JELEEL! Just Wants to Be Seen
Story by Josh Svetz / Photography by Cian Moore / Styling by Christopher Smith / Grooming by Amanda Wilson / Set design by Oisin Moore
JELEEL! knows what people think of him. The rapper, built like a fighter from Baki The Grappler, accepted long ago that his big size and even bigger energy — not to mention the eye-popping backflips — could get him labeled as a gimmick. But to JELEEL!, born Abdul Jeleel Yussuf, none of that matters as long as people pay attention. “I was doing anything to get my name out,” JELEEL! explains. “I remember before I even met with Zane Lowe, I seen him on Melrose Ave. I ran up on him like, ‘Yo, bro, I'm an artist.’ I was doing everything I could just to get my music out, just to get people to notice me.”
A product of his generation, JELEEL! is all too familiar with the potential rewards of “doing it for the views.” Growing up in a time where rappers such as BoonkGang and 6ix9ine became viral stars off everything except for the music, and more gifted artists like Joji and Doja Cat parlayed their online fandoms to major record deals and Billboard hits, JELEEL! saw a way for a Pawtucket, Rhode Island kid to get noticed. But instead of running from the buzzy antics that initially put him on people’s radar, underscored by the impossibly catchy, manic-energy inducing “Dive In,” JELEEL! desires to merge his sweeping online appeal with the artistry.
He believes he’s accomplished this feat on his new album, REAL RAW!. Because for JELEEL! — the dedicated Muslim, child of Nigerian immigrants, armed with charisma and an arresting personality — what people may write off as stunts have always been a part of him since he grew up watching Jeff Hardy’s high-flying acrobatics on WWE. Why fight something when deep down that’s what you are? “I feel like this album shows who JELEEL! is because people don't know,” JELEEL! asserts. “People think JELEEL! is just a meme or people don't know I can actually make music.”
REAL RAW! is a culmination of everything JELEEL! has been building towards since jumping on In-N-Out counters and sleeping on the street as a young twenty-something in Los Angeles. Wearing his influences on his sleeve by dabbling in the styles of pop-punk, hyperpop, drill, afrobeats, rap and a collection of other genres he admires, JELEEL! takes these styles and puts his own spin on them, resulting in a wide-ranging attempt to solidify himself as an artist first — and TikTok star second.
Below, PAPER spoke to JELEEL! about jumping through tables, maintaining his physique and the importance of giving fans their money’s worth live.
Top: Supreme, Pants: Stone Island, Bracelet and necklace: Martine Ali
I went deep on your social media and I found this crazy video of you jumping on the In-N-Out counter randomly.
I remember that! I was like, “I don't care. People are going to know about me.” So I really went to In-N-Out just to rip my shirt off. I was doing everything I could to get my name out there. Because I was like, “What's the way people can find out about who I am?” Maybe I'll go to a public place, rip my shirt off and scream “JELEEL!.” I was always just trying to find virality and ways for people to find out about me as an artist. That was one of the ways.
I also saw that there’s a No Jumper video from way back titled, “Meeting the Guy Who Shut Down Fousey's Event.” How'd that happen?
Bro, I literally snuck inside No Jumper through the back and saw one of the video guys, Chris Long, shooting. And I was like, “Oh, shoot, I should get some video time.” So I told him, “I'm going to hit a backflip.” I hit a backflip, screamed “JELEEL!” and it made it on the video. That was one of the things that helped.
So during that time where you’re trying to get people to pay attention to you, what's the craziest thing you did?
Probably when I jumped through a table to promote a song. It's on my Instagram somewhere. I literally screamed “JELEEL! yeah!” And then dove through a table, like landed on my ass.
That's what Bills fans be doing.
I know, but I had to do it, right? It's part of the JELEEL! story.
I was listening to Reel Notes podcast and heard you really like The Truman Show.
I love that movie.
That's my favorite movie, bro.
That movie is so good. It was sad, but I was happy he was able to find the truth in the end. It was still a good ending, but it's sad that everybody around him wanted him to believe that his reality was real and it was false. That's so fucked up.
Did that movie have any impact on how you view the world?
Yeah, because it shows people don't want you to believe in yourself. People don't want you to believe that if you know something's wrong, they don’t wanna trust you. Some people don't believe you could do shit. And I feel like Truman, he really believed he had a bigger purpose. People didn't believe that he could be out of that little bubble he was in. It really taught me how you should get out of your hometown, get out of that small town living, because there's more life outside where you live. And that's what Truman did, he fought to get out of that. I'm from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. When you're in a small town, you think this is all it is. Then you move to somewhere like Los Angeles or Dubai or Nigeria, way out. You learn about yourself. You should get out of the country and explore, otherwise, you’ll never know your potential.
Shorts: Supreme, Bracelet: Martine Ali
So you've been going viral off your festival sets. What is it about that environment that brings out so much energy in you?
Because I've always liked being a people pleaser. I’ve always liked being in front of the camera. I’ve always liked doing something that people haven't seen before. I like making people happy.
Was that always the case?
Yeah. Even when I was younger, I did a talent show and a lot of sports. I was always trying to make a team, whether it was basketball or football. I was always trying to show people I could do whatever I put my mind to.
What are your earliest memories of listening to music?
I grew up on afrobeats music and also went to London as a kid, so I got exposed to grime and house music. And when I came back to the states, I started listening to 50 Cent, DMX, MTV-U, Kid Cudi, Grimes, Sum 41, just a whole mix. My music ranges everywhere, bro. JELEEL! is genre-fluid. I feel like I'm a genre.
What’s the moment that you realized that this was for you?
I was in college and I didn't know what to do, and I tried making a song and it just felt like I heard myself. The producers I was working with sent me the song and I was like, “Wow, this is it, this is me.” I did not look back.
Weren't you homeless at certain parts during this come-up?
I was homeless for a while, but God was with me. I was trying to find a way, but I just kept telling myself “it's part of the story.” Coming out to LA, no music connections, trying to figure it out. It's always been like that, but it was calm. People might not understand it, that's fine. I'll let the music speak for itself. Always been that type of person. Because some people might sleep on me because I blew up on TikTok, but I can make every single type of song, you know? So, yeah, it is what it is. I was homeless for a while.
Pants: Diesel, Necklace: Martine Ali
And you never lost faith during that period?
No, I never lost faith. There was one point where I was like, “Damn, what am I going to do?” And I was just like, “You know what? I came out here. Let me just keep going.” I was always broke. I never had money like that. I never came from a rich family. I came from a family of immigrants. It was like, “Damn, I don't know how I’m gonna do it.” And I didn't have bread, so I was like, “You know what? Let me just keep going. What am I going to do if I go back? Nothing.”
As you're going through this artistic journey, what's the moment you realized people were starting to pay attention to you?
I was just posting JELEEL! shit on TikTok and JELEEL!ing people, you know what I mean? People were shocked by my build. People would comment, “Bro has a unique build, the long arms and shit.” So I started putting “Dive In!” in the background of my videos. People didn't even know I sang the song. And then once they found out and connected the dots, they started posting it everywhere and I was out. I blew up on TikTok and “Dive In” was the soundtrack to JELEEL!
Your parents immigrated from Nigeria, and you made an afrobeats song as well with “Tamale.” What made you want to jump on that style?
So “Tamale” is more like an Afro-rage type of song. I wanted to give people something that was still JELEEL! — something that's very high energy, but at the same time still my culture. And I feel like “Tamale” was that type of song. I was speaking my native Yoruba dialect. I was really changing up my style, my voice and my vocal tone. So it's definitely a very different track. It's a very new Afro-rage, Afro-futurism, but I'm very interested to see how people will take it because it's something people haven't heard before, so we'll see.
You put your own spin on it and that's what you're doing with a lot of the styles on this album. Pop-punk, hip hop, hyperpop, rock, afrobeats — they’re all present, but infused with your signature style.
Right? I was going to unleash the R&B JELEEL!. I wanted to, but it didn't fit.
You said R&B, JELEEL!. Even though you've got Ty Dolla $ign on a track.
That's an unexpected one from Ty.
I've never heard Ty sound like that. Ty JELEEL!-pilled.
I know, it was different. I didn't think he could flex on it, and then he did and I was shocked. He killed it.
How did that collaboration come about?
He was just tweeting, “JELEEL! Yeah,” and I was like, “Yo, Ty Dolla $ign knows me, that's hard.” So I just DM'd him and he said to pull up to the studio. I went over and asked him how he found out about me. He's like, “TikTok. I heard ‘JELEEL! Juice.’” He was going through beats and we found a hard one and he went crazy. Made me go, “Damn, I have to switch my verse.”
Top: Supreme, Pants: Stone Island, Bracelet and necklace: Martine Ali
You got a few high-profile guests like Ty and Denzel Curry, were there guests you were trying to get, but it just didn't quite work out?
I was trying to get my friend TiaCorine on it, but she was on tour and super busy, so it was last minute. But don’t worry, we’ll figure it out.
I see a bit of your goal on this album, similar to Ty Dolla $ign's goal with Free TC. It's one of the best R&B albums of the 2010s, but he was boxed in as a features-only artist before that. Obviously, people are trying to box you in a little bit as the TikTok or meme guy, but then Ty dropped Free TC and it corrected people’s opinions. So when I look at REAL RAW!, I see that same angle.
Yeah, it's true. Because some people going to always think something. But it's like, just because someone blew up on TikTok, how else would they blow up in today's day and age? I didn't blow up on SoundCloud before that. I was way after that, so TikTok was the only way. I was just trying to use the internet to my advantage.
It worked, though.
Yeah, I think it did work.
With REAL RAW!, what's the biggest risk you took on the album?
There's a song I have with my boy Chow Lee, called “Confetti.” I love the song. It's a drill song. But I'm skeptical about what people think because it's not like your normal JELEEL! track. People don't know I can rap, so I wanted to show that. And the person singing in the beginning, that's me. The sample, that's me. So that’s definitely one of those songs that people will be taken aback by and be like, “Wow, I love this,” or, “Wow, I don't know if I like this.”
With “Confetti,” how did you get hip to Chow Lee?
Chow Lee is my boy. I'm a fan of him and Cash Cobain. And I told him, “Bro, you got to hop on this.” And he killed it. I like “Confetti” because the song feels like you're floating. It makes you want to smile because the beat hits and makes you feel happy. It feels like real music, but it shows people I’m versatile. People hear that and they’ll be like, “Wow, I didn't know he could do that.” Even on “Tamale,” people will be like, “Oh, I didn't know he could do that.” But I'm just trying to show people my versatility.
On “Feels Good,” you say you were held at gunpoint one time. Did that actually happen?
Yeah, I was homeless. I was around the wrong people. People were getting robbed and people were trying to rob me. They put the gun to my head, but I didn't have anything they could rob.
Shorts: Supreme, Bracelet: Martine Ali
How do you feel about TikTok's overall impact on music and perception of music today?
TikTok makes music an aesthetic now. It provides context to songs. I don't know if it's hurting or if it's helping recently, but it definitely helped me out. But at the same time, nowadays we'll see songs that came out like four years ago, 10 years ago on the charts. It's weird, but I feel like because of TikTok, people now really can voice their opinion on what they think about music or what certain songs they like. Back in the early 00’s people just had to accept whatever came out. But now they don’t need to just settle for what’s new and getting the most promotion.
Going to the live performances, you're a showman. You understand the nature of performance and giving fans their money's worth every time you come out live. How do you feel about the modern landscape of rap shows and how performances are?
It's crazy because nowadays I feel like you get praised for either doing nothing or doing the most, there's no in-between. Either you're going to go crazy or you're just going to be chilling. It's weird. That's just the way it is, the landscape of music. But I feel like it's just the time we're in, whether you like it or not. What are you going to do about it? You can't do anything about it. You just got to do your best. I just got to be JELEEL!, you feel me? But back in the day, when it came to performances, like Michael Jackson, he was a crazy performer. Beyonce, DMX, 50 Cent. These people were really performing their hearts out. So I look at those people and see how they perform and always look to them for inspiration. Sometimes I don't even look at artists though. I'll go to Jeff Hardy videos and RVD videos, and just see how they perform and be like, “Alright, I'll just do that.”
Speaking of your physique, being on tour is always a crazy experience. You have to be in a different city every day. How do you maintain your body and your health despite that schedule?
You have to visit a gym, and you have to work out still and stretch. It's tiring, but you got to work out because if you don't, then you're going to lose your progress. Don't drink alcohol. Don't take any drugs. Because it will just slow you down. You're going to feel like you don't want to perform.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
I'm going on tour next month, and then festivals and just promoting the album. We're going to try and put a Deluxe out soon. When the time is right, though, let people digest the music, and then I'll probably release a single off the Deluxe.
Pants: Diesel, Necklace: Martine Ali
Throughout May, PAPER will roll out our final projects under the most recent editorial team. These pieces continue pushing forward our mission to provide a platform for fresh talent and important stories too often overlooked. From the subjects to the creatives behind the images, our hope is for you to discover new things and be inspired by what you see. As always, thank you for showing up and being part of our community. –Justin Moran, Editor-in-Chief
Photography: Cian Moore
Styling: Christopher Smith
Grooming: Amanda Wilson
Set design: Oisin Moore
Photo assistants: Matthew Yoscary, Josh Jiminez and Julio Guzman
Styling assistant: Josh Hickman
PA: Em Sieler and Maren Ogg
Editor-in-chief: Justin Moran
Editorial producer: Alyson Cox