Jamal Edwards has been a crucial figure in the most significant development in British pop music over the past decade: the rise of black British artists to mainstream dominance. An entrepreneur of boundless energy and determination, his death at the age of 31 following an undisclosed illness caused a shock. Among those who paid tribute were the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who lamented that British music had “lost one of its brightest stars”, and the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, who described him as “an inspiration to so many young people”.
“Whether you want to be a lawyer, a musician or a footballer, I want to help connect the dots,” Edwards told GQ Magazine in 2019. The first of his own came with acquiring a cheap cellphone with video abilities when he was a teenager in Acton, West London. “I started filming wildlife in my backyard, foxes and such,” he explained. But then he moved on to another staple: his hometown grime scene, London’s version of rap music.
Coming from showbiz – his mother Brenda Edwards is a singer, West End actress and TV personality – he started rapping under the name SmokeyBarz. He also filmed other aspiring rappers and grime MCs, uploading the videos to a YouTube account he named SBTV. Founded in 2006, while still in school, it became an important platform for bringing unknown acts to a wider audience.
SBTV, named after Edwards’ rap handle SmokeyBarz, tapped into a budding market. Unlike the comedic videos of pets or people falling that proliferated on YouTube at the time, this anticipated the social media giant’s shift to music streaming. The cell phone Edwards used to film the rappers was mirrored by the smartphones people watched his uploads with as the channel’s viewership grew in the 2010s.
This mode of distribution emerged outside the workings of the traditional music industry. “Everyone was looking at me like ‘what the hell are you doing, like you can compete with these big companies,'” he said in 2014. Similarly, acts that appeared on SBTV tended to lack support from record companies.
Grime, who formed in east London in the early 2000s, took root as an underground scene. There has been sporadic recognition of its importance as a distinctive new form of black British music, such as Dizzee Rascal’s victory in the 2003 Mercury Music Prize for his album. boy in a corner. But the genre has been denied consistent industry support. He also faced hostility from the police, with concerts frequently being closed or canceled under the auspices of a notorious licensing document bearing the Orwellian name of Form 696.
SBTV was part of a larger network that maintained the grime, a loosely linked infrastructure of pirate radio stations, online streamers and raves. But Edwards’ YouTube channel has also been a bridgehead towards mainstream acceptance of the genre. In 2014, when invited to Buckingham Palace at an event for inspirational young people, he posed with Princes William and Harry for what was billed as the first royal selfie. Later that year he was awarded an MBE for services to music.
Although Edwards championed grime, a local music scene, he was no parochial. His eye for talent extended to other genres. Rappers such as Stormzy and Dave made appearances as newcomers to SBTV. The same goes for pop artists such as Jessie J and Emeli Sande. Edwards filmed Ed Sheeran performing his song “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” in 2010, a year before the singer-songwriter’s first hit. It launched a close friendship between the pair.
In 2013, SBTV received an investment of £8 million from private equity firm Miroma. SBTV currently has over 1.2 million subscribers and has garnered nearly a billion views. Not content to rest on his laurels, Edwards has used his success on YouTube as a springboard for many other pursuits, from modeling clothes to running a record label and writing a bestselling book on Self-confidence. He created a news channel SBTV with the Press Association, spoke at schools and campaigned on issues such as men’s mental health.
Edwards combined entrepreneurial acumen with a strong sense of social justice. Programs such as Jamal Edwards Delve, a charity that runs youth clubs in his hometown of Ealing in London, showed that he never lost sight of the threads that connected him to his childhood, he was filming rappers who were struggling to get heard elsewhere.