New Sensations

‘Men are frustrated right now – we feel misunderstood and misrepresented’: Rapper Jords on masculinity, Black British identity and his debut album

The genre-melding artist sits down with Ellie Muir after releasing his record ‘Dirt In The Diamond’ and securing an executive producer role on a West End show

Sunday 16 July 2023 06:30 BST
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<p>As a schoolboy in Croydon, Wilks grew up listening to grime’s first coming</p>

As a schoolboy in Croydon, Wilks grew up listening to grime’s first coming

That’s my pumpkin there,” says the genre-melding rapper Jords, proudly showing off a picture on his phone of fresh weedlings poking through a patch of soil. “We have pumpkins, callaloos and some potatoes growing,” he beams, reclining on a cracked leather sofa in the back of a dimly lit hotel bar. “I’m having a big harvest!”

The Croydon-bred rapper, born Jordan Edwards-Wilks to Jamaican parents, discovered his green thumb when seeking some solace after the recent release of his buzzy debut album Dirt In The Diamond, a project that fused rap with jazz and R&B. In it, Wilks pays homage to his Jamaican heritage (“Ancestors”) and his family (“Slow Songs”). He proved his grime chops with the 2020 Stormzy-esque banger “Patterned” and does so again on “Drill vs Grime”. Mostly, though, this debut sees Wilks moving slower and smoother; he muses about love on “Beauty Spots” as his gravelly voice purrs over the trap-inflected beat. The album also makes Wilks the first UK rap act to be signed to the American recording label Motown Records, a historic moment, Wilks suggests, worthy of a “trivia question at Christmas dinner”.

As the 28-year-old recounts his introduction to the music world, a somewhat bizarre connection transpires between Wilks and British chain stores beginning with the letter A. For example, Argos is where Wilks’s older brother bought him the £1 microphone he would later use to record his early rap freestyles that went viral online. Meanwhile, it was at Asda when Wilks learnt that his dad, unbeknown to him, had been a successful musician in the Eighties who toured with Sade and Paul Weller. In the Eighties, he performed alongside David Bowie.

“We were in a Manchester Asda and two people came up to my dad and asked, ‘Are you Barry from the Jazz Defektors?” Wilks recalls. He thought his dad had worked in housing. It was reaffirming then, for the budding rapper to know music ran in the family. “He had a very good career, and I didn’t have a clue,” Wilks grins, tucking into the plate of steak and chips balancing on his lap. “Still to this day, he’s not trying to live through me, but he gives me advice when I ask for it.”

As a schoolboy in Croydon, Wilks grew up listening to grime’s first coming, with Ghetts, Wretch 32 and Section Boyz on repeat. He remembers when Krept & Konan released their 2015 track “Don’t Waste My Time” – he and the other aspiring rappers in his area raced to be the first to release a remix. “My freestyles started getting 3,000 or 4,000 views and I would go into college after and everyone was spitting my lyrics back to me,” he says, smiling warmly.

More than a decade later, Wilks’s music has come to encompass that early infatuation with grime, as well as jazz, R&B and elements of drill. What differentiates him from his peers, though, is an eye for detail. To mark the release of his debut album, Wilks released a 20-minute short film. Set within a British Caribbean home in the Seventies during a nine-night ceremony (a Caribbean wake that takes place on the ninth night after a person’s death), the video sees family and friends gather to celebrate the life of a young boy named Isaac. Told in hues of mahogany wood furniture, orange walls, and dark green bell-bottoms, it is a story of grief and community. The work is reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s 2020 Small Axe anthology, which told the stories of West Indian immigrants living in London from the Sixties to the Eighties – a series that continues to inspire Wilks.

We were in a Manchester Asda and two people came up to my dad and asked, ‘Are you Barry from the Jazz Defektors?’

Jords

Isaac’s cause of death is left purposely ambiguous. “It’s not that important,” Wilks tells me. “We kept his death open-ended because there are many things that can kill a Black child in this country. It could be sickle cell [disease]. It could be gang crime. The fact that there are many reasons is more poignant than one thing.” There was similar intention behind Wilks’s decision to wear modern clothing in the video in contrast to everyone else who is dressed in Seventies-style costumes.“I [wanted to] do this in the film, firstly so I’d feel closer to my ancestors because I’m a descendant of the Windrush generation,” he says, trailing off. “But it shows the same cycle… it’s the same s***, nothing has really changed even though the details have changed.”

On the day we speak, Wilks has been confirmed as the executive producer of the West End production PlayFight, which explores the impact of racism on Black boys within the education system. It is Wilks’s first official venture into the world of theatre (aside from his debut as the Artful Dodger in year six). “The show is about growing up as a Black boy with that anger within you,” he says. “It touches on mental health and suicide, too – everything that comes with growing up as a Black boy.”

Wilks’s music has come to encompass his early infatuation with grime, as well as jazz, R&B and elements of drill

Wilks has been brushing up on his theatre knowledge as of late. A recent show that stuck with him was Ryan Calais Cameron’s For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, which follows six Black British men in a group therapy session. “I didn’t wanna go and see it,” Wilks admits. “It took me a long time to decide to go because I think I was afraid of what it might bring up.” When he finally did go, it was cathartic. “There were so many tears. It takes a lot for me to cry in public – I didn’t cry but my missus was bawling. I felt s*** for days afterwards but it’s good to open up about that stuff.”

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Masculinity is something that is often on Wilks’s mind, and in his music. As a self-proclaimed “masculine man”, he is working hard to shake off the ideals of masculinity he was taught growing up. “I think it’s only now that we’re learning [as men] that there is strength in vulnerability,” he tells me. “Men are frustrated right now because we feel misunderstood and misrepresented.” I mention the hoard of influencers who preach a very specific brand of masculinity online that dictates men should be strong and unfeeling. It’s a topic he seems passionate about. “The people that come forward and talk about masculinity this, masculinity that – they don’t even know what they’re talking about. And then men as a whole get judged for these people.”

Alongside music, film and now theatre, he runs a jewellery business and a charity that offers free school uniforms to low-income families. Wilks launched Pickini Uniforms in 2020 after hearing of families in his local area who were struggling to access them. “There was a shop in Croydon where the queues for school uniforms were about five hours long,” he recalls. Initially, Wilks thought he might be able to spin a business out of the demand. “But then I saw Marcus Rashford doing free school meals. Uniforms are crazy expensive and when it gets closer to term time, they’d mark up the prices.” Now, he runs a free school uniforms initiative and partly credits Rashford as inspiration. Lately, though, amid the cost of living crisis, he is struggling to keep up with increasing needs. “Sometimes I’m reading some emails [we receive] and they pull on my heartstrings,” he sighs. “It’s really difficult deciding who we can help.”

Evidently, Wilks is a busy guy. What he is most looking forward to now, though, is getting home to tend to those pumpkins.

Jords’s debut album ‘Dirt In The Diamond’ is out now. ‘PlayFight’ runs at Seven Dials Playhouse to 5 August and he will perform his headline show in London on 17 October at the Jazz Cafe

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