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JELEEL! Interview: Rap’s caps-locked rising star embodies ‘REAL RAW’ energy

All photos courtesy of John Cotter.

JELEEL!‘s been back-flipping for years — and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

Ever since gaining widespread attention for his relentless vocal and physical energy exuded on 2021’s “DIVE IN!” and “JELEEL JUICE!”, the caps-locked superstar has made it his mission to keep the foot on the gas. The music has just getting better and more dynamic with 2022’s “RAIN ON YOU!,” “CLUBHOUSE!” and “SHOTS!” with Denzel Curry just being a taste of what JELEEL!’s been exponentially building as an artist and performer.

The Pawtucket, Rhode Island native has likely been on your radar for a while now though, with his performative antics not only making him impossible to miss across various social media timelines, but also layering his persona with idiosyncratic deliberation. It’s almost contradictory to label his enigmatic stage presence — from deadlifting audience members to getting into the crowd himself — as “antics,” with that suggesting that it’s a distraction. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s an integral part of the JELEEL! experience, which I got a glimpse at during Restless Fest at SXSW 2023.

Right as DC The Don was set to take the stage, I scurried over to a shaded area outside of the VIP tent and prepared for our conversation. Straight out of a neo-noir flick, I see a mountainous silhouette slowly approach and greet me with infectious enthusiasm.

It’s safe to say I was excited. I chatted with the “GNARLY!” artist about his recent collaborative work with Armani White, what the backflips mean to him, and diving into new genres on his upcoming debut album REAL RAW (due out May 5), and upcoming headlining tour.

Read our full conversation below!

A ‘REAL RAW’ chat with JELEEL!

JC: When you started off, you felt like you had to do these theatrics. Like, take your shirt off and do a flip. Now, it almost feels like it’s a sign of success for you. When you do it during a show, it’s something that everyone looks forward to. Does the backflip mean something different to you now than it did when you started out?

JELEEL!: No, I feel like the backflip has always been me. You know, as a kid, I was always flipping. It’s a part of JELEEL!, JELEEL! has always been flipping. It’s never been anything different. It’s aways been me, you know?

JC: As both a music journalist and a listener, it feels like you’re someone who’s individualistic. I couldn’t pair you on a track with someone else because I don’t know how they’d fair against your vocal range and excitement that you embody on all of your tracks. But, we saw that change with “Gnarly”…

JELEEL!: You like “GNARLY!”?

JC: I love “GNARLY!”. You and Armani support each other perfectly on the track. What went into your decision to collaborate on that track, especially considering a lot of your music rides solo, and does so very well?

JELEEL!: Armani is a homie, and I respect what he’s doing; I’m a fan of what he’s doing. We met up and I felt like he was the right person. You know what I mean? Like, he had a big song, “Billie Eilish,” he has another song “GOATED” that’s going crazy. So, I was just like, “you know, why not collab with other people? Whether they’re in the underground scene or not.” So, it was dope. He’s a dope artist and that felt right.

JC: (“GNARLY!”) really has me excited for your new music that’s potentially coming soon. It’s been years since we’ve gotten an album, I’m wondering if you have anything to share on that? Or any music you’ve made that you’re excited about?

JELEEL!: Yeah, I’m excited! I’m actually going to perform three new songs tonight [he did]. I’m excited, I’m ready to go, and I just can’t wait to show people my new music. It’s all different types of ranges and vibes, it’s not just one note. You might see Afrobeat JELEEL! on the new project too.

JC: That’s what I like to hear, new genres coming in and influencing your sound.

JELEEL!: And I’m doing it well, too. You’ll see bro, trust.

JC: When you say you’re doing it well, what does that mean to you? Is it understanding the influences and things like that?

JELEEL!: It means, I’m doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well, I’m doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well! Nah, it means me coming from that type of style. I’m an African, I love Afrobeat, and I’ve always been making Afrobeat since the world never knew about me. I’ve always been doing different stuff since I was born. I like to make fun stuff, I like to make people happy.

JC: You make me happy!