Singer, songwriter, producer and rapper
Jords is a South East London singer, songwriter, producer and rapper who released his latest album on 26 May 2023 featuring two powerful artistic collaborations with a visual artist and a film-maker.
On 26 May, South East London rapper Jords released his new album Dirt in the Diamond, accompanied by a film by director Renée Maria Osubu and an artwork by South African artist Anathi Chapter - Six Hadebe. ArtULTRA founder Alice Black interviewed all three artists about their work, to find out what drives them creatively, and to understand how intergenerational community and artistic collaboration are at the heart of their creative spirit. Through their words, we explore the creation of the album, its accompanying cover and film, and dive deeply into the background and experience of three talented artists.
Anathi Chapter - Six Hadebe graduated from Wits University in Johannesburg in 2014 with a degree in Fine Art. His practice includes painting, digital art and animation. He explores African culture, spirituality and AfroFuturism, an aesthetic embracing science-fiction and technology to imagine black futures.
Renee Maria Osubu is an award-winning British Nigerian photographer and film director from London. She often investigates themes of community, identity, race and childhood. Her past work has screened at Sundance, SFFILM, Blackstar and qualified for the Oscars and BAFTAs.
How do you approach music-making, Jords?
J: My music is influenced by growing up in Croydon and by my Jamaican roots. I’ve constantly straddled both the musical culture I grew up in - the South London Grime scene of the noughties - and what comes from my parents. My dad used to be in a band in the late 80s called the Jazz Defektors, which lent my own music underground soul and jazz undertones. I have subconsciously assimilated these varied musical influences into my own music.
What defines me as an artist are the urban, experimental, underground scene I belong to, my lyrical honesty, and the themes of grief, brotherhood and becoming an adult. I have a band of brothers, who have been my friends since childhood, whom I want to bring with me on my artistic journey. In my world, there is a lot of guilt that comes with success, when someone ‘makes it’. I have friends who were just as good as me musically, who have ended up in jail… My music is not just about what I feel: it’s my therapy and a way to interrogate why I feel the ways I do.
What is the process of writing an album like for you?
J: I have to feel my way through it. I don’t necessarily have a vision in place to start with, so when I write an album I begin by ‘throwing paint at the wall’ for a while. Then I stand back and look at what emerges. For this album [Dirt in the Diamond], I came up with a name in 2020 and that crystalised my vision of how it had to look and feel.
I remember, I visited Tate Britain’s exhibition on Black Britishness ‘Life Between Islands’. One of the installations was a recreation of the living room of Caribbean immigrants from the 1970s. This was exactly my grandad’s house: all of a sudden, I felt like a six-year-old kid. I wanted the music in the album to create that same feeling I had when I sat in that room. This nostalgia permeated my album and Renée’s film really captured it.
One of the best moments during the making of the album was a recording session with Wretch 32, an artist that I admire hugely. We had a conversation about the process of ‘letting go’ of a song once it’s been released. Wretch summed it up in a sentence at the time: ‘It was mine until it was ours’. This is exactly how I feel about the entire album, so much so that I’ve had the sentence tattooed on my chest.
To Jords: where did inspiration for the album’s artwork come from? What was the process of commissioning an artwork from Anathi Chapter - Six Hadebe for the album?
J: I wanted to platform emerging young black talent and have them interpret my vision. Anathi is from South Africa, I found it amazing that my music travelled to South Africa, and that work related to it would be created there. I wanted to draw out our shared experiences and histories, across the Caribbean, Africa, and London.
The artwork for the album cover was inspired by a photo of me in my living room, taken by my godbrother, Cian O’Sullivan. He is a very close friend and a great photographer. I wanted Cian to be a part of the album. In his photograph, I love the fact that you can’t see my eyes. It’s often said that you can see someone’s soul in their eyes, here I wanted my soul to be unlocked through the music rather than my gaze.
I sent Anathi that photo and the album; I didn’t have to micromanage him: he understood how to capture the power in my hair swinging. The painting he created based on the photo exaggerates important features, for instance my hair. It speaks so much about my personal history and my roots. I have had these dreadlocks for a year now: I can see in each stage of their growth a moment of my story - from moments of creativity and recording music, to a period of depression. There are so many stories bound into my hair, which is why I wanted it to be a dominant feature of the cover. I also wanted the artwork to have multiple colours to capture all the contrasting emotions I was experiencing. In particular, I wanted red as the background colour, because it was the dominant colour in my mind when I was writing the album.
To Anathi Chapter - Six Hadebe: What was your experience of working with Jords?
A: Working with Jords was amazing and is still amazing! Jords is a wordsmith; I admire his ability to tell a story using carefully crafted words. It was easy for me to be free and creative, because Jords did not box me in. He is patient and understands an artist’s creative process.
I have done album covers in the past, however, this was the first time I was commissioned to paint one. The experience was different and challenging. Yet Jords believed in me, even though we were far apart, he made it feel like he was with me every time I painted.
This collaboration taught me how to work with an international artist like Jords, also about the business side of such collaborations. Working with Motown Records UK was a big step for me. I am looking forward to more such international collaborations, especially in animation.
For this painting, did anything specific inspire you? I know that Jords sent you a photograph of himself to work from, but what influenced your approach to the artwork?
A: The music itself of course, I listened to it before the painting process began. The album is beautiful and spiritual; it’s what people have been waiting for. Songs like I Pray, Enemies, Fist In The Sky and Mobay are some of the ones that most inspired me and fuelled my creativity.
In the artwork, I wanted the hair to symbolise Dirt, hence the colour marks which are done in a manner that seems careless. I used a pallet knife and oil pastels to give texture and vividness. I saw Jords as the Diamond, that shines even in the darkest of places. The earthy colours allude to the fact that diamonds come from the ground. The cover is also about the concept of being grounded as a black man by cultivating humility and respect.
Why did you decide to make a film with several songs for the Dirt in the Diamond album, Jords?
J: I’ve always wanted to make a film – I love films and movie soundtracks. I made an album in 2016 and I wrote a script to go with it, but I didn’t have the budget to create a whole film then. In 2020, I made another short film called Almost An Adult.
With Dirt in the Diamond I wanted to create a film divided into episodes, united by a central story. The lyrics are about masculinity, so for the film, I wanted to get the perspective of a black woman, to balance my music and with her visuals. I wanted to explore the idea of the cycles of racial injustice, racialised violence and black political struggle repeating itself, now as in the past.
What was it like to work with Renée?
J: Renée wrote the script, but we had many conversations about her ideas. She took notes from our discussions and translated the story into something bigger. The central story is this mix of grief, joy, and love, and how these things go through the same cycle, whatever the period in time. From the 70s, fast forward to 2020 and George Floyd, it’s the same story of oppression and resistance. Of course there has been change over the past forty years: my parents came to the UK to survive, whereas I’m past the survival stage. I want to grow, but I still have to face some of the same bullshit and prejudice as they were subjected to. When I go out, I still wonder, am I going to get stopped by the police today? Renée understood that.
When I wrote the song ‘Mobay’, in my head I was constantly shifting between two different time periods, the 1970s and now. We recorded the tracks in an analogue form, and Renée allowed this energy to seep into the film. Renée captured this reflection on time by setting the film in the past, but allowing it to feel relevant today.
How did you develop the film script and its visual language, Renée?
R: Listening to the music and deciding to make a film about a community's grief journey, I knew there would be a strong sense of duality. MoBay is upbeat, it has a beautiful energy and is such a sexy track. Juxtaposing it with such vulnerable dialogue between two female friends and then between a bereaved mother and her husband felt emotionally raw and stripped back. I wanted the movie to convey emotion through body language, which for many audience members is something that feels familiar. I workshopped some of the script with the actors on set, which allowed another level of authenticity that felt integral to such a sensitive subject.
This was my first music-based project but I felt it aligned well with my style. I was really inspired by old family photos and videos, as well as memories of family gatherings like the one you see in the first half of the film. I spent a lot of time looking at resources from The Black Archives and Kino Library. This especially inspired our [Renée and Jords] attention to detail, making no compromise on set design, costume design or hair and makeup. Directors such as Steve McQueen reminded us that stories such as these need to be told and have an audience who cares deeply about seeing themselves on screen in that way.
Some of the best collaborations are when you build a trusted relationship with an artist and allow them to create with a sense of freedom, that’s the type of relationship I had with Jords.
The film’s structure is very powerful: it moves from fictional scenes to documentary montage, from house to church to streets and ends in a country field. It also moves from colour to black and white. What was your thinking behind stitching these different cinematic modes and visual languages together?
R: My background is in photography, so often I like to consider how an emotion can be conveyed in a singular shot. Within the house it’s busy, warm tones and lots of movement. I wanted this to be contrasted by the blue tones when the couple step outside which feel slightly cold and sad. The camera is still and the actors occupy the centre of the frame. When grieving you often feel very isolated, like the world is moving at a fast pace whilst yours has ground to a halt. I wanted the colours and frame to represent that feeling. This stillness also meant all the attention is drawn to the dialogue expressing the duality of celebrating a person’s life and mourning them.
In making a film about communal grief and celebration, it felt appropriate to pay homage to the people before us who paved the way for many of us in the UK. Hence the shift to documentary footage. I wanted the break from fiction to reality to truly be felt and appreciated.
Often in the film, the viewer is invited to glimpse someone’s unnoticed pain or deeply-felt love, observing from afar. Grief is complex: at one point someone could be belly laughing at a great joke and then at another feeling deep anguish. I think the film’s shifts and different locations are a reminder that grief does not only have one look. I hope the film acts as a little reminder of looking out for those around us, and also having a little bit more grace towards ourselves during our own experience of grief, which can often feel confusing.
To Jords: how do you feel now that your album and film have been released?
J: For me, being a successful artist is having the absolute freedom to express myself. I feel I have achieved that, I’ve collaborated with incredibly talented people and kept my friends close. Being able to work with Renée for me, was like being given the gift of sight. When someone understands your vision and can bring a whole new perspective and life on it, it’s a beautiful thing.
Jords by Cian O'Sullivan