The legacy of Jamal Edwards MBE who changed UK music forever
This Sunday the world said goodbye to Jamal Edwards, a pivotal figure in the evolution of British music, who brought the sound of London into the global mainstream.
The British music entrepreneur Jamal Edwards died of a sudden illness, aged 31, his mother Brenda Edwards has confirmed.
Jamal Edwards MBE was a British entrepreneur, author, director, DJ, and founder of the online urban music platform SBTV. He was born in Luton, England, and spent his early years there before moving to Acton, West London, where he lived with his mother, stepfather and sister.
The loss of the SBTV founder, who helped launch the careers of artists including Stormzy, Dave, and Lady Leshurr, to name but a few, has left a hole in the hearts of millions. As well as his musical talent, Jamal used his fame to raise awareness about mental health, and achieved an MBA, PhD and MBE amongst many other awards. He was awarded his MBE in 2014 for his services to music.
Edwards’ career began in the Noughties, when he was given a video camera by his mum, Loose Women presenter Brenda Edwards. An aspiring MC himself, performing under the name Smokey Barz – which would later lend its initials to his world-famous YouTube channel – and inspired by the burgeoning grime scene, Edwards began filming freestyles from local musicians on his west London estate.
This in itself wasn’t a revolutionary act; duelling MCs captured on grainy handheld cameras was a staple of early grime. But it was what Edwards did with his footage that marked him out as a visionary. Whereas before those videos were put onto DVDs and doled out hand-to-hand, Edwards posted his stuff on YouTube, opening it all up to an audience far beyond the M25.
Edwards’ channel showed grime at its purest, it was democratic in the sense that anyone with an internet connection could log on to check out the best new talent, and most importantly, it managed to side-step the stifling and restrictive risk assessment forms (Form 696) that were being used by the Metropolitan Police to shut down in-person grime shows.
Despite its for-the-people mantra, the channel was strict in terms of quality assurance, if you wanted your time in the spotlight, you had to be good. This combination of accessibility and quality catapulted SBTV in its success, and they were soon joined by other trailblazing YouTube channels – GRM Daily and Link Up TV – and by the end of the Noughties, any up-and-coming MC with aspirations of making it big would begin with a feature on at least one of them.
SBTV was home to some truly iconic moments; videos that would become landmarks of music history. Most notably was the Ed Sheeran video, the fresh-faced ginger-haired 19-year-old rapped along with his loop pedal, before it was posted on to the channel. The five-minute clip went viral, and the teenager featured – Ed Sheeran – who was unknown at the time, was catapulted towards the global mega stardom of today.
In 2012, Edwards SBTV also posted the iconic freestyle from Boy Better Know (the grime collective featuring Skepta, JME, Wiley and others) which marked the channel surpassing 100 million views. Amongst this, there were scores of hugely popular videos featuring the stars of tomorrow: #Stormzy, Dave, Krept and Konan, AJ Tracey, Lady Leshurr, J Hus, Headie One, the list goes on…
Edwards’ unwavering support of the scene he loved was, as it turned out, him laying the foundations for a musical movement that would upturn UK culture in the 2010s. Grime and UK rap would go onto shape the charts, fashion, TV, film and more, and every one of its major successes — whether that was Stormzy headlining Glastonbury, or Headie One taking drill music to the Number 1 spot — can be traced back in some way to Edwards’ influence.
Of course, his impact on music is just one facet of his legacy. In November 2021 the grass roots urban art project Acton Unframed paid tribute to Edwards in the form of a large-scale mosaic mural. The artwork is a testament to his work with young people in the area where he set-up four youth clubs, via the charity he founded in 2018, JE Delve. Much like SBTV, JE Delve started life with Edwards and his computer. As he said at the time, “there was a lot of hustling… even trying to get a conversation with the people that owned the buildings or the housing association. I spent a lot of time on LinkedIn finding senior people to talk to and guessing their emails.” Undeterred, he went on to secure funding from Google and the Wellcome Trust. JE Delve builds on years of philanthropy that Edwards was involved in via the Prince’s Trust, Prince Charles’ youth charity which helps young people start their own businesses — and for which Edwards was an ambassador.
Tributes have been flooding in for the music mogul who passed at 31.
AJ Tracey wrote: “RIP Jamal Edwards, West London legend status”, while Dave added: “Thank you for everything. Words can’t explain”.
The organisers of the MOBO Awards said they were “deeply saddened” by news of Edwards’ death.
They continued: “As the founder of @SBTVonline, his groundbreaking work & legacy in British music and culture will live on. Our hearts and thoughts are with his friends and family.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan also joined in the tributes, writing on Twitter that the British music and entertainment scene had “has lost one of its brightest stars”.