Leeds United have taken the Premier League by storm this season, producing some eye-catching displays under world-renowned manager Marcelo Bielsa.
And while they have gained many admirers on the pitch, one of their own has been making waves in the music industry after winning series two of ‘The Rap Game UK’, which sees six unsigned MCs go head-to-head in a range of challenges, in pursuit of a record deal with rap legends Krept and Konan.
Jovanni Sterling, aka ‘Graft’, was an apprentice at Elland Road during the 2015-16 campaign before spending the following season at Rotherham United, but devoted his spare time to his passion of creating music.
Still only 21, the former defender is establishing himself as ‘one to watch’ within the rap scene.
“I started making music when I was 14, before I got signed for any professional club,” he told LFE. “When I was playing football, my main goal was to become a professional footballer and music was more of a hobby.
“But as time went on, I didn’t get a professional contract and I wasn’t seeing any success from trialling at various clubs. There came a point where my music was going so well that I couldn’t ignore that pathway any longer, so it was a natural process.
Having that clear pathway made my life a lot easier after completing the apprenticeship. My transition away from football was so much smoother because that option was there, and I’d already built the foundations to move towards that route.
“I’m grateful for that because many young footballers put all of their hopes and energy into pursuing a career in football and if it doesn’t work, then it can leave them in a difficult place. It’s important to realise that there are many different avenues other than football, and they’ve built up skills that make any job attainable if they put the right preparation and effort into it.”
Sterling credits his commitment to an alternative interest for keeping him mentally healthy and insists there are many transferable skills between football and music.
He said: “Both industries are very competitive. You’ve got to be strongminded and believe in yourself, regardless of what obstacles arise. In football, I learned about discipline, hard work, self-belief and mindset. Developing those sorts of skills as a footballer has been very beneficial, as I’ve been able to transfer them to my music career.
“As an apprentice, music was the way that I would express my feelings and get things off my chest emotionally. Everyone goes through a lot of ups and downs in their life, everyone has their own stresses and challenges, and writing lyrics was my release that allowed me to be creative in a way I enjoyed.
“Rapping is probably a bit different to the norm as a footballer, but it’s important to have other interests because you don’t want to be stuck as just being known as a footballer. When football is gone, you need to have something else that you can identify with.
“If it’s something you enjoy, then go for it because you never know what’s going to come from that. The best thing about doing things you enjoy is that you’ll put your all into it. You can never have too many options.”
By the age of 17, ‘Graft’ had already achieved exposure on BBC Radio 1Xtra and earned thousands of online views on his music videos. Since completing his apprenticeship, he has headlined for the likes of Wiley, Bugzy Malone, Tion Wayne and Nadia Rose, and even won the MOBO Unsung Award in 2018.
“I used to watch the MOBO Awards on TV, and still do, and you think about massive artists like Jay Z, Stormzy, Krept and Konan, Craig David and so on, all winning MOBO awards,” he added. “For me to receive recognition from the same company was crazy. I’m still young and it’s early in my career, so that was a very proud moment for myself and my family.
“I’ve definitely progressed a lot over the past few years. The message that I’m promoting in my music is very clear and my lyrical ability is so much better because I’m always practising and learning from others in the industry.
“Music is my passion and I’ve worked really hard at perfecting my craft. I really appreciate the art of writing lyrics and expressing yourself creatively. I study a lot of artists, I’ve grown up listening to many different genres and that helps when you’re trying to develop yourself, because you’re learning techniques and creative processes from established professionals.
“The more music I make and release, the clearer I am in my head about what style I want, the message in my lyrics and being relatable to others, the use of metaphors and punchlines, and just becoming more confident as a performer.”
The budding star’s progress caught the attention of BBC talent scouts, who offered him a place on the Rap Game show, alongside five other hopefuls.
With tasks including acapella and orchestral performances, duets, battle raps, recorded tracks and time-restricted assignments, their adaptability and composure under pressure was put to the test.
“What really distinguishes someone from the rest is how they bounce back from mistakes and how they use mistakes to their advantage,” said Sterling.
Overcoming obstacles is what life is all about and you need to show strength, motivation and character to be able to get back up when you’re knocked down.
“In episode one, I flopped on both challenges because I let the nerves get the better of me. I was shocked by that because I hadn’t suffered any failures during my music career to that point, but that’s where my football experience came to the fore.
“I’ve been through failure and hardship in football. I’ve been in situations where you’re behind and have to dig deep and stay resilient to turn things around and that experience served me well when I had to recover from my mistakes.
“I used that disappointment as a driving force to prove everyone wrong. I came back with more intensity and I took the rankings by storm in every other episode. I had loads of viral moments, I showcased what I can do and I’m happy my journey went that way.”
Following his disappointing series opener, the Leeds rapper never ranked outside of the top two positions in each of the remaining five episodes, claiming plaudits from many star guests and viewers.
“All of the defining moments from the series, where you look back and vividly remember, involved me,” he continued. “The standout for me was the orchestra ‘I Spy’ challenge. I messed up in episode one, came back with a vengeance in episode two, and then by episode four I really showcased the levels that I can reach.
“I believe it’s a performance, so once I’ve got my lyrics nailed down, I’ll think about my hand gestures and movements to add to the package of the lyrics and the song. I take it step by step and I make sure every detail is spot on. I was able to produce the full combination in that performance.”
Throughout the competition, Sterling spoke openly about a range of important topics, including racism, violence, sexism and stereotypes, while his final performance with DJ Kenny Allstar accentuated the importance of family and his desire to represent his home city.
“As an artist, I pride myself on being versatile and showing different sides to myself because that makes me more relatable to a wider range of people,” he said. “I feel that I have a responsibility to portray the right message, have the correct type of lyrics in my songs and influence people in a positive way. Music is universal and I want to make a difference and be an inspiration.
“After my mum and dad split up, I’ve seen my mum work extremely hard, doing whatever she can to put food on the table and give me the best upbringing possible. They’ve both shaped me into the person I am today. I’ve got a lot of respect for my family and I wanted to highlight that.
“I believe I’ve represented Leeds as a whole and I can see that love from so many different people, whether it’s old school friends that I’ve not seen for years or even people I’ve never met, young and old.
“Ultimately, I don’t try to be like anyone else, I’m just myself. I want to make a difference in the industry and for my local area and being on the show provided an opportunity for me to change my life.”
Having claimed the Rap Game crown, the former academy footballer is on the right path to doing just that. With a single supported by Krept and Konan’s Play Dirty record label upcoming, he has set himself lofty targets to attain.
“My short-term goal is to build a team around me,” he said. “I want a manager, an A&R rep, a PR consultant, etc, so that I can manoeuvre within the industry in the most effective and efficient way and open doors that weren’t previously available to me.
“Obviously, I’m aiming to create a great single, get it to chart and hopefully it attracts a lot of interest from labels and other influential people in the industry. I’m really determined to make great music, where I’m known all over the world, inspiring people and touching the hearts of millions.
“Long-term, I want to eventually set up my own record label and I’d like to invest in property, shares and other things where I can be making residual income. I want to put myself in a position where I don’t have to worry about money, and I can give back to the people that mean the most to me.
For all the young footballers currently on the apprenticeship, the key is to keep your mind and options open.
“It’s important to know that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get a professional contract. There are many ways of making a living that you’ll enjoy.”
‘Graft’ features in Issue 41 of LFE’s Touchline magazine.