The multi-hyphenate Elijah; label founder, designer, artist manager, DJ and creator of the infamous instagram yellow-squares, held a masterclass at UD’s East London HQ, Talent House, on 23rd November 2022. Jojo Jones reports…
Dressed in all black, and sitting in front of a slide of his own social media handle in the elusive yellow and black font that he has become known for, Elijah starts the UD Masterclass 001 by asking everyone to introduce themselves. It adds an air of ease to the room, as we are all on first name basis, instead of perhaps a regular lecture where everyone knows the teacher’s identity but the crowd fades into anonymity. To kick off his masterclass, although most attendees unprompted add a sentence or two about their admiration for Elijah or his work, our lecturer for the day humbly reminds us “Hi, I’m Elijah” as if we all weren’t there specifically for him.
This sets the tone for an intimate, personal and fascinating masterclass on a rainy Wednesday evening in east London.
Elijah has been active in the music industry, especially within the grime scene, since 2010. He shocks himself by realising that he’s been DJing for 18 years, and founded the record label Butterz (where the infamous yellow and black design aesthetic came from, as pressing vinyl in two colours was the cheapest method). Since starting out with Flava D 10+ years ago, the Walthamstow native has been working as an artist manager as his day job, whilst accumulating other titles like creator, curator, commenter, lecturer and more. Learning all this in Elijah’s introduction to his lecture (which is what he likes to call this session, as he says with a laugh “a lecture suggests I’m an academic, but I’m not” ), is a surprise to me as much as it is to the rest of the audience. Elijah admits what people know him for is such a small part of his day, and indeed why he is giving this class. He came to the fore-front’s of peoples minds – and Instagrams – through his infamous yellow squares which blew up over the past year. The simplicity and beauty of these short form challenging or truthful statements have become very popular, sharable and conversation-sparking content. Most recently his campaign “close the app make the ting” has taken his yellow squares out of instagram and into real life, putting it up on a billboard in his home town of Walthamstow, and delivering his message to physical audiences at CSM, SOAS and now, UD. I even sit opposite a yellow “Close the app, make the ting” poster everyday at the office.
Flicking through a few of his collection of ‘yellow squares’, Elijah describes what we’re seeing as “basically what goes on in my brain”. With elements of seriousness sprinkled with memes and humour, Elijah lights up whenever he makes himself or the audience laugh. It becomes clear that the yellow squares, which Elijah has become known for, has been an important outlet for him personally, a method of “pushing out and challenging himself”. The most important overarching message of his entire talk seems to come from one of the first squares he illuminates on the screen behind him: “nothing should distract you from the joy of creating”. He wants to give his audience in the room at UD’s Talent House, and his online following, ideas of how to help build or sustain a career in the music industry, but to never let go of the innocent joy of creating.
After introducing himself, Elijah greets us with the doom-scroll test. He asks us to look at our weekly screen time and does some maths wizardry to figure out how many years of your life you would lose to scrolling if you lived to your average life expectancy. This idea of never-having-enough-time seems to ring true to the intimate audience of people Elijah is speaking to, as murmurs reverberate around the audience. The doom scroll formula puts into perspective the time we put into our phones rather than re-investing in our art and creativity. It makes me think of one of my favourite squares of Elijah’s and one he later picks up on that reads; “Time is the creative director”. I am a part of one of the youngest generations in the music industry and it could be interpreted that all we have is an abundance of time. And it is how we use (or don’t use) our time to serve our art, that is what matters. Hence, close the app, make the thing.
Elijah proceeds for the bulk of his masterclass to display some of his infamous yellow squares and expand on them. He discusses how he came to write them, what they mean to him and how the meanings of some have changed since they have been received out in the big bad world. It is a comfortable atmosphere in the room with the audience sharing how the yellow squares have or haven’t resonated with them. There is a beautiful state of flow of listening and open honesty to this masterclass, rather than a silent party taking in a huge amount of information from one person deemed more knowledgeable than their audience, as so many lectures I’ve attended before seem to take on.
Elijah’s discussion of his yellow squares is littered with soundbite gems, which the audience (including myself) frantically try to scribble down, our time in the same room of the great mind as Elijah is limited to a few hours. Elijah exclaims that his favourite and best square is one that reads “1/1 > #1“ and he jokingly says that everything has been downhill since he made this square. Our lecturer tells us this square actually received a lot of backlash, which the audience is audibly surprised about. It definitely could be interpreted in a lot of different ways, which is perhaps the beauty of the yellow squares. What I took from this square is being yourself, being fulfilled in your creative potential, focusing on what you want to achieve, not in comparison to others, is a better measure of success than being number 1, winning awards and comparing yourself to others. But the creativity of this thought-provoking piece is astounding, and I am sure everyone in the room (and the internet) will take what they need to from this square.
A yellow and black screen prompting the audience to “ask a question, fam…” is an enjoyable end to professor Elijah’s charismatic talk, as he engages deeply with every person who asks a question, surprising himself sometimes with what seem like future yellow-square worthy phrases. “Shoot your shot” resonates highly with Elijah and receives a laugh from the audience. But more than a meme-worthy moment the Butterz founder expands on it’s deeper meaning; doing things that make you feel uncomfortable is brave, and people will respect it. “99% of people don’t put their ideas out there” so if you do, you should be proud of the courage that took.
A reminder that art is vulnerable and telling, authentic, honest and raw, even when it is a few words on yellow squares on Instagram, is refreshing. I come away from the masterclass with a lot of food for thought, which is still cooking in my head days after the event. It is enriching to learn about how Elijah sees social media and his art, as not just pixels on a screen but a blank canvas upon which his learnings, trials & tribulations of working in the music industry can be expressed. And in turn, help other people with their experiences. As Elijah did, I want to leave you with his closing yellow-square slide “if it not serving you, break free”.