When Potter Payper was in prison, he watched from the sidelines as fellow inmates freestyled raps. “I’m just there in the corner thinking, ‘I think I can do this but I’m not sure,'” recalls the Barking-born rapper, born Jamel Bousbaa to an Irish mother and an Algerian father. “I was doing all this memenemenem** shit,” he holds an air mic to his mouth, mimicking the quick jams of garage MCs popular in the early 2000s. “But this is for the guys who have nothing to say.”
Bousbaa, it quickly transpires, is a guy with a lot to say. After spending his teenage years in juvenile delinquent centers, Bousbaa served half of a four-year sentence in what he calls the “big men’s prison” for running a drug smuggling operation along county lines. Upon his release in 2020, he wrote a handwritten letter to his fans, apologizing for letting them down. Months later, he dropped his mixtape Training day 3. His music, at the time, was a gritty exploration of old struggles contrasted with new riches. He has become known for his impressive freestyles and witty lyricism. Within a year, he was signed to the UK division of Def Jam Recordings; his music had appeared in the hit Netflix series Top boy, and his track “Gangsteritus” made the UK top 40. Since then she has collaborated with Ed Sheeran, Maverick Saber and Nines. Now he is ready to release his debut album The real comeback of fashion.
It was somehow inevitable that Bousbaa, 32, would adopt that MC-style cadence popularized by the likes of Dizzee Rascal and Wiley: He grew up surrounded by garage and grime culture; his mother helped set up antennas on the famous pirate radio station Temptation FM, but it was when he stopped imitating those musicians, at the suggestion of his prison buddy, that she found his rhythm. “I came back the next day, and did my best in front of those guys, and they were feeling it,” he says, perched on a sofa in a windowless room at a London radio station. He smiles at the white Air Max 95s at his feet. “Since then, I’ve never really looked back.”
Bousbaa has more to offer than irregular adlibs. He raps about county lines, social services, abuse, violence, politics, and what he calls the “revolving door” prison system. He saw it all firsthand. It was in prison that he became Potter Payper. “I had long hair and big glasses,” she laughs from behind his Harry Potter-style frames. His hair is now cut short, covered by the hood. His debut album is a stunning outburst of emotion, such that his earlier releases now lack maturity in comparison. In one standout song “All My Life,” Bousbaa’s gravelly vocals are layered over an epic instrumental as she purges the story of his life. He is angry, cathartic and moving. As we speak now, his voice is punctuated by the same division. Each phrase he performed as if he were delivering it into the microphone.
“I rap about pain because that was my life,” she says, describing the “despair” of her upbringing. Growing up, he spent his days hanging out with friends on an estate in Barking. When it was time to go home, Bousbaa begged them to come back with him. “Because if I bring friends over, then my mom’s boyfriend won’t hit her,” she explains. “Because they’re older kids on my estate and he wouldn’t hurt her [then].”
We’re talking about the day the Baroness Casey Review is published, which found the Metropolitan Police to be institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic. As someone who has clashed with police officers since his youth, Bousbaa isn’t phased by the results. “They’re just bullies, man,” he says. “I’ve been in it, I’ve been in jails, I’ve been in interrogation rooms, police stations, I’ve eaten meals, I’ve done body searches, I’ve been beaten to death by them. I know firsthand that they’re bullies. They’re the haters par excellence He seems deflated when he recalls these most difficult moments of his life.
I’m definitely anti-Tory but I’m also anti-government
Where rap and the police meet is a controversial intersection. Rappers have long had their music unfairly weaponized against them in court. In the United States, the problem has persisted since the early 2000s. Last year, the California State Senate passed a bill that would limit the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases, as had been done by prosecutors in the indictments of Atlanta rappers Young Thug and Gunna. Rappers in the UK have been subjected to similar practices, including Bousbaa.
“That’s why I became guilty,” he says, explaining how an old song of his was the nail in his trial coffin. “For 10 months I refused to plead guilty because it was a bullshit charge and then they came to court and found a YouTube video of me [“Bobby Valentino”]”. Prosecutors threatened to show the video to the jury, claiming the song’s lyrics suggested Bousbaa was bragging about selling the best heroin. “They said if you don’t declare [guilty], have other things to show the jury.” (Bousbaa says the prosecutor was planning to suggest that another of his songs implied he was bragging that his drugs were “so good” it killed a user.)” I was chatting more shit about that song. Honestly, the worst song you’ve ever heard in your life. The worst song I’ve ever done, and it got me convicted,” he chuckles in irony. “[But] of course i was in conspiracy to supply these same drugs i’m rapping about on camera… like a motherfucking head. On a more serious note, he worries that rappers have their work used against them like this. “You have to pay attention [with your lyrics] because they are listening and they will try to use it against you in court and they will try to paint a picture of your character.
Though his arguments are often solemn, Bousbaa wants his music to help fans who feel, as they once did, disenfranchised; those who see “no way out” from a toxic cycle of poverty and incarceration. “It’s a long, dark road of destruction that’s basically a revolving door that I’ve found myself in, in terms of getting in and out of prison,” he says. “There are so many people still in that cycle.” He recalls an interaction with fans that stuck with him. “This guy came up to me and he just started crying. He collapsed right away,” the fan, aged about 17 or 18, told Bousbaa that he had been struggling with mental health. “He said, ‘You don’t understand, there was a time when I was this close to taking my own life. I felt so down. And I listened to you, and you gave me hope…’” Bousbaa breaks off. “I hope to use my story or my journey to help people not have to walk this path that I walked.”
You have to be careful with texts because they will use them against you in court
Frustration is at the core of his music: frustration with the system, frustration with social and financial inequality, and frustration with those who can’t publicly vent their grievances in the way they can. When we discuss these topics, his rap-like flow becomes even more sour. “I’m definitely anti-Tory but I’m anti-government in my whole approach,” he says, describing his view as “anarchist”. “As someone who has gone to great lengths to reform myself, I can see from the other side of the fence that there isn’t much to reform,” he says as he leans towards me, almost begging his point. Even the “law abiding” citizens, he says, the ones who “break their backs every single day are treated like shit.” “They have to strike every couple of years to get paid… like, people can’t afford bread, man.”
Even as he takes me on a tour of the UK’s prison industrial complex, social deprivation, and the effects of the cost-of-living crisis, Bousbaa isn’t all doom and gloom. At one point in our conversation, he pulls up his hoodie to show me his shirt, which has his name printed on it in the style of the Harry Potter logo. “I’m a huge Harry Potter fan,” she says warmly. There’s that smile again. “I rap about pain because that’s been my life up until now, so I haven’t had much else to write about, but as my life progresses steadily, and you know, I stay free and I’m happy, hopefully that reflects in my music.”
“Real Back in Style” will be released by Def Jam Recordings on May 12th