Jamal Edwards’ Legacy Reminds Me Why Community Matters

Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images.
“You helped everybody. Everybody,” reads one heartfelt tribute of the now thousands dedicated to Jamal Edwards MBE, who passed away suddenly on Sunday night. It’s a sentiment I’ve read and heard a lot in the past few days as people come to terms with the loss of a Black British icon known for making a success out of championing undiscovered talent. After all, the careers of Ed Sheeran, Dave, Lady Leshurr, Jessie J, and so many more, some way, somehow, lead back to Jamal Edwards. For young Black millennial kids like myself, who watched Edwards’ rise to media mogul status from chunky PC screens in the early noughties, the impact of his death has hit like a speeding train. This week I’ve asked, how do you mourn a person you never met, but taught you how to dream a little bigger?
Just a week before Jamal Edwards’ devastating passing, the 31-year-old entrepreneur, DJ, author and visionary revealed his new mission with his youth charity JE Delve. Edwards planned to create more safe spaces for young people in his hometown by launching four new youth centres, in a bid to help more young talent to find and share their artistic passions. As Edwards’ humbly told Dummy MagazineI just feel like I have to give back.” And yet, for the beloved West Londoner’s peers — who gathered in droves under his Acton mural to grieve and celebrate his life earlier this week — there doesn’t seem to have been a time in Edwards’ career where he wasn’t proactively giving back to the communities and people that helped shape him.
Back in 2006, well before it was common to turn your interests into a career on social media, Jamal Edwards’ launched SB:TV to Youtube, a UK rap platform charting the distinctly Black and British working class young talent across London who, in his own words, "weren't being represented by the mainstream media." He was just 15 when he got started, but he quickly built a multimillion pound empire out of his hobby, revolutionising a new generation of young creators who learned that, with the help of the internet, you didn’t need to be invited to sit at the table of major corporations and gatekeeping record labels (who likely didn't relate to you, your sound and your experiences), you could create a whole new table where all your peers sit and eat. And boy, did Jamal Edwards' fellowship of local musicians, artists, poets, filmmakers, youth centres, philanthropists eat.

It’s no exaggeration that until I saw Edwards... I didn’t know you could create content for Black people, in your own voice, AND make it a national success.

"So many artists that [were] posted on his channel went off to do some great successful things," wrote Lady Leshurr to Instagram, following the news of Edwards' passing. The Birmingham rapper (real name Melesha Katrina O'Garro) was one of the many artists featured amongst SB:TV's early collection of grainy F64 freestyle videos that went viral more than ten years ago. "The man was always trying to bridge the gap between up north artists and Londoners for over a decade now and he deserved his flowers a very long time ago," she went on to add, "We have to salute Jamal’s spirit and mentality at such a young age."
Agreed. Unlike Edwards, it took me a while to learn the true power of self-advocacy. It’s no exaggeration that until I saw Edwards’ famous Google Chrome advert in 2012 — that has now been played more than 6 million times on Youtube — I didn’t know you could create content for Black people, in your own voice, AND make it a national success. At the time, I had not too long graduated from studying broadcast journalism at university and started my very first role working in broadcast media. I tried to assimilate to what I felt a "proper journalist" acted like; I relaxed my hair, I wore pussy bow blouses and I didn’t know a working day without routinely code switching. I only pitched stories that felt "safe." I became so “palatable,” agreeable and sanitised that for a long time, I never saw myself — a Black girl from inner city Manchester who once lived for muffled sounds of MCs at UK grime raves —  in any of the work I created. I honestly didn't know that it was possible to be myself at work.
So, when that game-changing advert came on in 2012, on primetime television after X Factor no less, featuring some of the best Grime MCs from the ends, something stirred in me. My entire family clapped and hollered in front of the television. There Jamal was, two years younger than me, achieving what I once thought was unachievable. On his own merit, using a £200 camera gifted to him by his mum Brenda, he helped, as journalist Nadine White writes "legitimise Black British media entrepreneurship" one in which "centred Black culture, before it was fashionable." Even now, as UK rap stars enjoy the fruits of mainstream success, and Youtube exists as a hotbed for Black creatives to thrive, you can still feel the shockwaves from that colossal culture shift.
Like many, I continued to watch and cheer from the sidelines as Jamal Edwards' received his MBE for services to music in 2014; and as he became an ambassador for the Princes Trust, helping to solve the issue of lack of opportunities for young people through employment, education and enterprise.
Amongst all his accolades, it's clear that Jamal Edwards' approach to hard work and success was for something bigger than just himself — something in the age of unrelenting self-promotion can be hard to put into practice. The more he rubbed shoulders with powerful businessmen like Virgin entrepreneur Richard Branson, or American rap stars and even British royalty, he never appeared to stray from his original mission of uplifting those who grew up in inner city neighbourhoods like his own. As Edwards told NME in 2017: “I think it is important for a lot of people to see that no matter where you come from, you can achieve greater things in life."

I carry with me a heavy sense of loss and I mourn someone I never had the pleasure of meeting and yet have been endlessly inspired by.

“‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ is one of my favourite quotes and something I’m trying to live by," he also said, explaining his motivations further to Dummy Magazine. "If we can look at music and culture in the same way, people won’t be told ‘no you can’t do that’, they’ll chase bigger dreams and be free to express themselves how they want. The arts can be the most powerful vehicle for change and should be respected as such."
Since his death, I can’t stop thinking about Jamal Edwards' lasting legacy and the sheer enormity of what he managed to achieve and change by tapping into the unique spirit and creativity of a generation of young people that hadn't yet received its flowers. As he poignantly wrote to his Twitter page, "We all die. The goal isn't to live forever, the goal is to create something that will." Without doubt, he achieved that. I also think about Ed Sheeran's heartfelt Instagram post, shared yesterday morning, describing Edwards as a "light shone so bright. He only used it to illuminate others and never asked for anything in return." And I think, tearfully, of his mum, Brenda Edwards, who spoke of her heartbreak for losing the son she says was an "inspiration to myself and so many."
I first learned about Edwards’ passing a day before I was due to start this position as R29’s Unbothered UK editor to write unapologetically about Black culture, and I was soon reminded why it's so freeing to be able to uplift the people and the various sounds, flavour, voices, experiences of the Black diaspora. Jamal Edwards' reminds me that this is a real privilege and a huge responsibility. And, I carry with me a heavy sense of loss and I mourn someone I never had the pleasure of meeting and yet have been endlessly inspired by. Mostly, I am so grateful that I got to watch  a young Black man from West London make his dreams happen. Following Jamal Edwards’ vigil this week, there's powerful footage of his beloved mum Brenda Edwards singing Whitney Houston's Greatest Love Of All, as crowds of people sing along behind her, symbolically lifting her up. Watching this emotional moment, I couldn't help but think that the community he gave so much to is doing its very best to give back. 

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