Photo: Black Butter/Sony UK.

Interview: JAE5 Is Crafting London's Distinct Diasporic Sound

We talk to the buzzing producer about his Grammy win alongside Burna Boy, his work with J Hus and the ever-looming influence of Ghana.

When tales about the origins of hip-hop come into the cypher, the hyperfocus is almost always about the culture being born out of a unique and profound struggle that centers Black and Indigenous youth in the Bronx. First and second generational youth with roots in both the English and Spanish-speaking Caribbean, who in spite of their deteriorating environment — at the time some of the most impoverished streets in North America — learned to harness the power of creative ingenuity as a form of survival.

We can, arguably, deduce then that the original purveyors of this music that was made from scratch — quite literally — weren't actually intending on making music that could speak for or represent a people and their stories. No. I'd wager the first DJs worrying the vinyls on Uptown blocks, and the first MCs spitting outside corner bodegas were simply living, relishing in the little joy they could manifest for themselves. Two-stepping and waving braggadocio hands in the few darkened spaces that welcomed them.

For JAE5(born Jonathan Mensah) one of today's most prolific producers on the other side of the Atlantic, creating a fresh UK sound that in many ways is an expression of contemporary African British youth, it was not intentional. It was simply inevitable.

"I lived in Ghana for three years. J Hus grew up around a lot of Ghanaians. All of our friends are African and our parents are African," he shares. "So even when we were trying to make music from the UK, it would always have an African influence because that's what we grew up listening to and that's who we are. So I don't think anything was intentional. It's what it is."

With origins in Ghana and a coming-of-age set in London, JAE5 first became known as the genre-splicing beat machine behind J Hus' intoxicating songs, including the summer smash of 2017 "Did You See" off his Common Sense album. Having executive produced J Hus' entire debut album, JAE5 made a name for himself as the East Londoner developing a distinct diasporic sound combining elements of hip-hop, afrobeats and afro-fusion.

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12 Songs That Make Us Extremely Proud To Be African

Africa is home to some of the most rhythmic sounds. What better way to celebrate #AfricaDay than with a playlist that captures the continent's essence.

Africa Day, celebrated annually on May 25, was first established to mark the day on which the Organisation of African Unity (African Union) was founded 58 years ago in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The day, however, has evolved into one of deep reflection on the strides our continent has made, while also serving as a reminder to stay committed to our peace and unity goals, as well as finding solutions to the deep-seated challenges that continue to plague the continent.

To celebrate #AfricaDay in song, we asked 12 of our contributors to each share a song, by an African artist, that makes them stand tall to be African. Find their varied selections below!

Wizkid​​, "​​​​Ojuelegba" — selected by Ifeoluwa James Falola ​​

"For many on the streets of Lagos and beyond, "Ojuelegba" excellently describes the hustle inherent within us as Africans, and our constant quest for a better life while momentarily wanting to have a good time. "Ojuelegba" is a hallmark of the global emergence of African music. The Legendury Beatz-produced song was pivotal in the 'Africa To The World Movement', eventually accruing a Drake and Skepta co-sign. If anything, you would always remember where you were when you first heard "Ojuelegba" or how it made you feel. "Ojuelegba" is a representation of dreams coming true, regardless of how wild they are!"

Capso, “Afrika” — selected by Mayuyuka Kaunda

"For a Botswana-born, South Africa-educated Malawian, this song has always struck a chord with me. Between Capso's rapfrobeat — a combination of groovy rhythms and poetic lyricism — "Afrika" embodies the eternal optimism of a continent. No matter my physical address or area code, "Afrika" continues to serve as the soundtrack to my feeling at home."

Burna Boy, “Dangote” — selected by Olabode Otolorin

"When Burna Boy dropped "Dangote" in 2019, it was a reflection of the different realities present in individual and families lives — the difficulties, the striving, the hunger. But amidst all, it restates that we Africans (at every income class), are fueled by our money-making desire. On this hit, Burna Boy references the continent's wealthiest figure Aliko Dangote, reminding us of his insatiable craving — to accumulate more wealth."

Tems, “Free Mind” — selected by Nasir Ahmed Achile

"Tems chronicles the inner dialogue of a mind searching for peace. It's a condition, I believe, many young Africans trying to flourish today can relate to, amidst experiences of oppression around the world. Tems' vocal prowess on this track, and everywhere else, makes me proud to be African."

Wizkid, “Blessed” — selected by Wale Oloworekende

"The world that Wizkid's "Blessed" came to exist in was, in fact, very stressful. But in a year when we had to deal with the fallout of a pandemic, socially-distanced living, Nigeria's sobering realities of police brutality, and violence against women and marginalised communities, the song was a potent reminder of music's capacity to be a salve for difficult times. The opening vocals of a woman advertising her ware on "Blessed" also instantly transports any true Lagosian to the indomitable pulse of the city — and the familiarity feels warm."

Focalistic and Davido featuring Vigro Deep, “Ke Star [Remix]” — selected by Madzadza Miya

"Ke Star Remix" is a feel good song, with underlying messaging of self-confidence that makes me proud to be African. By roping Davido in for the remix, there's an immediate cultural exchange that occurs — the cross-pollination of sounds blurs the disconnect that sometimes exists between South Africa and Nigeria. Though they come from different backgrounds, what both Focalistic and Davido stand for as artists is similar, being authentic to themselves and putting that across their music. Both artists embody the spirit of Ubuntu, the idea that a person is a person because of others. I love how these two are always sending the elevator down to other emerging artists."

Tsepo Tshola, "Nonyana" — selected by Sekese Rasephei

"Nonyana" (a Sesotho word meaning bird) tells the story of a farmer lamenting the destruction of his produce on account of wild birds feeding on it. Hardly the most ideal circumstance for a farmer because as Africans, one of the things we're renowned for is working hard on our arable land to provide food for our families. Tsepo Tshola's lyrical prowess turns a normal, every day occurrence into a heartfelt yet enjoyable song, reminding us that as Africans, we know how to find joy even in our misery."

Angelique Kidjo, “Bahia” — Ciku Kameria

"The entire Black Ivory Soul album is amazing, but I especially love this song because Kidjo connects the story of Africans with that of our brothers and sisters around the world. As an African, I feel a strong sense of kinship with Black people the world over, and wish for more opportunities for cultural exchanges. This album propelled me to travel to Bahia, Brazil and where I felt at home as soon as I arrived. I almost didn't leave a month later [chuckles]. It ignited my desire to learn more about the experiences of Black people worldwide."

Johnny Drille, “Bad Dancer” — selected by Tochi Louis

"The percussion, piano and violin laced in this record assists with evoking a hopeless romantic's daydream. It's interesting to see a record by an African artist spark such an affection amongst listeners around the world, in the same way that a John Legend number would. Also, it doesn't get better than Drille writing, producing and engineering the record himself. Everyone deserves to witness the magic that is this record, as well as the diversity in our sonic palette as Africans."

J Hus, “Spirit” — selected by Bakang Akoonyatse

"Lyrically, "Spirit" is a solid starting point where J Hus' work truly began to explore themes of spirituality, ancestral veneration and how this relates to being Black in a white supremacist and capitalist society, covered in his critically-acclaimed follow-up album, Big Conspiracy. J Hus makes music for individuals who traverse modern and old worlds because, truly, the future is about finding a balance between our identities and circumstances — and understanding how one relates to the other."

Zoë Modiga, “Isegazini” — selected by Kemong Mopedi

"On "Isegazini", off South African jazz artist Zoë Modiga's sophomore album Inganekwane, she waxes lyrical about a certain inherent trait — one that flows in a person's bloodstream. The beauty about music is that we can dissect it to our liking and understanding. For me, the trait Zoë so passionately sings about is humanity. Every corner of our continent that I have visited, previously, has always felt like home — and it can only be due to our intrinsic warmth and welcoming spirit!"

Fatoumata Diawara, “Nterini” — selected by Nelson Charity John

""Nterini" has a delectable vibe that sets it apart from many sounds coming out of Africa today. Although the song is an ode of sorts to an absent love, Malian actress and singer Diawara manages to make it a song that holds very distinct spaces and interpretations to listeners. It's also the perfect song to show off Africa's diverse musical cannon, away from known, contemporary sounds."

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