Words by:
Photography: Sami Zubri
Styling: Gloria Iyare
Hair: Tariq Howes

Jeshi’s exuberant laugh fills the room as he discovers the meaning of the word ‘cathartic’. The 27-year-old is leaning back in his chair, having just wrapped up the Crack Magazine photoshoot. He had been searching for a precise description of how he feels about releasing his debut album, Universal Credit – and now he’s found it.

The east London artist is unreserved and chatty, his answers becoming pathways to other stories. It’s clear that he has a lot to say and that we should be listening closely – especially when he’s talking about the sociopolitical subject matter behind Universal Credit. A project that aims to demystify the lives of those in need of government welfare, it’s an affecting meditation on how state-inflicted poverty shapes, and destroys, lives, set to fittingly jagged production.

Top: Song for the Mute, T-shirt: Bantu Wax, Trousers: Carhartt WIP, Shoes: Nike

“£324 and 87p. What the fuck can you do with that?” he sneers, criticising the paltry benefit payments he currently receives. “In London, if you have a family, that’s your monthly groceries. That’s it. People act like [those on benefits] are winning, like they’ve got the easy ride. It’s very easy to throw stones when you don’t know people’s situations.”

Jeshi was raised in Walthamstow by his mum and nan, both of whom have claimed benefits at one time or another. He experienced daily struggles while Tory mouthpieces denigrate those who received government support, blaming them for high taxes. He went to school with individuals from “a different class bracket”, while he lost close friends to needless street violence after turning to crime out of necessity. During this time, Jeshi sought refuge in music, playing the piano briefly while trading verses with friends and eventually releasing three EPs: Pussy Palace (2016), The Worlds Spinning Too Fast (2017) and Bad Taste (2020).

The latter in particular marked the rapper as a rising talent. Backed by swirling electronics underpinned by sped-up vocal samples and infectious percussive rhythms, Jeshi’s raps land with a piercing clarity. Bad Taste was also an early indicator of his taste for experimenting, his dextrous wordplay smoothly riding Afrobeats rhythms, dark R&B beats and East Coast rap production. But despite constantly challenging himself musically, he still felt like he wasn’t giving it his all. “I thought, ‘What would be the hardest thing to write about?’” Jeshi says of the creative process behind Universal Credit. “Those are the moments that people will connect with the most. Anything too easy isn’t good. I sat down and thought about who I love and why I love them.”

Jacket: Carhartt WIP, Trousers: Diesel, Shoes: Nike

Universal Credit was written during the height of the pandemic, at a point when Jeshi felt creatively stifled. He saw millions in the UK receiving government support through furlough schemes, and wondered how they were any different to those receiving benefits from the same government. That’s when the rapper realised he needed to dig deep into his own personal history to bring the album to life.

Themes of working-class struggle weave themselves throughout the fabric of Universal Credit, bolstered by sobering political commentary and anthemic, straight-talking rap. “Keep leaving lights on/ Electric bill getting bad/ Seeing my nan/ Train to Southend/ Picking cigarettes out the sand,” he spits on Hit By a Train. Over slinky pianos and boom-bap beats, Jeshi and R&B singer Fredwave trade verses on Another Cigarette, detailing a boisterous night out. Violence, one of two songs written in collaboration with Nigerian artist Obongjayar, discusses the fallout from needless death and brutality in east London, while on Generation, Jeshi succinctly describes the frustrations of young people over warm bass lines and lean drum rolls: “Generation fucked up/ Generation on pills/ Generation unloved/ Generation sit home on your phone ‘til you feel who you are ain’t enough.”

Jewellery: Artist’s own, Top: Paul Smith, Trousers: Diesel, Shoes: Nike

“It’s going to get worse,” he says of the future of his hometown. “London is a cut-throat place built for people with money. Everything is getting more expensive but people don’t get paid more. If you’re working five days a week anywhere, doing anything, you should be able to buy a house. The government acts like they’re doing something, but all they’ve done is take 20 away and give back 15. We’re still losing.”

And yet, tucked into the hard-hitting social critique, there are also flecks of joy. The album cover art, which features an image of Jeshi accepting government money via a huge lottery winner-style cheque, is a nod to finding pockets of happiness among the pain. “I wanted it to be humorous,” he smiles. “I’m sitting here as a man with no answers, but I’m holding the mirror up a little bit, too.”

He might not have any answers, but he does know that he must speak up for those caught up in the daily grind of life. “I wanted to talk about the streets,” he says. “When I say the streets, I mean real life shit: taking the night bus home after work, the noise of all that, and these nuances of everyday life that would breed familiarity for people listening and watching.”

Top: Song for the Mute, T-shirt: Bantu Wax, Trousers: Carhartt WIP, Shoes: Nike

This down-to-earth sensibility reveals itself in his personal aesthetic, too. His jewellery, clothing and shoes are stylishly understated, but if you pay closer attention, you’ll catch the subtle glint off his gold chains, the crispness of his unscuffed white trainers, or the intricate embroidery on his patched jeans. It’s hard not to feel like it’s a physical extension of his ethos: the desire to create harmony between seemingly disparate worlds for a more unified society. Just don’t call him a conscious rapper.

“I hate the term conscious rap,” he admits. “Because we’re all conscious. I’m not here to demonise people who are involved in [violence]. I know it’s hard and I know how you ended up there. I have nothing but sympathy. But at the same time, to pretend that I have no attachment to that wouldn’t be true. With Universal Credit, I was trying to straddle the line between these two worlds that are pitted against each other.”

Jacket: Carhartt Wip, T-shirt: Bantuwax, Jewellery: Artist’s own, Trousers: Carhartt Wip, Shoes: Nike ACG

Similarly, the duality of his surroundings growing up – like million-pound homes sitting side-by-side with council estates, or wealthy kids sharing classrooms with those whose parents are on benefits – has provided Jeshi with the knowledge to speak about these issues. As a working-class artist, it’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly.

“We can all help each other,” he says with palpable hope in his voice. Creating Universal Credit, he explains, has given him a sense of freedom unlike anything else – and he hopes to elicit the same reaction from listeners. Most of all, though, he wishes for those in privileged positions to try and understand the plight of millions across Britain. “I want to be able to represent these people,” he concludes, “and tell stories that aren’t being told.”

Universal Credit is out now via Because Music