From the moment he decided to go after music, JELEEL! was inevitable. It hardly happened overnight, but his long road to success recently took a significant turn when the artist signed with 10K Projects. The signing happened around five years after he moved to Los Angeles, without a plan, to pursue music full-time. 10K, meanwhile, is the label of digital favorites like Internet Money and Trippie Redd. Like most of their artists, 10K Projects is young and ambitious, but the company is also well funded and able to take big swings, an advantage when attracting buzzy new talent.
And JELEEL! Is just that. After years building an online following with a steady stream of positivity, backflips, and great music, JELEEL! entered the new 10K offices safe in the knowledge that big things await.
“They’ve never seen something like me,” the singer, rapper, and producer says from a seat on the wraparound balcony. There’s a tree canopy leading into the canyon below, and JELEEL!’s voice competes with the chattering birds and neighboring landscapers. He munches thoughtfully on some seaweed, looking out over Hollywood. “They’ve never seen someone that has a big body but a small voice. They say, ‘Oh, he’s too big. He’s just a gimmick, he’s a TikTok artist.’ They don’t consider me a real artist, but they’ll see soon... I’m like, “I’m going to be JELEEL! to the fullest.”
“I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I had a vision. If I kept ripping my shirt and backflipping, screaming, ‘JELEEL!’ on Melrose, someone was going to find out about me.”
That much has always been true. Since embarking on his musical journey in 2018, JELEEL! has been methodical. He first gained traction in college, performing locally in Baltimore and opening for Sean Paul at Loyolapalooza just before graduating. Two weeks later he was in Los Angeles. “I didn’t have a plan,” he says. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I had a vision. If I kept ripping my shirt and backflipping, screaming, ‘JELEEL!’ on Melrose, someone was going to find out about me.”
The first years were hard. There were times JELEEL! didn’t have a place to sleep. Even when his first album, 2019’s Angel from Heaven, generated plenty of interest from labels, “nothing came from it,” JELEEL! says. “Because there was no data, my numbers weren’t there.”
The album still kicked off a period of incredible productivity. The Generation Z EP arrived in 2020, and JELEEL! had a breakthrough moment in 2021 with “Dive In!” The music began to spread, helped no doubt by JELEEL!’s inescapable catch phrase. “JELEEL, YEAH!” began to echo across the internet, and by the time he signed with 10K, JELEEL! was already streaming in the millions.
He has remained composed throughout, with a surety explained by faith. JELEEL! Is soft-spoken, but he speaks with a fervence that cuts through the dry California air. His fans will understand—every JELEEL! song is a supernova of energy and emotion, thumping trap drums trading detonations with huge power chords and bubbly synths. Then the clouds will suddenly part, and a gentle string and synth arrangement will break through. JELEEL!’s voice is at the center of it all, switching easily between the tender and abrasive ends of his vocal range with all the might of someone easily mistaken for a bodybuilder.
The trick lies in balance. It’s a necessary component to a career in music, and essential to landing a backflip. JELEEL! can do both.
He can also rip shirts. It’s all part of the live show, but JELEEL’s energy onstage would fall flat without the innate musical talent. When he started writing and singing, the newness of music paired nicely with JELEEL!’s training mentality established as a student athlete: he was voracious in his musical study, and spent time developing a live show to match the energy of his songs, inspired by the wrestling heroes of his youth. Anyone who’s scene him live can attest: a JELEEL! Show is equal parts music and theater.
Clearly, JELEEL! is leaning into his diversity of talents. Gymnastics is his latest interest, and while it’s still early days, headspins were mentioned.
Do you remember making your first song?
It wasn’t until like four or five years ago—one of my friends was like, “Yo, you’re always saying you want to try some shit.” And I was like, “I want to try some shit.” So I downloaded this app called Rapchat [Laughs], and I did a freestyle over Kid Cudi’s “Day ‘n’ Nite,” and then I was like, “You know what, I’m going to keep trying.”
So after that, I hopped in the studio, made a song, and...I didn’t really like the song. But I was like, “You know what, I’m going to keep trying.” So the next day, I went to the studio and I made something I loved. And I was like, “This is it, I found the music. This is what I want to do.”
It was more like I found my calling, I found my purpose. It’s something you don’t feel every day, but once I felt that that day, it kind of changed my life.
Did that epiphany happen when you were listening back to it for the first time? Or was it when you were in the moment, like in the studio?
I think when I was listening back to it, yeah. When I listened back, I fell in love with it. This is it, this is JELEEL!, this is what I’ve been looking for all my life. I thought I was going to be an athlete, and I still am, but it didn’t work out, so I was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, what does God want me to do?” But I’m happy that I can help so many people.
Was that moment when you added the exclamation point?
I want to say that was a year later, that’s when I started finding JELEEL!
I was thinking of a name to call myself, but I was like, “You know what, I’ll call myself JELEEL, I like my name.” I always loved watching WWE. I loved the UFC extreme sports type shit, so I was like, “I need to find something that’s me.”
So, my mom used to be like, “Jeleel!” She would yell my name. So I was like, “Hm, that would be hard if I was like, “Jeleel, yeah!’” Because I would always hear the melody when my mom yelled it. She didn’t mean to yell it in a melodic way, but I could see the melody. I could see the colors and I could see the sounds too. I don’t know, I heard it and I was like, “Oh, that’s my thing! Jeleel, yeah!” It felt right.
And the reason why I put the exclamation point is because I felt like JELEEL! was explosive, JELEEL! is emphasized! I sing my name, it’s loud, it’s out there, it’s energized. I can’t just put Jeleel, like no. “JELEEL, yeah!” And plus, people be spelling my name J-A-L, it’s J-E-L, so that’s why I do it like that too.
When did you have your first show? Was that in Rhode Island or Baltimore?
Baltimore is where I did my first show. It was like some art gallery. I backflipped. I didn’t rip the shirt but I did backflip. And then later that year, I had opened up at my college for Sean Paul. LoyolaPalooza.
Were you already considering music as a full-time pursuit before that show?
Yeah, even before then, I was like, “I want to do this full-time,” but school was in the way. I opened up for Sean Paul a month later, and two weeks later, I finished school. Moved out to LA right after, no wasted time.
I didn’t have a plan. I don’t know how I was going to do it, but I had a vision if I kept ripping my shirt and back-flipping, screaming, “JELEEL!” on Melrose, someone was going to find out about me. So, I just kept doing it, kept doing it, kept doing it on Instagram, and then people wanted to see if I was a real artist or a gimmick. And I was like, “Okay, I can do that,” so I focused on the music.
“Nothing came from that early attention, because there was no data—my numbers weren’t there. I was just out here struggling, homeless, trying to figure it out. But I always believed that it would come full circle.”
I was still doing like the JELEEL! stuff, but really honed in on the music to show people I really am an artist. Then I dropped my first project, Angel from Heaven, and I got so much feedback. Even labels were interested and trying to sign me. Nothing came from that early attention, because there was no data—my numbers weren’t there. I was just out here struggling, homeless, trying to figure it out. But I always believed that it would come full circle.
There’s a really striking duality to your artistry—people might expect one thing when they see you, but your musicality has always been there, and your voice is so distinct.
They’ve never seen something like me, someone that has a big body, but a small voice. So they say, “Oh, he’s too big. He’s just a gimmick, he’s a TikTok rapper, or a TikTok artist.” They don’t consider me a real artist, but they’ll see soon. It’s like you can’t be big and talented. And I’m like, “Bruh, I can be JELEEL!, I’m going to be JELEEL! to the fullest.” God got a plan. I didn’t know this was going to happen, but I’m happy it’s happening.
You were rocking a Kurt Cobain shirt recently, can you talk about some of your musical influences?
I love Kurt Cobain. I’ve always been that kid that just dove into a lot of different types of music.
How do you listen to music? Do you get obsessed with an artist then listen to everything they ever made, or get really granular an album at a time?
I could be at, I don’t know, CVS and hear something over the speakers, and I’m like, “Oh, I like that.” I have an eclectic taste, Every artist has different sauces and different styles. I loved the Sum 41 dudes because they were on that non-conformist type shit. They were just positive still, it wasn’t on the evil energy, it was just on some, “I’m going to be me, and fuck what you think,” type shit. I like them a lot.
I love listening to Foster the People, and Passion Pit, and Kid Cudi, and a lot of different people. I love DMX, DMX my favorite rapper. I feel like me and him share that raw energy, but he was a little bit more darker during his prime.
I like Weezer because they just looked quirky, but they made some dope shit. I wasn’t taking styles from people, I kind of just listen and be like, “Damn, this is how they do their thing.”
I want to ask about “Uncivilized” and “Clubhouse,” these next two songs that are coming up.
“Clubhouse,” was me and the homie DV. I pulled up, and I was cooking up some melodies, because I produce too. I added some melodies, and DV added some 808s to make the bass knock. But I didn’t want to sing on it, because it was a little too happy, and I was like, “Maybe if I mix it up, sing on it and rap, just do something different?”
While I was on the way to the studio, I was just rapping—just a different type of flow, it was more like a U.K. flow. I was like, “I’m going to do that, and I’m going to just try to freak it.” I just had fun, I wasn’t even thinking about it. I wasn’t trying to be too intentional with it.
I was going to ask if that’s you rapping there, it’s a new side of you.
Yeah, I think it’s good to show people the versatility. That’s why I’m dropping “Clubhouse,” and then “Uncivilized” is more on some raw vibes. It’s more of a headbanger. At first I was like, I always knew in that song, people would gravitate towards it, because I tested it on TikTok, the “Go” part, and everybody was just like, “Yo!” They were so happy. Which one do you like better?
I think I’ve been playing “Clubhouse” more.
Yeah, yeah. “Clubhouse” is safer. It’s so weird to hear me rap but “Clubhouse” is such a fun song, you know what I mean? It’s comfortable, it feels good when you listen to it.
“When you build something from scratch, it’s going to be strong, it’s going to be sturdy. When you try to fabricate it and finesse it, it’s not going to be strong. It’s going to fall.”
What are you doing differently in these 2022 sessions? Compared to when you were making those first songs.
Probably being more patient, because usually when I cook up, I’ll be trying to go too fast, but sometimes you got to sit back and hear it, and just relax, and take your time with it. But sometimes, it comes like that [snaps]. So, right now I’m just being patient, trying to put out the best shit, that’s all.
What’s a day in the L.A. life of JELEEL! look like? Are you still doing MMA in the morning?
I wake up, I pray, and then some days I’ll go to MMA and then come back, take a shower, get some food, eat, and then I go to the studio.
What’s in your breakfast rotation?
Probably a protein smoothie, and then eggs. I need the protein bro, I got to keep on brand. So then I come back, I go to the studio, bust out a couple TikToks, and then I’ll go to gymnastics. I started doing gymnastics because I want to get my flexibility, and I want to add more to my performance. So hopefully you’re going to see me doing tumbles and headspins while I’m performing.
Maybe bring a pommel horse on stage?
That would be hard. I just want to just do some different shit. I’m trying to balance. It’s not always music, music, music. You’ve got to have a balance. I feel like a lot of people, a lot of artists don’t have that balance. It’s not always MMA every day if I don’t want to, I can go to the gym and just put out some reps.
I want to ask about something you said earlier, about keeping “on brand” with regard to the breakfast of eggs and protein shakes. We talked a little about pushing back against people classifying you because of how you look—do you get tired of people talking about your body?
No, because that’s how God blessed me. I’m blessed. The body is just something that’s of this life, you’re not going to take it with you when you die. But I’m thankful, I try to keep it healthy. I mean, I love the build I am, so I never really get annoyed, I’m super happy about how God blessed me.
Life is crazy. It’s weird because every day feels like a dream.
It feels and sounds like you’ve just been working really hard ever since you started making music. But recently you’ve started getting much more attention and coverage—do you attribute that to anything in particular? When did it feel like things were starting to click?
God’s timing is the best time, but regardless, I’m still working to push my shit. I recently signed to 10K, so obviously they’re going to help push me now. But I’ll push myself into it, whether label or no label, so I’m happy, man.
I was already kind of already even going up on TikTok. And then South by Southwest, that was before I even signed. I feel like people don’t want to believe that they could do it too. I’m not saying, “Don’t sign.” Sign, but make sure you’re comfortable with who you want to sign with, for one. And two, make sure that you build a cult-like fan base, build some people that appreciate you. When you build something from scratch, it’s going to be strong, it’s going to be sturdy. When you try to fabricate it and finesse it, it’s not going to be strong. It’s going to fall. So I would say, people just need to believe in themselves more, and really try to be themselves too. Too many people want to be other people, especially in LA. [Laughs]
I don’t care, I’ll rip my shirt to till the day I die. That’s being JELEEL! and I’m not dying early. I’m going to live a long life in my spirit. Amen.