it can all get a little overwhelming. I’m less precious about that now. The floodgates are open. There’s an opportunity to learn from everyone, so that drives me to connect with people as much as I can. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing, depending on how you see it. But all the same, it’s helped me get to where I am today.

I think it’s safe to say you’ve covered a lot of ground over the last few years. What drives you? Where do you find your forward momentum? 

If I wake up and I don’t have things to do, my mind gets frantic. So I need to keep things moving. I look to my peers, for sure.

Seeing [rapper] Dave team up with David Attenborough for a special Planet Earth, for example. Or seeing Skepta collaborate with Havana Club. Watching Dua Lipa blow up. They all fuel me. The reason I get so inspired by things like that is because I’ve been along for the ride; I’ve seen these careers develop over time and it’s incredible. People only really see the highlights of people’s progress, so to see the challenges that these people have overcome – behind the scenes – never fails to inspire me. My team, too. They’re amazing. They drive me. I wake up every day with new goals, new ambitions, new targets and it’s all thanks to the company I surround myself with.

Have there ever been moments in life that have knocked your confidence or slowed you down? 

All the time! Setbacks are inevitable; it’s all about how you choose to deal with them that makes the difference. I take situations and I change my perception of them. It’s important to take a second to reflect in those moments. There have been times in the past when I’ve been a little too quick off the mark, or a little too hot headed, and it’s never helped. Nowadays, I’ve learned to pause and plan. Because anything I do could have a knock-on effect for so many. So any time I can flip my perception of a situation on its head, I feel like I’m already halfway to solving the problem.

It’s during those times when it’s also especially important to appreciate the power of now. By that I mean living in the moment, being thankful for what you have, and being at peace with your progress and your process. You just have to check your mindset.

How important is it for you to challenge other people to think differently – both about themselves and their environment?

It’s vital. Especially when it comes to younger generations. We need to give our kids a little more freedom when it comes to plotting their own course in life. It’s not all about uni. It’s not all about the nine to five. If you’re not happy doing what you’re doing, it’s important to know that you have other options. It’s important to be free. It’s not about ticking the usual boxes: getting married and settling down before you’re 30. If that’s you, then cool. But not everyone has to go down that path. I see so much pressure on people to have achieved so much by the age of 30. It’s madness.

Obviously, the social media landscape has changed in a major way over the last ten years. How have you had to evolve, innovate and adapt?

Yeah, it’s come a long way from all those cat videos [laughs]. It’s important to think beyond the platform. Never take it for granted, and always look for ways to innovate, even if that’s beyond the realms of YouTube or Instagram. You never know when those platforms could collapse and disappear. Above all, though, it’s important to be loyal to your audience. Never try to be something you’re not, and always try to give back to the scenes and communities that helped you get where you are. I honestly think a little honesty goes a long way in this industry, too.

On that note, how do you balance commercial creativity with a sense of personal authenticity?

Authenticity is key. If you’re not being genuine, people will see right through you. I’m always looking to work with brands and people that are already in my life in some way; brands that have helped me along the way, or people that I have a genuine interest in. The likes of Google and Adobe make perfect sense, because they’ve provided me with the creative tools of my trade.

By the same token, though, there are just as many businesses out there that are absolutely killing it, but don’t really fit with me in an organic way. I’ve got so much respect for them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll work with them. It’s got to make sense. It’s got to be organic.

How important is it for you to give back to the community that shaped you?

You know what they say: the youth of today are the rulers of tomorrow. Anything I can do to help that process along, I’m down for. I founded JED [Jamal Edwards Delve] to provide young people in Ealing with opportunities to learn, work and connect. I’ve got a few other exciting projects in the pipeline, too. So watch this space. Seriously though, you can’t reap all the rewards in this world and not leave anything behind for future generations to build on. You have to leave something. Or at the very least, you should create something that future generations can work with and make their own. Don’t get greedy, play your position, know your role, and leave something behind.

YouTube has made Andy Worhol’s  claim that in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes that little bit more believable. Are you a believer in that kind of overnight success?

I’m torn on this one. I’ve seen people work flat out for a decade to achieve their so-called overnight success. Like I said before, people only see the highlights. Very few overnight successes are actually achieved overnight; people just don’t see the blood, sweat and tears that came before blowing up. On the other hand, the kind of overnight success that comes from a video suddenly going viral on YouTube is a different beast. It presents its own challenges. You need to know how to roll with that kind of sudden momentum and that’s not easy. Michael Dapaah [Big Shaq], for example. He managed to launch his career off of that kind of internet momentum. He’s done an amazing job of building on it, too. There are just as many folk who’ll just fade into obscurity. It’s all about how you react.

You turned 30 last month. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to your 20 year old self?

It’s not very profound, but my advice would be this: ‘Jamal, look after your VAT receipts!’ Seriously though, it’s the most important advice that I can give to anyone looking to run their own business. Go pick up a couple of books on personal finance, you’re gonna need ‘em. Learn the fundamentals of finance, man. I learned it the hard way! I’m good now, but I wish I knew back then how tricky that stuff can get if you don’t keep on top of it. It’s ironic, really: my step dad’s a mortgage advisor and my mum used to be an accounts payable manager; she’s now a singer. You’d think I’d have had a better handle on this stuff!


Credit to Will Halbert, Essential Journal

Photography by Colin Dack

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