Jelani Blackman is making waves in the music scene, with predictions of big things to come for the London-based musician over the next 12 months. But while he was born and raised in West London and attended school in, first the South, then the North of the Capital city, it’s the latter that holds his footballing heart.

A diehard Gooner, we sat down with Jelani in the Emirates Stadium to get an alternate take on the new Arsenal 19/20 home shirt from adidas. Conversation veered from the success of the Arsenal teams of the past to hopes for the future, while he also talked about rediscovering his love of the game.

Starting with football, and a very broad question, but how big is it to you?

It has been big. As I’ve got older I think I prefer playing it than watching it. They’ve kind of swapped around, because when I was younger my team that I would watch was better, and I wasn’t that good at playing, and now that I’m older, I’m a lot better at playing and my team’s got slightly worse!

So what about your team, what about Arsenal – can you remember that first memory that was attached to them and how they became your club?

Yeah, well, it was from my step-dad who supported them, and he just gave me this yellow JVC shirt and I was just like, yeah alright, I like it. And then it was that generation of Henry and there was just so much energy and enthusiasm from everyone, it just swept me up. 

What did they represent at that time that just caught you?

I really appreciated the skill; I think it was just the finesse. When you play school football it’s slightly different, because when you’re in it you’re just kicking each other. But when I first saw them on screen and when I first saw them play, there was actually some skill, this was the sport.

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That sort of era, there was so much flair. It was one of the first successful team’s to have players from other countries. It was really continental, wasn’t it?

Yeah, it was. There was an international feeling. It was nice to see how they worked with each other. I think that kind of link up play wasn’t really a thing. Obviously they were doing it in Barcelona from ages ago, but it wasn’t really that big in English football. And Arsenal, because they were such a big international team, they brought that over.

It’s another broad question, but when you think of Highbury, what goes through your head? Obviously you’re in the Emirates now, but Highbury, there’s such a strong connection…

That’s home, really. That’s what that feels like. 

And it’s only just down the road from the Emirates, so does it feel like a new home? Does it feel symbolic of Arsenal now?

Yeah, I think it’s getting there. It’s not quite the same yet, but it’s definitely on its way. I think we need to have a win here to make it feel like that. Some silverware.

As a fan, if you had to describe what makes Arsenal so special to someone who doesn’t know, how would you describe it do you think?

I think we were known for our style of football before anyone else was. When people used to speak about Arsenal, it was like, OK, you know what to expect: win or lose you knew what you were going to get out of an Arsenal team. I think that’s what makes us different. That wasn’t really the case for other teams I don’t think.

With the 90s and 2000s, with the JVC kits and all that sort of stuff, I can see that that makes you feel special when you think back to that.

Yeah, it does. There was something really important that Arsenal kits have always had about them. There was a little period of time when they had the maroon ones that was interesting, but we still try and stick with it. But the Dreamcast one was just iconic. And that’s one of the first ones that I ever had. And when I put it on, I felt like I was Arsenal.

You need to see some more curve ball sponsors on shirts like that these days, don’t you...

Yeah 100 percent. I mean Emirates is a bit of a curve ball. Not as much now, because everyone does it, but at the time…

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The Dreamcast one was just iconic. That’s one of the first ones that I ever had, and when I put it on, I felt like I was Arsenal."

What players sum up that era for you, and are what you would say proper Arsenal players?

For me, obviously this is my generation, so Henry, Pires, Ljungberg, and Viera. They were the classics. And moving forward, I still have a really strong connection to Van Persie and Fabregas and that next generation. They were still very much mine. I’ll be completely honest, because I had such a strong connection to them, when there wasn’t a turnaround that was like a changing of the guard – you know how some teams have like a changing of the guard, but I never really felt we had that – it skipped a gap.

What kind of a fan would you describe yourself as growing up, did you have all the kit, the posters, that sort of thing? Were you obsessive like that?

I wasn’t obsessive. Weirdly, the only thing I was obsessive over was the kits. I had stickers, but it was always the kits for me.

Seeing a brand like adidas coming back into the mix with Arsenal, do you see it as a new era with a new brand, new kits…?

Yeah definitely. Adidas is sick and they’ve been at the forefront of quite a lot of things in different areas, especially sport and music, so it ties things in. Obviously there are a couple of Arsenal players at the moment that are crossing boundaries, like Bellerin, who’s interested in fashion, and I think it’s a great link up to come through at this moment in time, because it does feel like there’s new energy. We have the new manager now, so it is a new era and we’ve got a lot of young people coming through. 

Talking about music then, was there a point for you when football and all that stuff took a step back and music took over your life?

Yeah, definitely. At one point I was playing football, rugby and boxing and then going to music school on Saturdays as well, and a couple of things I just had to let go. So football was one of them. But I don’t regret it, because I feel that I’ve come back to it now, and actually I enjoy it more than I used to. Now I can appreciate it without the secondary school stress!

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What are your major musical influences growing up, and how did you get to the sound that you have, because it’s quite a distinctive sound.

I’m like, R&B and hiphop – that’s in my bones. Coming from that but then being in London with Grime being the main type of music I think it was the cross over of those things. So I like stuff that’s hard but I also like melodic stuff that’s a little bit deeper. So it’s not just angry, angry, angry.

At SoccerBible we have a philosophy of taking a photographer from a different genre or culture and applying it to football and you get something completely fresh. Would you say you’re like that with your music then, crossing two genres and bringing them together?

Yeah, I think it’s important. I think the best things come when you combine different areas and different disciplines. I think if you’re ever straight down the line with anything you’re probably going to miss out a lot.

How would you actually describe your music and the sound that you’ve got?

I think it’s quite deep and hard and heavy. Especially more and more that’s where it’s leaning towards. That’s where I’ve found my centre of what I want to make.

With your musical journey that you’ve been on so far, how hungry are you to keep getting success?

Hungry, man! 


Starving, I’m famished! I’m ready. It’s a good time. I’ve just been saying that the energy has changed so much and I always felt like – and this was my little secret thing – but when I’m successful, Arsenal will be successful. So I was like, we’ll win the season when the time is right and I think this might be the season, because my energy is so strong right now, I feel unstoppable.

What would you like to achieve this year more than anything? What is Arsenal winning the Premier League or an FA Cup to you on a musical level?

I think if we win the Premier League it will reflect back on the importance of taking time with your journey and not feeling defeated or letting things go at any point. Just because it hasn’t quite worked. Or sometimes just stepping back and adjusting and bringing in new blood and cross some boundaries that we haven’t before. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not the same Arsenal and I wasn’t the same me before. It just means that we needed to change some things to move forward.

Is there something for you that would be the musical equivalent of winning the league?

I think awards in music are less and less important, but I would love to win a Grammy. Awards are great, but winning a Grammy, I’d just be like, I’ve made it relevant in somewhere that isn’t just my country. 

As a target that’s massive – is that reflective of who you are and how high you set your standards?

Yeah. I’d like to get a number one before that, but I think a Grammy is where I’d like to aim. 

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Grime is a UK thing, and I don’t know many people that grew up in the UK, especially in London that didn’t have some kind of connection to football."

And what about places that you’d like to play, or experience or travel to?

Everywhere. I’ve been to quite a few places so far, but I just think it hasn’t been consistent. I want to start touring next year. I really want to go to Asia actually, and do an Asian tour, because it’s just a different energy. I know a couple of my friends have been there and played and their attitude is just so different. 

Bringing it back to football a bit, if you were in the Emirates and one of your tracks came on, what would go through your head?

I’d be gassed! You might catch me on the pitch!

That crossover between music, fashion and football, it’s bigger than ever right now. Have you noticed that then? 

Yeah, but I think it’s really about the players, I think that’s what’s created that synergy. The players are younger and more interested and more connected to social media and stuff than they ever have been before so it just seemed like a natural progression. No one was like, “oh yeah, we should get involved in sports,” it was just that they want to wear cool clothes, they’ve got money, why would you not!

And then the musical influence as well, there seems to be naturally a soundtrack to football, which is very much grime and stuff like that. And it will be wicked when a player comes out and says he’s into something completely away from the norm, but do you see that crossover with Grime, and why do you think that is?

I think it’s just because Grime’s all about energy. Grime’s always been about energy and atmosphere and connecting to the people that are around you, and I think that that’s what football is also about. Grime is a UK thing, and I don’t know many people that grew up in the UK, especially in London that didn’t have some kind of connection to football. So it’s ingrained in Grime MCs to be part of that culture.

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Great answer. Most people just say it’s because they grew up with a footballer on their street…

Nah, it’s much deeper than that. It’s to do with the energy that we both feel and the things that we do and the fact that if you grow up playing football and watching football, there’s a point when you stop doing one, but that doesn’t mean that you ever forget the other. So those footballers that will have grown up listening to Grime as well.

What players do you have a lot of time for, you’ve mentioned Bellerin, but do you like seeing those players that have their own character and personality and stuff like that?

Yeah, I like the new players that have been brought in. I like Lacazette and I like Aubameyang. I feel that they’ve created a good kind of hype that was missing before. Up front it’s good to see exciting things happen, so I have a lot of appreciation.

If you could hear of a player that’s been listening to one of your tracks, how would that feel? Rhian Brewster was at the Merky festival with Dave and that’s cool to see, but is there a footballer that you’d like to get into your music?

If it was anyone I think it would just be someone rogue that you wouldn’t expect to see at all, like Koscielny.

So 2019/20 for you, what does it look like in terms of what you’re releasing?

Plan is just music until the end of the year. I’ve got a project coming in September and that’s all lined up. I’m gassed about the main song off of it. It feels like a good moment, so I’m looking forward to it. And then, yeah, more and more songs. I’ve been working hard and actually it’s the first time in my whole career that I’ve ever had music backed up and I don’t really have to worry about what’s coming next or is there going to be a song to follow up with. I could go to 2021 and it wouldn’t be a problem.

Takes the pressure off so you can be more creative?

Yeah, it feels way better when it’s like that. You can be so much more creative, ‘coz you don’t have that in the back of your mind like, “oh shit, what am I gonna do next…"

Photography by Kay Ibrahim
Styling by Ella Tyson

'Brixton' by Jelani Blackman is out now across Spotify and Youtube.

Pick up the Arsenal 2019/20 home shirt at