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“None of It Makes Sense”: An Interview With JELEEL!

Rapper JELEEL! has enough viral energy to power a city block. He breaks down the process of finding his voice for Audiomack.
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This article previously appeared on Audiomack World.

JELEEL!’s energy is normally strong enough to power a city block, but this morning, he’s feeling much quieter. He enters the room, iced coffee in hand, and greets everyone with a warm smile and relaxed eyes, his WWE-ready appearance—brick shithouse frame, Harley Davidson tank top, ripped jeans splattered with red paint, multicolor striped Nike Air Maxes—at odds with his calm demeanor. Like any good performer, the exuberance he brings to his music and social media presence requires a good amount of rest. “I like UFC, I love sparring, I love bikes, but I also like calm shit,” he tells Audiomack World. “I’m like an angel, but I feel like I’m ferocious, too.”

That ferociousness comes solely from the devotion JELEEL! brings to his craft and the high voltage nature of his songs. The son of two Nigerian immigrants, he grew up in Rhode Island and took in music from every corner of the globe—from Afrobeats and R&B to hip-hop, alternative rock, and even grime during a short trip to the UK. His original goal was to be a pro athlete, but that changed when he got his first taste of making music: “I went to the studio and made a song and I felt something in my heart I’d never felt in my life,” he explains. JELEEL!’s music reflects his eclectic upbringing, mixing guitar power chords with thumping 808s, Afrobeats rhythms with lyrics rapped in his strained nasal register.

Shortly after graduating college, JELEEL! decamped to Los Angeles to pursue his dream, embracing the manic positivity and genre-blending bangers that have become his trademark. But while fans only saw an artist dropping singles and shredding tank tops, his reality was much bleaker. JELEEL! was houseless for a good portion of his early days in LA, including when he dropped his 2019 debut album Angel from Heaven.

The natural fight in him led to good fortune: a loyal fanbase built from the ground up and a deal with independent label 10K Projects. JELEEL! is well aware of the public’s general surprise at seeing a 6+ foot tall, impossibly cut, perpetually shirtless Black man in his late 20s with the voice of a teenager doing backflips on TikTok. Whatever you make of him, he’s only leaning into his truth: “I feel like everything about JELEEL! doesn’t make sense—where I’m from, how I’m built, how I sound. None of it makes sense.”

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I’m so curious—over the course of the last four years, how many tank tops have you ripped through?

Enough to have a Hanes sponsorship by now. I can’t even count. Hanes hit me up, but we need to get them on it ASAP. Before I make my own tank tops.

When did you first decide you wanted to make music for real?

I felt it in my heart because I wanted to be an athlete and that didn’t work out. I went to the studio and made a song and I felt something in my heart I’d never felt in my life. I was like, “This is it. I’m gonna graduate college and move to LA.” I was running wild like an animal, ripping my shirt on Instagram, and then I brought it to TikTok.

I understand you were houseless for a period of time before your career really began to take off. What kept you inspired during those trying times?

It sucks, man. It’s so trash. But sometimes you have to go through things like that to get where you gotta go. I have a close relationship with God and I always felt like it was part of a story—only JELEEL has to go through this. It had to happen. You have to struggle sometimes, even if it’s trash. If you stop fighting, you’re gonna get hit. Keep going, keep moving around. You don’t have to hit all the time; just move around and if you see an opening, just throw the punch.

I had an album out, but even then, I wasn’t just sitting around relaxing. I was working and just kept applying pressure. That situation inspired me to go even harder. Got my own car and that made it easy to do a lotta stuff. It’s not like I blew up and was immediately set.

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A lot of people have a twisted perception of what success is and how long certain goals, like money, take to achieve. There’s power in you being transparent about that particular situation.

I’m still working towards it, too. People on TikTok think I’m just some gimmick nigga, but my shit is actually fire. God move like that. The pen’s lifted and the ink is dried. It’s already written.

The first time I heard your music on Angel from Heaven, I was caught off-guard by this high-pitched voice coming out of someone with your build. When did you first decide this would be the voice of JELEEL!?

At first, I was using my regular voice, but I decided to experiment. I would sing high, high, high, and then I lost my voice for two weeks straight. Two weeks later, I was able to sing and I could sing higher. Like, really strong.

People are so caught off-guard, bro. It’s like a superpower. I’m the underdog. [The voice] is not easy. I’m learning how to control it. It’s hard to sometimes, but you just gotta breathe and harmonize it. I’ve never recorded a song through fully with that voice—I go bar-for-bar. Now I gotta breathe and not force it too much.

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Does catching people off-guard in that regard bother you?

Nah I expect it. I like it, though. It’s kinda like shocking, ya know? People don’t expect it and then they hear it; it’s a juxtaposition. That’s a good thing. I feel like everything about JELEEL! doesn’t make sense—where I’m from, how I’m built, how I sound. None of it makes sense.

Your energy is indescribable, bro. The words “performer” and “entertainer” get thrown around a lot, but you’re like something akin to a wrestler. On some Ric Flair or New Day type of time. Is that level of energy you bring ever get difficult to maintain?

No, as long as you stretch and take care of your body, you’ll be good. Right now, I’ve just been learning how to elevate the performance. I’m really trying to show the singing aspect of it. I wanna keep the antics in there, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the music. I just love making it mine. It’s not just a gimmick. I just wanna show the world that JELEEL! is here to stay. I hope people go back to Angel In Heaven because I feel that album is very underrated.

You’ve been dropping singles constantly for the last few years. What’s your recording process like? Do you stockpile songs or is it a one-and-done type of deal?

There’s some songs that I make that are an idea I put down and come back to in the future. Other songs, I take my time on them. It all depends on what you’re trying to create, but sometimes you gotta experiment. It’s all just flow. Music is spiritual. Go and have fun. You don’t need to drink or smoke or take drugs to make great music but to each their own.

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How would you describe the JELEEL! aesthetic to someone who has no idea who you are?

I’d describe JELEEL! as something you’ve never seen before. A pacifist; a human; a Muslim. It’s a lot of things. I’d describe myself as a unicorn. I’d describe JELEEL! as a masculine figure with a passionate heart; as fashionable; as someone who isn’t afraid to be themselves.

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