- 01 Dec 20
Dublin-based rapper JYellowL discusses the future of Irish hip-hop; his role in the Black Lives Matter movement; racism in Ireland; and his acclaimed debut album 2020 D|Vision.
Defiantly dismantling the prevailing media image of the hedonistic, self-destructive rapper in 2020, JYellowL has tapped into the socially-conscious roots of hip-hop – emerging not only as a crucial force in bringing homegrown hip-hop to the world stage, but as a prominent voice in Irish culture at large.
Although his debut album was largely recorded before our current reality, 2020 D|Vision has taken on a powerful new relevance in the context of the past year.
“The title speaks to three different things,” he explains. “First, there’s ‘the vision’, as I find my purpose, and step into that – leaving a blueprint for other people to follow. It’s also ‘division’ – as in the divisive elements of modern day society, that keep us separated.
“And then there’s ‘20/20 vision’,” he continues. “Having clear sight of both those things.”
Of course, the Nigerian-born rapper, who has called Ireland home since he was a young teenager, is also proof that a socially-engaged approach can exist beyond the underground: he has clocked up Spotify streams in their millions and scored a coveted spot on the FIFA 20 soundtrack. And the secret to his success? The wise words of his Jamaican grandmother.
“She’d always tell us, ‘You don’t have to subscribe to a certain social standard. You don’t have to follow what your friends are doing’,” he reflects. “She really homed in on that and I was grateful for it – because that really helped me on my journey through music. When I try to do things by the book, it never goes right for me. Everything that has worked really well, has been when I’m doing something leftfield, or finding my own innovative approach.”
Although his family is supportive of his career, music and academia were once at loggerheads during his school years.
“For me, college was always a thing I did to appease my mum,” he laughs. “It was never a thing I was passionate about, or wanted to do. But my mum and I had an agreement – once I went to college, and finished my degree, she would completely support me doing my music. I held up my part of the bargain, so everyone else has to follow suit!”
A year after completing his degree in politics at UCD, JYellowL’s career continues to skyrocket – including a recent appearance on RTÉ's Six One News and BBC Three’s The Rap Game UK documentary.
“That was a great step in the direction I want to be headed in,” he says of the documentary. “That’s going to expose the Irish scene to more international ears – as well as the people at home who aren’t involved in Irish music, because they don’t know how credible it is. So it’s busting that myth. Now it’s about pushing on from there.”
As evidenced by his appearance on The Rap Game, the articulate young rapper isn’t afraid to take on the mantle of spokesperson for the Irish hip-hop community.
“I invite that pressure,” he says. “I’ve always looked at it as a positive. Not to blow my own trumpet, but I feel like I’d be a good representative for Irish hip-hop. People coming from my situation can be inspired by that.
“In Irish hip-hop, we have a lot of people who want to emulate other cultures which are similar to theirs – because they don’t have any direct representatives of their own reality,” he continues. “They look to urban culture in the UK and the US. There’s no one making it on a mainstream level from here, so they don’t know that they can make it by being themselves, or by representing their own reality. I want that to change, with me – and with this generation of Irish hip-hop artists who are doing things on a global scale.”
With various scenes emerging across the country, he argues that the diversity of the Irish hip-hop sound is its greatest strength. However, the success of the current crop of Irish rappers will likely shape the regional style going forward.
“You’ll have people wanting to sound like Nealo, people wanting to sound like me, and whoever else,” he posits. “That’s what will inform this ‘Dublin sound’. I don’t know if that’s a good thing. Having one identifiable sound puts you in a box, off the bat. For instance, before the New York drill thing came along, when you thought of New York, you’d think of boom bap – the likes of Nas, or, more recently, Joey Bada$$. But what makes Ireland so special is that we’re still blossoming – we have the license and freedom to create whatever we want. That will drive us a lot further, rather than trying to stick to one thing.”
An entrepreneurial spirit is also at the heart of JYellowL’s work. This year he launched JYellowL Records, which quickly landed a distribution deal with IDOL. He established the label to provide a focus for Irish hip-hop.
“I always vented about there being a lack of infrastructure, for artists like myself, and the people who came before me,” he reflects. “So I figured it’s way more productive to do something about it, than always complain. That was the whole idea behind starting my own label – to empower myself, and to empower others through that.”
JyellowL’s leadership traits have also extended into his work in social movements. As well as voicing his support for the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria, JYellowL emerged as one of the key voices in the Black Lives Matter movement in Ireland this year. He was inspired to take action from a place of “pure pain and passion.”
“It was right after hearing the news about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” he explains. “I wanted to bring people together – to try and create something hopeful out of a negative situation. It was myself and two other friends who actually started the group chat – saying, ‘Let’s do a protest’. We were expecting 100 people max. We didn’t even have a megaphone initially. We were going to do it socially-distanced and everything, and we had liaised with the Guards.
“But all of a sudden, we get to O’Connell Street and there’s a sea of people,” he continues. “We weren’t expecting those crazy numbers. It got a lot of backlash, but it was inspiring to see all the same. From that, the conversation became more productive. It allowed us to look inwards. We were there in response to something that happened in America, but it allowed us to apply it to ourselves, and ask, ‘How does racism and these issues come across in an Irish context?’ It allowed us to open that conversation, and keep it going.”
JYellowL has done just that during lockdown – recently sharing his response to a racist online comment on his social media platforms, in an effort to expose Irish people to the racism that pervades our own society.
“Most of the casual or covert racism I’ve personally experienced in Ireland has come from a place of ignorance, as opposed to a place of hate,” he reflects. “Hate-filled racism is different: that’s the stuff we see online, in the comments section. The ignorance is in more casual things. Like asking, ‘Why can’t I say the n-word around you?’ Or, ‘Why can’t I say the n-word if it’s in music?’ Or making jokes about a person’s physical appearance, or their hair. That’s all ignorance-based. And you can cure that ignorance, with education and enlightenment. Hate is a lot more complicated to cure.
“So the point of me sharing that comment was to expose people to that,” he continues. “Most of it, I wouldn’t even indulge. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people aren’t aware that this kind of stuff exists. I wanted to show people that racism comes in so many different forms.”
Despite his current success, JYellowL has noted that he was initially viewed as “an outsider” in Irish hip-hop. People felt, if it wasn’t a white lad rapping in a thick Irish accent, it didn’t constitute ‘real’ Irish hip-hop.
“That’s changing now, but only because there’s nothing they can do about it!” he grins. “I’ve been successful, and I’m going to continue being successful. So now people are like, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’. When I was releasing music years ago, a lot of the same people who are being supportive now were like, ‘Oh typical – Irish lad rapping in an American accent’. How can you listen to my music and think I have an American accent?! How could you listen to me and think, ‘Woah, that guy sounds like Jay-Z!’
“So people said it wasn’t Irish hip-hop,” he continues. “A lot of them had never spoken to me in real life – so they didn’t know my accent. They don’t know anything about me. It was just ignorance. I only came here when I was 14 – how do you expect me to have a thick Dublin accent. I didn’t learn to speak English here?”
“Now those same people are all trying to bandwagon,” he adds, laughing. “They’re saying, ‘Oh JYellowL, we’re so proud of you!’ But I see them! I don’t forget anything. There’s a lot of fake love around!”
• 2020 D|Vision is out now.
Watch JYellowL's 2020 D|Vision launch show below: