"This is less of a big, brash political statement, which you’d expect because of the title, but rather a collection of observations from a man on the nightbus. It’s not preaching about society’s problems, just observing them because I don’t have the answers!” Jesse Greenway, known as Jeshi, explains of his debut album, ‘Universal Credit’. Featuring tracks like ‘Sick’, ‘Hit By A Train’, ‘Violence’ and ‘National Lottery’, there is no promise of glitz and glamour. Instead, Jeshi gives listeners a grimy but familiar slice of life, flitting between blurry nights of hedonism that turn into solemn mornings, and long, aching afternoons consumed by daytime television.
To understand Jeshi, you must first understand the concrete jungle that both inspires and emaciates him; the pocket of Walthamstow that he’s originally from has moulded him. Jeshi’s subject matter is a product of his surroundings, a borough ranked the 15th most deprived out of 326 local authorities in England.
It makes sense, then, that his debut album is no celebration of success or proclamation of aspiration. In the never-ending push of ‘hustle’ culture projected by social media, where every win is documented in anticipation of a celebration emoji or a lengthy caption on the journey it took to buy a shiny car, ‘Universal Credit’ is an ode to the underbelly. It’s a nod to the person who longs for the first of the month like a cockerel for sunrise, or the person who loses their job and their relationship in the same day, goes out on a bender to forget about it and wakes the next morning with shaky legs and a shakier recollection.
“I made the album during lockdown, and seeing the response to the introduction of furlough — which is as much of a benefit as jobseeker’s allowance or any other benefit — was really interesting. Benefits are ultimately there to help whoever is in need, which is why they are so important, but I found it interesting that the attitude changed depending on who needed it,” explains Jeshi of his album’s concept and title.
The lockdown provided the perfect opportunity to differentiate between the stigmatisation of people on benefits he saw growing up in Walthamstow and the widespread acceptance once those claimants became middle-class professionals. “When you don’t have money to do anything and you’re struggling to even just get by, there’s constant stress, a grey cloud that follows you around,” Jeshi explains. Indeed, on ‘New Hues’, he asks, “O2 cut off my contract, how the fuck I’m supposed to hit you?”
This theme extends to the album’s cover art. “Many times in my life I’ve been ashamed not to have money, this was turning it on it’s head and wearing it on my chest, almost as a badge of empowerment,” he says of the image — a congratulatory photo of him receiving a giant cheque of the £324 single person’s Universal Credit allowance. Taken by Francis Plummer, who also took on the creative direction, every single detail of the album’s photo and concept are important to Jeshi, a self-confessed over-thinker who finds the devil in every detail.
Having supported Slowthai on tour in 2019 and quoting the likes of Amy Winehouse, Tyler, The Creator and The Streets as musical influences, Jeshi combines a DIY approach with lyrics that reflect his surroundings in a raw and unflinching way. “Amy’s self-reflection and dry humour inspired me so much in my songwriting. When we talk about people baring their personalities in their art, nobody does it better than Amy did on ‘Frank’,” he smiles.
Something of an anthropologist of his age, where others like his aforementioned tourmate might angrily rap about society’s ills and blame the government, Jeshi simply accepts the cards that life has dealt him and wryly finds the pockets of common humanity in the lowest points of one’s life, shouting out those who have “lost life’s manual”. There is no anger at the welfare system that marginalises him, the prison system that separates him from his mother or at his father who was not present in his life growing up, or even the sheer emotional toll of simply trying to survive.
On ‘National Lottery’, the last track on the album, he gives a nod to The Streets with a reference to “the city [making] heroes out the weak”. In the same way Mike Skinner would contemplate the delights of urban decay with deadbeat realism, Jeshi intertwines a distinctly mundane British experience (“Daytime TV numb my brain / Sick of seeing Phillip Schofield anyway”) with his own tumultuous personal life — tackling everything from addiction to relationships.
Jeshi was raised by a single mother alongside two younger sisters, and his grandmother played a prominent role in his upbringing. “I was lucky enough to have somebody that alleviated the burden of being a single parent from my mum, and for stepping in as a second parent of sorts, I will always be grateful to my nan,” he explains.
On ‘Two Mums’, a track he has proclaimed the most personal on the album, he ruminates on the hardships endured and survived by his mother since having him aged 17, from battling addiction — “Glad you found your way out of the crack smoke into my life” — to navigating the criminal justice system — “Prison room visits, happy that you never went back”. The song is a clear example of Jeshi’s matter-of-fact acceptance of circumstance; there is no vitriol at his father for not being around, instead there is gratitude and admiration for two mums and the four shoulders he has to cry on.
“In the same way the album concept gives power to something that is usually stigmatised, ‘Two Mums’ is my way of empowering non-traditional family structures in a way that isn’t the easiest,” he says. “It’s not as black and white as your dad being in your life or not, there are a million different imperfect variations of family but at the end of the day that’s all that matters — family.”
There was no year-long trip of self-discovery or failed relationship to inspire Jeshi’s debut album, instead he dug deep into his East London home and looked at the man in the mirror. “Towards the end of 2019, I found myself feeling discontent, both with the path that my career was taking and also with the music I was making,” he admits. “I realised that the career direction and the music were linked. I couldn’t conveniently blame a label or manager for my career not being where I wanted it to be, I had to ‘go deeper’ in order for my music to ‘click’ and connect with listeners. I had to open up in a way I hadn’t considered, but then realised all of my favourite artists had done,” he explains.
As introspective as his subject matter is, however, Jeshi always maintains a collaborative environment when it comes to creating music. “My writing process has changed over the years, but now I can only really work in a studio with a couple of friends and some beers. There’s much more purpose to it this way, as opposed to when I was in a room by myself,” he says.
It’s not just anybody who can be in that room creating music, though. Comparing inorganic features to awkward Hinge dates, Jeshi points to the close-knit network of friends who have turned into frequent collaborators — the likes of Celeste (who he worked with on 2020 EP ‘BAD TASTE’), Fredwave and Obongjayar (both of whom feature twice on ‘Universal Credit’).
Jeshi means ‘army’ in Swahili, and although he adopted the name by accident while playing around on Google translate with his government name, it seems fitting for our protagonist. He may be more of a historian than a fighter, but through his unfiltered musings he represents the masses, the army of people trying to make it through on a day-by-day basis. Among the swathes of isolation, poverty and darkness that so many across the country find themselves surrounded by from the moment they wake up, Jeshi finds and reminds us of the importance of empathy, humour and love.