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JeshiPhotography Francis Plummer

Jeshi, the UK rapper confronting class and the cost of living crisis

‘I’m trying to paint what normality really looks like for most people in this country,’ says the east London MC as his debut album Universal Credit is released

Classism in UK is no news to east London MC Jeshi. Nor is it, for that matter, a discovery for the rest of us. It’s a social issue that continues to plague the country and one that Jeshi’s debut album Universal Credit aims to confront head-on. “I’m here to be brutally honest,” says the 27-year-old. “I know what it’s like to be broke as fuck and I’m not afraid to admit it.”

A follow-up to his 2020 EPs BAD TASTE and The Worlds Spinning Too Fast, the album speaks to Jeshi’s own experiences growing up poor and the frustrating stigmas around people who rely on benefits. “It’s so interesting. Through the pandemic, most people were essentially on benefits. They were on furlough and getting help from the government due to a situation that was out of their control. But when that same thing applies to people outside the pandemic, they feel so strongly about financial situations being in your own control,” he says. “That’s when we get the ‘why don’t you just get a job?’ or ‘you’re a scrounger’, when the truth is that you don’t know anything about those people’s lives and the things they may have to deal with.”

These judgments – often based on ignorance and fuelled by stereotypes and capitalistic mentalities – are inherent in British society, ironically among those who have never had to worry about their own financial circumstances. “It’s very easy to stand on the outside and say, ‘get up, brush yourself off and keep walking.’ Some people can do that but not everyone can or has the means to do so,” Jeshi says, having witnessed the mental, emotional and often logistical challenges that come with financial hardship first-hand. “Too many people have a very simplistic way of thinking when it comes to this.”

Raised on a diet of 90s rap and 00s grime, Jeshi began making music as a pastime with his friends when he was 12, recording at home with beats they’ve found on the internet, and sharing their tracks on MySpace and MSN. “I never really had any aspirations or visions of what I wanted to do growing up but as soon as I started making those little songs with my friends I thought this is sick,” he recalls. “I just thought it was so amazing that you could create things without many resources or money or industry contacts. You just needed your computer and a microphone.” Jeshi used a similar stripped-back method when writing and recording Universal Credit during the pandemic while working a job he hated. “That was the most challenging thing,” he says, reflecting back on the time. “I would be creating all these songs and thinking yes, this is it. Then have to go to work at my shit job in between. There was nothing more humbling than that.”

Throughout the album, Jeshi paints a vivid picture of life in London with an original sound that mixes the adrenaline of UK drill with the raw storytelling of old-school hip hop. On “Violence”, one of two songs on the album with Nigerian vocalist Obongjayar, he lays bare the emotional toll of needless deaths in his community in a way that sticks, while “Two Mums” represents a loving tribute to non-traditional family set-ups. Then there’s “National Lottery” – the album’s final track and Jeshi’s personal favourite. The song voices relatable feelings of defeat at a system that often feels stacked against him while addressing the draining realities of empty promises made to himself. “Tired of handouts/Need a new plan now,” he raps over a mellow beat, before later yearning for the simplicities of childhood: “Take me back to Art Attack at my nan’s house/Crashing back down/Blockbuster rentals, I forgot to bring them back round.

“The one thing I wanted is for people to resonate with what I’m actually talking about on the album. I’m highlighting some really negative things but it’s not in a ‘boo hoo, my life is so hard’ way, it’s about looking at those situations and empowering them,” he explains. “I’m like fuck it, that is my situation right now but it doesn’t define who I am as a person and it’s not going to pin me down. Life is not going to crush me.”

His social commentary is weaved in between more carefree tracks like “3210” and “Another Cigarette”, in which he poetically reminisces on wild nights out (the kind that end in disaster). Meanwhile “Generations” keeps it frank about the societal pressures on young people and our unhealthy habit of keeping up appearances on social media. “People feel so ashamed to not be exactly where they want to be in life. It’s something I think about a lot,” he says. “No matter what you’re doing, you’re always looking at other things or people who you think are doing better. They have a better car or a better job and all of a sudden what you have isn’t enough. Making this album really helped me fully accept myself and where I am in life and I hope that it can do that for others too, especially young people. It’s no coincides that Gen Z are the most switched-on generation but also the most fucked up mentally. Your youth should be spent carefree and they just haven’t had that chance like previous generations have.”

What differentiates Jeshi from his peers right now is his refreshing ability to be himself completely unapologetically, in a world that tries so hard to merge reality with some contrived notion of perfection. His talent alongside his willingness to step into the uncomfortable has set him on track to become an era-defining artist who will always do things on his own terms. “I think what I’m doing right now stands out because it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into it,” he says. “I’m trying to paint what normality really looks like for most people in this country. Rap is often about presenting this preconceived version of yourself. You’re the cool guy who has all the money and all the girls,  and while I love that type of music, I want to dive a little bit deeper into the reality of my life and give more of myself through the music.”

More than anything, he wants people to understand the essence of empathy and grace not only for others but for themselves… “No one has a perfect set of cards they’ve been dealt in life,” says Jeshi. “All humans face struggle and pain and though it may be in different degrees, none of us are immune to it. If the last two years has taught us anything, it’s that no one is safe from hardship so just don’t look down on people.”