When he was 19, Leeds rapper Graft had a tough choice to make between his first love, football, and his flourishing music career.
Hanging up his boots after two years at Leeds United’s Academy and a stint at Rotherham United, it was a pivotal moment for the Gledhow-born rapper, who grappled with the decision for years.
It was a move that would pay off, with Graft propelled to national fame last year after winning the BBC’s Rap Game UK.
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He was crowned the champion of the second series of the show, which sees rap duo Krept and Konan and 1Xtra’s DJ Target search for the UK’s next big MC.
Graft, real name Jovanni Sterling, cites his humble upbringing in Leeds and the highs and lows of his football career for keeping him grounded after a busy year.
Born in Gledhow, Graft moved to Chapeltown as a child, where he fondly recalls joining local play schemes and playing football out in the street.
He later moved to Oakwood with his mum but spent “most of his childhood” with friends in Chapeltown, where he started writing his first bars.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Evening Post, the 21-year-old said: “I went through a lot of ups and downs in the area and it shaped me into who I am today.
“I used writing as a way to express how I felt - my views on political things, the environment I’d grown up in, my friends, my aspirations and my goals. It was very honest.”
By the time Graft left Leeds United aged 18 and joined Rotherham, playing in the reserves, he was making a name for himself in the UK grime and rap scene.
Performing across West Yorkshire and getting hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, Graft then won a MOBO UnSung award for the best unsigned artist in 2018.
It was hard to let go of his football career, but the MOBO award was a proud moment for the Leeds lad.
Graft said: “I watched the MOBO awards from a young age and I used to see a lot of artists on there that I took inspiration from.
“To be in the same environment as them was a dream come true. It felt like I was getting recognition, on a much bigger scale, for the work that I was putting into my music.”
When Graft was approached to join The Rap Game UK, it was a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
After forgetting his lyrics in a shaky start to the first week of the show, Graft bounced back to grab some of the most memorable moments of the series - getting a rapturous reaction from his fellow contestants during a live orchestra performance.
“I didn’t expect to be in that position [in the first week],” Graft admitted.
“But because of my upbringing and my experiences in football, I've already gone through many low points in my life. And from those low points, I've been able to build up a lot of self-belief in who I am and what I'm capable of.
“So when things weren't going well, I already had a strong belief within myself that I was going to turn it around and prove all the doubters wrong.”
Graft broke down when he was announced as the winner of the show, scooping a recording contract with Krept and Konan’s label Play Dirty.
It was a huge moment of relief as he realised his dreams of changing his family’s life were in touching distance.
“I was thinking of my family and my mum,” Graft said.
“That moment they announced me as the winner, it was like I was touching that change I’ve always dreamed of.”
Graft is Leeds through and through and his upcoming single will champion the city.
Set to be released early next month, Graft fought for the music video to be shot in Leeds and he’s excited to share it with fans who are eagerly awaiting the release.
“It’s gonna be amazing,” he promises.
“People always tell me - we need somebody from Leeds to showcase the city and the music scene. This is what the song and the music video is going to do.”
Graft has big dreams for his career and would love to sell out the First Direct Arena, but he’s excited to get back in front of his fans, performing at smaller venues when Covid restrictions allow.
He added: “One of the main things I’ve missed is performing in front of a crowd, I’m biting at the bit to get out there again.
“The love has been amazing and people are so proud of me in Leeds. They want me to keep progressing and really represent for the city.”
Despite the exposure he’s had this year, Graft holds on to the messages that were so important to him when he penned his first bars back in Chapeltown.
His honest and heartfelt lyrics were praised by The Rap Game UK judges; he makes a conscious effort to uplift women in his music and addresses deeper issues, such as racism and inequality.
“It’s my truth,” Graft said.
“I always make sure I’m honest to myself and to what means the most to me.
“When I'm dead and gone, my music is going to live on because it was honest, real and authentic. That’s part of what I want to leave in my legacy.”
Graft’s advice for young Leeds rappers in a scene which is ‘bubbling over’
As Graft eyes up mainstream success, he’s excited to shine a light on the Leeds rap and grime scene which is “bubbling over”.
While Leeds is home to some stellar MCs, artists have struggled to break into the commercial success achieved by rappers in the capital, or across the Pennines.
But Graft thinks that’s about to change.
“I believe the scene right now is the best it's ever been”, he said.
“It's great to be a part of that because I'm seeing young artists in Leeds signing to major labels and breaking into the London and mainstream scene.
“The Leeds scene is bubbling over now, it’s coming up. It’s just a matter of time before it gets the limelight like surrounding cities. I guarantee our time is coming.”
Graft has shared his advice for aspiring young artists in Leeds who dream of a music career.
“Always practice writing and always stay consistent, writing is a skill,” he said.
“The more you write and the more you're willing to learn, the better you're going to become.
“Be honest and truthful so you’re not just copying trends.
“You’re unique and that’s what’s going to make you stand out from the rest and have a long and successful career.”
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