British entrepreneur and YouTube star Jamal Edwards has died at the age of 31, his company has told the BBC.
He was the founder of SBTV, an online urban music platform which helped launch the careers of artists like Dave, Ed Sheeran and Skepta.
Chart-topper AJ Tracey was one of the first to pay tribute online, tweeting “RIP Jamal Edwards, west London legend status”.
Edwards, born in Luton, was appointed an MBE for services to music in 2014.
A pioneering figure in British rap and grime music, he also became an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust, a youth charity run by the Prince of Wales which helps young people set up their own companies.
He attended the Brit Awards earlier this month and was understood to have performed as a DJ at a gig in north London on Saturday night. No details have been released about his death, other than it happened on Sunday morning.
It’s impossible to overstate how important Jamal Edwards was to British rap.
His YouTube channel, which was started “on a £20 phone” while he was still at school, has given early exposure to almost every key player in the game. Stormzy, Skepta, JME, J Hus, Lady Leshurr, Dave, AJ Tracey, Krept & Konan, Headie One… the list is endless.
To an extent, SBTV was formed out of frustration. “Everyone in my area was an MC and I remember thinking, ‘Why can’t I find these online? I’m going to film people in my area and upload it to YouTube’.” Edwards told BBC Radio 1Xtra in 2017. “And from there it just started building and growing.”
SB TV arrived at a crucial time, showing that grime could thrive online, while police were attempting to shut down gigs with the controversial risk-assessment form 696.
The channel’s success meant Edwards became known as an entrepreneur and businessman – but he was a reluctant frontman. “I wanted to be the Banksy” he said. “I wanted no-one to know who I was.”
That changed in 2011, when he was featured in an advert for Google Chrome. His name was searched more than a million times. and people started approaching him for selfies.
But he put his notoriety to good use – raising awareness of mental health, funding youth centers and encouraging other young entrepreneurs.
Music remained his true passion, though, and he never stopped supporting the artists he loved. As recently as December, he encouraged Ed Sheeran to record a new verse for a song he’d discovered by Nigerian artist Fireboy DML. That track, Peru, climbed to number two in the UK charts, giving the African star his first international hit.
Edwards took no credit – he never did – but hundreds of artists have similar stories. His loss will be felt throughout the UK music scene.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said on Twitter that British music and entertainment “has lost one of its brightest stars”.
Rapper Dave simply tweeted: “Thank you for everything🙏🏿❤️ words can’t explain,” while actor and director Adam Deacon posted that he was “honestly heartbroken”.
“Jamal was one of the nicest, most down to earth and humble men I’ve met in this industry. He always gave me time even when no one else would. and the Voice newspaper, a weekly newspaper that caters for the interests of British-born black people, were among others to post tributes online.
“He was an inspiration and what he achieved in life was truly remarkable. Thinking of his friends and family at this devastating time. RIP.”
The Voice Newspaper added their whole team was “saddened and shocked”, saying: “Gone waaay to soon. He made an amazing contribution to promoting black music, to entrepreneurship, and so much more. An incredible talent who will be much missed. RIP.”
Presenter and comedian Mo Gilligan, who hosted this year’s Brit awards, tweeted: “A truly humble and blessed soul. Your legacy will live on for years & you’ve inspired a whole generation.”
Rapper Lady Leshurr tweeted the news of his death was “heartbreaking” and praised him for helping her career.
“He gave me opportunity after opportunity to showcase my talent from Brum into London. We need to keep his name and brand alive,”she wrote.
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In a tweet, the organisers of Mobo Awards said they were “deeply saddened” to learn of Edwards’ death.
They added: “As the founder of @SBTVonline, his groundbreaking work & legacy in British music and culture will live on. Our hearts and thoughts are with his friends and family.”
Birmingham-based rapper Jaykae is an example of one of the acts that SBTV has helped to achieve success. Although he only broke through to mainstream chart success as the featured rapper on Top 20 hit Flowers two years ago, his videos have been featured on SBTV for more than a decade.
Describing Edwards as a “legend”, Jaykae tweeted: “I think I can speak for us all as artists and as supporters of UK grime/rap scene when I say I owe this man so much! Helped me sometimes without even speaking of it.”
Edwards, who was the son of singer and Loose Women presenter Brenda Edwards, first got into film-making after his parents gave him a video camera as a Christmas present when he was 15.
Fashion, writing and charity work
In a 2013 interview with the BBC, he said he filmed friends rapping or singing and began to upload the videos to YouTube to allow other friends to see them.
“You can say my videos had mixed reviews to begin with, some people didn’t get them, but others thought they were sick [good],” he said. “So I started to put them up on YouTube so everyone could see them, and it just grew from there.”
SBTV – his London-based platform for discovering emerging artists and named after Edwards’ own rapper moniker SmokeyBarz – has now grown to 1.22 million subscribers on YouTube.
It featured early music videos from artists including J Hus, Emeli Sande and Stormzy – and dozens of other British acts who were not widely known at the time.
As Edwards’ own profile grew, he also entered the fashion world, walking the catwalk for Hermes, fronting a collection for Kurt Geiger and then posing for Primark in order to illustrate his own belief that “affordable fashion is important”.
He wrote a book – described as a mix of a memoir and a business manual – called Self Belief: The Vision: How to Be a Success on Your Own Terms.
Edwards also founded JE Delve, a grassroots charity that provides youth clubs as well as learning and work opportunities for young people in west London, where he grew up after he and his family moved there from Luton.
He worked with a handful of other youth charities and regularly made visits to speak to teenagers, including at both Acton High School and West London College where he had studied, to answer questions on business success and self-motivation.
Ealing MP Rupa Huq shared a selection of photos of Edwards on social media as she paid tribute to the “local hero”.
Local hero and pioneer of British urban music via SBTV Jamal Edwards has been taken from us age 31
He was hugely proud of his Acton roots- bringing @edsheeran along to the mural erected to him there recently
— Rupa Huq MP (@RupaHuq) February 20, 2022