Summer Music: Jelani Aryeh Went From High School Football Star To Gifted Pop Artist
Audiences are back, venues are opening up, and San Diego is bursting with music from local artists this summer. The KPBS Summer Music Series is here to capture that creativity, energy and joy.
We kick off the 2021 KPBS Summer Music Series with a young artist whose unique brand of pop music is catching lots of attention. Jelani Aryeh's songs have a rich sonic palette and sound otherworldly, with lyrics that look inward and explore the complexities of our times.
Aryeh's music is attracting nationwide attention and popularity, with a new album out this month.
"It's just crazy how many people connect with the songs, because initially I just made them for myself, not really thinking if people are going to resonate, and just the fact that they comment and really share how the song makes them feel, I couldn't ask for more," Aryeh said.
Aryeh grew up in the San Diego suburbs and is of African American, Filipino and Chinese descent. His music — along with its introspection and emotional honesty — always lets the sunshine in.
A lion in the sun
A recent single from Aryeh's new album, "I've Got Some Living To Do," is called "Marigold."
"I was doing some research online about the flower marigold, and I came upon its nickname, and I guess it's 'little lion.' My name, Jelani Aryeh means 'mighty lion' — Jelani means mighty in Swahili and then Aryeh means lion in Hebrew. So I try to weave 'marigold little lions' with my name, and then also bringing in imagery of the sun and weaving all three of those things together," Aryeh said. "I feel like it's my soul song. It's who I'd like to be kind of behind the walls of my skin. Who I think I am on a soul level. Marigold is just, I feel like, me."
You can watch the music video for "Marigold" here:
'Every game ends the same'
Aryeh turned to music after he began to step away from playing high school football.
"I just really wasn't enjoying it anymore. I was getting hurt a lot. Music just felt like something new," said Aryeh. "I just wanted an escape initially away from football."
His father was his football coach from a very young age all the way through his junior year of high school in the North County suburbs. Leaving football also meant leaving this experience his father shared with him — a tough choice even for the best of father-son relationships.
The track "Jet Fuel," which Aryeh released in the fall of 2019, touches on just that.
"I was just kind of living that song. I wanted people to really feel what I was feeling in this weird transitional phase from football to music and graduating high school," Aryeh said.
When he told his father he was leaving football, his father said "Son, I won't be able to look at you the same." It troubled Aryeh, because he and his father were close. "He put in all those years with me and was pretty set on me going to college and making this, like, my thing."
The song touches on the struggle and the decision to leave football, as well as that conversation with his dad. And now, both of his parents are proud of his music and the way so many people connect and relate to his songs. "Him and my mom are kind of my biggest fans," Aryeh said.
You can watch the football-inspired video for "Jet Fuel" here. The video was shot at his old school, Del Norte High School, wearing his old jersey.
Raised by the internet
Living in the suburbs in inland San Diego, Aryeh struggled to find a local music community. He turned, instead, to the internet.
"I owe the internet so much, just my success and learning in general. I formed my group, my music collective, 'Raised By The Internet' on Reddit on the Odd Future, Frank Ocean and Brockhampton subreddits," Aryeh said.
He recruited other artists of any genre to form a collective.
"Maybe 30 years ago, you wouldn't be able to just click on something and have people respond to you and create this community," Aryeh said. "That's what I think I appreciate the most, is how fast and how willing people are to just get to know each other and talk about what they love to do."
The suburbs influenced his songwriting in other ways, though. In 2017, he released an EP, "Suburban Destinesia," which includes the formative early track about his relationship with his father, "Where We Go."
And don't miss the spin on 4S Ranch called "4US Ranch."
What lies ahead
Aryeh's brand new album, "I've Got Some Living To Do," out July 30, 2021, encapsulates being young and figuring out what lies ahead — all set against the backdrop of the pandemic and over a year of having nothing to do. "I got some traveling to do. I got to see the people that I love. I want to get out of the country for the first time," Aryeh said.
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"I'd say my favorite video from the album so far is probably 'Overexposed," Aryeh said. "It's my favorite because we got to travel kind of far. We went up north, to San Francisco and West Marin, and that just felt like an adventure and a vacation. And it was cool because, like, I'm working. This is my job."
You can check out the video for Aryeh's latest single, "Overexposed," from the new album here.