Following a successful, lucrative 2022, Accra rapper Jaleel Thomas is back with his second single of the year entitled ‘Freestyle 4’ – a deep, melancholic track delving into a heart-wrenching personal theme of loss and how Jaleel dealt with the repercussions. It was only back in March that Jaleel lost his father who he described his relationship with as, ‘more like twins and best friends than father and son, safe to say we shared a soul.’ To lose a part of his soul and such a huge part of his life, Jaleel was deservedly devastated yet, instead of letting his pain fester into something more morbid, Jaleel channeled these crushing feelings into his music. Check out the exclusive interview below:
1. Can you tell us a bit about where you come from and how it all got started?
JALEEL THOMAS: I’m from Accra, Ghana where I was born and I lived most of my life, as well as a little bit in Rhode Island, USA. I’d say it all started when I was born, I’ve always felt out of place and had a hard time meeting people I could run with for a long period of time, so aside from my Dad I was pretty much on my own all the time. The loneliness drove me to write poetry and short stories and when I was around 14, the poems got a little boring for me so one of my friends took me to the studio. I did a one take of a 5 minute beat, came out, everyone in there was like “Damn” and that was that.
2. Did you have any formal training or are you self-taught?
JALEEL THOMAS: I wish I had some formal training, maybe I’d actually know what I was doing but I’m also kind of grateful that I didn’t because my brain just likes to run. It’s a little unhinged about how it works but I tend to just do things as if I already learned them in a past life and am currently just rediscovering those skills. Long story short – I’m self taught.
3. Who were your first and strongest musical influences and why the name ‘JALEEL THOMAS?
JALEEL THOMAS: 50 Cent, Ja Rule, Sean Paul, Fela Kuti, Outkast. My dad was never a ‘restrict the content by age’ type of person. So I was allowed to explore anything and everything from a toddler’s age (great parenting, shout out to him). Before I ever even stepped in front of a mic I was giving myself stage names, at one point it was Tunde X, then Jaleel 60, then Stuntman. But like I said before, my brain is always running so I’d come up with a cooler name every few weeks, and a fter realizing that it wasn’t sustainable, I asked myself ‘What’s something about you that you can never change?’, the answer? ‘MYSELF’. So I took my first name and half of my last name and got Jaleel Thomas, and I never really felt the need to change it. You can just call me LEELO though, it’s equally as cool and easy to say.
4. What do you feel are the key elements in your music that should resonate with listeners, and how would you personally describe your sound?
JALEEL THOMAS: I think people should pay attention to the beat selection, flows and the lyrics. Those are the three things I take the most pride in ‘cause I really be TALKING. My sound? I call it ‘Popstar Pain’, or ‘Day In The Life Raps’ because I just translate my day to day experiences into my verses. It’s all true, no props. I love it. It keeps me sane.
5. With social media having a heavy impact on our lives and the music business in general, how do you handle criticism, haters, and/or naysayers in general? Is it something you pay attention to, or simply ignore?
JALEEL THOMAS: I let the social media people do them. I’m really bad with my phone anyway so well, if hating online turns you on. Do you. I’m 10 toes in my business. I just keep going, I only take positive and constructive criticism, I’ve come to learn that I won’t always wanna hear what I wanna hear. But it hits more if i know you or you say it to me in person. All the internet stuff is intangible. Don’t let it get to you. Just show love where it’s due cause there’s a lot of good people on the worldwide web spreading love and support.
6. For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and music maker, and the transition towards your own style, which is known as POP?
JALEEL THOMAS: Usually for me it comes out as somewhat of a case study, I stumble on artists that I think are really cool. They’re never really ‘mainstream’; lately its been UntilJapan, Hardrock and a few others. I listen to these people so much within a span of a few months and within that time I break down in my head how their flow works, how they convey certain messages with creative writing. In my head when I record, I sound like them, but usually when I play it back it just sounds like me. Fortunately my brain won’t let me sound like anyone else, but I learn from everybody. I used to just rap when I was angry, so my music used to be very hostile and violent, but as I got older and learned to control my rage, I started to just show how cool I am. ‘Cool Leelo’ is the best dude in the world to me. I just want people to be excited when they hear my voices and I say voices because I can really switch it up. I never want to be put in a box. Today, it’s pain music; tomorrow, it’s party music. In the unreleased files there’s even some alternative rock, But I’m still learning, and I can be a bit of a perfectionist, which hinders me from just throwing music out there.It’s something I’m learning to deal with as I develop in my career.
7. What’s your view on the role and function of music as political, cultural, spiritual, and/or social vehicles – and do you try and affront any of these themes in your work, or are you purely interested in music as an expression of technical artistry, personal narrative, and entertainment?
JALEEL THOMAS: Music can be anything you want it to be. If you wanna go political, that’s good because young people really don’t sit down for hours watching the news or reading a newspaper anymore, we’re barely ever even outside so it’s good avenue to get some serious messages across. Personally though, the music is personal, I don’t make songs necessarily for entertainment purposes, I make more journal entries, ‘like hey, this is how my day went. This happened with these people and this is how I dealt with it’. Luckily people find that interesting/entertaining. I’m glad my joy and pain portrayed sonically can be either inspiring or just purely entertaining for the people who bless me with their streams. I hope that answers the question.
8. Could you describe your creative processes? How do usually start, and go about shaping ideas into a completed song? Do you usually start with a tune, a beat, or a narrative in your head? And do you collaborate with others in this process?
JALEEL THOMAS: I hear the beat. I’m not sure about other artists, but if you listen closely, the vibe of the beat will write the lyrics for you. So i hear the beat, I think to myself ‘these are calm vibes’, then I go through my brain and think about something cool or emotional I wanna talk about and I just do it. It’s not really a long drawn out process, I write really fast and record equally as fast, so I don’t think too hard i just go with it. The people I collaborate with, maybe just the producers about structuring the beat. Sometimes I ask my friends who are around me like ‘what word rhymes with this?’ and whatever they say I just write to fit it in, if it makes sense to me.
9. What has been the most difficult thing you’ve had to endure in your life or music career so far?
JALEEL THOMAS: People saying “The way you rap you can’t be in Ghana, you won’t make it” or “You need to make afrobeats if you wanna blow” #WeDontAllMakeAfrobeats. I’m really laughing right now as I say that because its so annoying. Like for the time being I live here, i’m making music out of here, so please don’t downplay the talent that you’re considering to be too big for this nation by ignoring it because you think other people won’t agree with you when you tell them i’m good or even great at what I do. I wish people wouldn’t be so scared to be the minority because I think little drops make a mighty ocean. If you keep telling your friends that artists like me are great and we’re from Ghana, I’m sure people will catch on and I can feed my family. My mom works too hard, I need to retire her asap. AND Y’ALL NEED TO BE MORE ENGAGED AT SHOWS FOR UNDERGROUND ARTISTS. Please don’t just stand around with your arms folded or texting, its fun to perform for a crowd that performs with you and even if you don’t know the song still engage and keep an open mind. WE LOVE Y’ALL. We do this for y’all too. #SupportAYou’reTooTalentedForGhanaArtistYouKnow #YourFriendsWannaBeAsBigAsTheAmericanArtistsYouAreSoObsessedWith
10. On the contrary, what would you consider a successful, proud or significant point in your life or music career so far?
JALEEL THOMAS: It seems to me like everyone who chances upon my music agrees that I’m doing something right and it’s working. The acknowledgements from older, younger and people my age is everything to me – it’s fuel. ‘FAITH’ and ‘FREESTYLE 4’ are honorable mentions too, those two songs brought a lot of good soldiers into my camp. Their impact can’t be understated.
11. Creative work in a studio or home environment, or interaction with a live audience? Which of these two options excites you most, and why?
JALEEL THOMAS: Interaction with a live audience. I get really crazy on stage (that’s why I’m the STUNTMAN), I’m jumping around, sweating, screaming, rapping every lyric (that I can remember) and I love seeing the crowd smiling, clapping, screaming back, rapping back at me. It’s a rush. It’s more fun because I think I’m so boring on a day to day, like I’m quiet and reserved, if you’re close to me you know that I just don’t know what to say to people, but live performances just bring the energy out. Stage Leelo is the person my best friends know and love. That’s why I don’t do a lot of shows, cause I’m scared to go turn up on a stage and have people stagnant just staring at me, no emotion whatsoever and I see it happen to a lot of artists that I think deserve more interaction and recognition. I wish I did more shows though and I will. 2024 Dolo Boyz.
12. Do you think is it important for fans of your music to understand the real story and message driving each of your songs, or do you think everyone should be free to interpret your songs in their own personal way?
JALEEL THOMAS: It doesn’t really matter because people are gonna hear what they wanna hear and sometimes their interpretations make sense as well if you really think about it. I only have a problem when you misquote me in a way that makes what I said sound dumb or less creative than I made it to be. But overall I like hearing people say the wrong lyrics or think I meant something else that makes them happy. I’m like “have fun gang”, just don’t tell me what you think I ‘should’ve’ said. I’m liable to press you. On sad songs like ‘FREESTYLE 4’ or ’01’ though, you gotta get it right. Like those songs are personal and about specific emotions, please don’t try to tell me what I mean or should’ve meant, just listen and feel the pain, if you can relate then yeah, you might have gone through similar things so let’s bond over that.