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Jamal Edwards: "We're gonna try and change that narrative"

The SBTV founder talks about the royal fallout, being the Department of Education’s first ambassador, and rewriting the ‘sensationalist’ story that the media too often writes about him

Jamal Edwards
Jamal Edwards

Allow that, nah, we're gonna try and change that narrative,” says Jamal Edwards, MBE, entrepreneur, author, and the founder of online urban music platform SBTV. The question: is he happy that almost every article about him seems to start in the same way? “That whole ‘boy from the estate becomes a millionaire’ thing is just sensational init, like I’m never gonna forget where I came from – that I started at the bottom – but I want to push a different narrative to that. I think I amount to more than that, you know.”

So how would he start an article about himself? He laughs, loudly. “Pfft, I dunno, that’s your job init.” He isn’t wrong. On either front. It is my job, and he does amount to much more than the narrative he is commonly afforded. So much more, in fact, that it’s hard to know where to begin.

No place seems better than 2006, when Edwards was just 15 and decided to set up what was to become one of the biggest YouTube channels in the world, SBTV. “A lot of my friends were really frustrated trying to get their music on mainstream platforms, and YouTube was about a year old at that point – so I just thought if I got in there early, maybe I could make online the new platform for artists,” he says.

What followed was weeks, months and years of grafting – convincing anyone and everyone – “big artists and small ones, because no one really knew about online yet” – that YouTube was “going to be big one day, and it was in artists’ best interests to get on there now before it really took off”.

Someone sent me a message saying ‘how did you go from making music videos to working with the fucking UK government?' 

Today, SBTV has 1.16 million subscribers, comprises endless series like Better Place, #LiveTrax and Wrighty’s Tekkers Challenge, in partnership with former England footballer Ian Wright, and continues to produce and publish some of the biggest and best videos from world-class artists – Nines, J Hus, Ed Sheeran and Frank Ocean are just some of the channel’s recent collaborations.

With such an impressive and diverse list of names, it can’t be easy to name a favourite. Or even someone Edwards is most proud of working with. But, naturally, I ask anyway. “There’s like thousands of videos and I know I’m gonna miss stuff man,” he says, one hand on each cheek, recoiling in his chair – looking genuinely afraid of what’s been asked. “Working with Boy Better Know, Idris Elba, Dave, Nines, Ed Sheeran, Jessie J, that was all pretty mad. Linking artists up is also something I love doing – when I did a collab with Clean Bandit and Krept and Konan – that was pretty sick.” Just a few, then.

Edwards, among many other things, is rumoured to have helped launch Sheeran’s career; to help him become the varied artist he is today. “That's my guy init, like that's my good friend,” he says about Sheeran. “He wanted to get more on the underground and I wanted to get more on the overground, so it was like proper good…” he trails off, thanking the waitress who has just brought over his juice.

He looks at the very pale green liquid now in front of him, unsure. “I never come to these juice places – this is how we live nowadays, so boujee init.” He laughs, and I realise this is an Edwards trait – which he later confirms: that his mind works at what feels like 100mph, and sometimes a sentence doesn’t get finished because another thought comes along. The juice, however, is delicious, he tells me.

I have a feeling his sentence was going to end with ‘luck’ (there’s no time to check, as we move on at the pace of Edwards’ rapid stream-of-consciousness), but that seems to downplay the real effort he made to make his friend a name on the urban scene. Away from his already mainstream chart-topping success. And considering, at the time of writing this piece, Sheeran is currently No 1 in the UK alongside Stormzy and Burna Boy for their joint track ‘Own It’ – those efforts appear to have gone a long way.

What’s most impressive about Edwards, though, is how he’s managed to transgress barriers he initially built for himself. SBTV, as work like Wrighty’s Tekkers Challenge proves, is no longer a music-only platform. Of course, he tells me, music will always be his “entry point”, what he works on day-to-day, and what inspired his whole career – but he’s making moves in all kinds of different industries. Some more unlikely than others.

Today’s young people are the future leaders of tomorrow and if I can help them in any way, that's a massive job ticked

“It’s all about collaborations,” he says, putting down his vegan crisps – looking at me very seriously. “Like big up the Department of Education collab I’m working on right now called Fire It Up, which is all about encouraging more kids to get into apprenticeships and respect them as much as they do uni degrees – it’s a stigma that needs to be reversed.

“Someone actually sent me some message saying: 'Oh my god like you went from making music videos to working with the fucking UK government – how did you do that?' and I'm like, yeah, it’s random but also it’s not. I’ve got a platform and I want to do work and speak about things that are important. And to be honest, there's never been an ambassador for the government, let alone for the Department of Education. For me, it's pioneering cos I've been in this game for so long and you gotta keep reinventing yourself so that's something that I'm really pushing at the moment.”

Other projects currently in the pipeline are The British Library and the V&A, Edwards tells me: “I know they say you shouldn't announce it till you've done it, but I'm gonna put it out there. I'm gonna talk it into existence.”

Jamal Edwards
Jamal Edwards

Talking is a big part of Edwards’ work, since becoming somewhat of a mouthpiece for youth campaigning and mental health, working alongside The Prince’s Trust – as well as leading the way with his own work – and regularly posting about these causes on his Instagram.

After a slight detour into telling me about his age, asking mine, telling me that he tried to lie about his own on a membership form recently (which his agent told him wasn’t a good idea because his age is listed online), that he then told his agent to remove his actual age from his Wikipedia page, and that he’s actually “pretty gassed for my thirties”, he tells me why mentoring young people is so important to him.

“A lot of people have grown up watching SBTV, so there’s always someone saying: ‘Yeah, my brother watched it’ or ‘My sisters used to watch it all the time’, and as I’ve grown my audience has grown with me so I've managed to always get older and youngers on board,” he says. “Ultimately, today’s young people are the future leaders of tomorrow. That's how it is. And if I can help in any way through the content that I produce, then that's like a massive job ticked.”

And mental health? “That just happened naturally because of people in my area, close ones, unfortunately killing themselves and me knowing that people aren’t always able to express their feelings, but that I’d work hard to get that out of them,” he says. “I wanna carry on doing stuff like that when it works, but I don't wanna just do it for the sake of doing it like it's got to mean something.”

It must be really hard for Harry, as her husband, to see her soul get eaten up

As it happens, he’s already working on something that’ll likely mean something to a lot of people. In a new SBTV series called What’s Your Drive?, featuring Ferne Cotton as his first guest, Edwards will drive to a famous person’s house, pick them up, drive around the area and talk to them about what their drive in life is – where they want to be, what motivates them. Think Carpool Karaoke – without the singing, and with some very deep chats. Edwards actually filmed the episode with Cotton over a year ago, he says, but has been too busy – “well, too busy procrastinating” – to release it.

I’m already wondering who will be asked to feature in the inevitable episode – like the one on Elizabeth Day’s How to Fail podcast when Dolly Alderton gets to interview Day – when someone will pick up Edwards and ask him the questions. Because what, or who does drive someone who seems to have their fingers in almost every pie on the table – who has achieved so much before turning 30?

“I get inspired and motivated by everything, honestly. Stormzy doing Jimmy Fallon this week was huge – knowing how far he is going, and that he is a colleague, is really big. Even when I googled all the past Square Mile cover stars – seeing all these people, some of them friends, that’s sick – that’s a drive. I'm very fortunate to be able to find inspiration in lots of things because that helps me to keep a positive mindset.”

Talk turns to Stormzy. The UK rapper has been in the press for many reasons in the past two weeks: his ongoing feud with fellow grime artist Wiley and his publicised view that the coverage of Harry and Meghan’s decision to split from the royal family has been racist in parts, to name a few. Edwards, who has met both Prince Harry and William, and received his MBE from their father, can see both sides of the coin.

Jamal Edwards
Jamal Edwards

 

“At the end of the day, you have to respect a family’s decision to do what’s best for them – and that’s not really anyone’s place to judge,” he says, “but it’s easy to see why Stormzy and others might think that…” He pauses, clearly thinking about what it is he’s trying to say.

“I try not to get lost in that world [of debating racism in the press] because if I did, it’d be bad,” Edwards says. “What I will say is, it must be really hard for Harry, as her husband, to see her going through that over and over again – having to look at that, her soul getting eaten up, it must be really tough. Good luck to them man, like anything I can do or whatever I’d be more than happy to support them.”

Having an MBE, Edwards tells me, undoubtedly opens doors that weren’t just closed before – but not even there to begin with. And that’s not just the case for those who received theirs on the same day that Joan Collins was made a Dame – a fact Edwards is very proud of.

“Just after I got it, I was listed on Forbes Under 30, got nominated for a bunch of awards and started doing a lot of youth club work I had wanted to do for a while – it just kinda validates you and lets people know you mean business,” he says.

When Prince Charles gave me my MBE he said he was glad I was finally being recognised – I was like yessss, my guyyyy, he knows

“And Prince Charles gets it – we’d known each other for a while before I got it and when he awarded it to me he said he was glad I was finally being recognised.” My eyes must widen, as if to say: “Well, that’s pretty cool” because before I know it, Edwards is leant back in his chair again, legs practically off the floor, laughing: “I know, I know, it’s mad – I was like: ‘Yessss, my guyyyy, he knows.’ It was big.”

At that moment, Edwards thinks he has seen Shaun from EastEnders and is like an uber-fan at his favourite band’s gig – “Do you know who I mean? Shaun. Stacey’s brother? Shit. Ah wait, no, not him. Never mind” – and it’s as though everything we’ve just spoken about is suspended in mid-air. There’s that Edwards trait again – it’s easy to see why people like him so much. How infectious his energy is. How quickly his mind works. But then, is that really so surprising from someone who created their own company before their 16th birthday?

Sure, Jamal Edwards was born in Luton, grew up on an estate in Acton with his mother (Brenda Edwards, who finished fourth on the second series of The X Factor), stepfather and younger sister, and is now a self-made millionaire.

But, as he finishes telling me that he’s recently signed with Select model agency and intends to “actually walk the stuff I tell kids to – to try new things, take risks and step outside of the box” – it’s clear there is a whole lot more to his narrative than I could have ever imagined at the start of this interview. And much, much more than I could possibly write.

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To see Edwards' work, see SBTV

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